I remember when the whole universe seemingly exploded over Justine Sacco, the PR executive who Tweeted:
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!!”
I was quick to jump on the worldwide bandwagon to publicly shame someone I did not know. “She got what she deserved” I remember telling myself as the young lady got off a flight in Cape Town to find her life in ruins: her job in New York gone, her reputation destroyed, her prospects in life shattered all because she’d made a silly joke.
At the time I joined the millions of people who shared in the pleasure of Justine Sacco’s public evisceration by everyone and their dog. I retweeted. I told my friends. I shamed her.
And yet, as British journalist Jon Ronson points out in his highly entertaining and thought-provoking book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed the only real victim in this fiasco was Justine Sacco herself.
Apart from being offended by her Tweet, which via some quirk of fate, became a world-wide infamous sensation, no one at all was hurt or damaged by it.
Instead, Justine Sacco suffered humiliation, depression and anxiety that went on for months and months. And worse, her tiny “moment of madness” lives on online. Just type in her name into Google and see for yourself.
Ronson’s entertaining and engrossing book (which reminded me of Louis Theroux) delves into many instances of public shaming – not all of them related to social media – as he explores what has become a re surging global phenomenon not seen for centuries.
Not only does he interview the victims of public shameings including Justine Sacco, but he also delves into the psychology of this mob-like behaviour, explores how Google’s search tools have created reputations that refuse to go away and speaks to people who have made a fortune out of resuscitating the personal reputations of those who have become infamous online. (Yes, there are companies that can get your name off page 1 of Google searches).
Among Ronson’s “case studies” is the story of the down fall of the writer Jonah Lehrer, who was caught out making up a Bob Dylan quote in a best-selling book (in this case his public shaming felt quite deserving as Lehrer comes across as arrogant, privileged and above all…lazy) and that of Lindsey Stone who posted an irreverent (and frankly quite funny) photo on Facebook of herself flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, which destroyed her life in much the same way that it ruined Justine Sacco’s.
Then there’s the story of former Formula One racing boss Max Mosley, whose alleged S&M Nazi-style orgy was splashed all across the British tabloids in all its photographic detail.
Mosley’s case is perhaps the most fascinating (not least because he was the son of notorious British fascists Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford) because he sued the Murdoch press for invasion of privacy and won in court.
The broader point Ronson makes is that Mosley – unlike other victims of publish shaming – was not embarrassed by his behaviour and instead became something of an anti-tabloid hero when took on the now defunct News of the World.
In the end I quite liked the feisty Max Mosley.
However, the greatest compliment I can pay Ronson is to say that reading his book changed my feelings about Justine Sacco tremendously.
Apart from revealing many mistruths about Sacco’s life (she was not the heiress to some rich businessmen or a spoilt white woman who didn’t care about others) it seemed awful that someone should be punished in vast disproportion to her crime, which at worse was that of making a silly, misinterpreted joke.
For as Ronson pointed out, within her Tweet, was the kernel of truth: AIDS is an epidemic in Africa that mainly affects black people not privileged white people. And that he says is the point Sacco was trying – albeit clumsily – to make.
As I read about Justine Sacco, the real Justine, I felt genuinely sorry for her and felt she deserved a lot of public sympathy and a chance at putting her lie back together. I also felt embarrassed at my glee at her public humiliation.
So I’d like to publicly apologise to Justine Sacco for the part I played in ruining her life and thank Jon Ronson for writing his book.
And the next time I’m about to smugly retweet someone being torn to shreds on Twitter or mocked on Facebook for something silly or inadvertently in bad taste, I’ll think again before I click “Send” or “Post”.
Because the next time, it could be me on the receiving end.