Publicly shaming: how Jon Ronson changed my mind about Justine Sacco

jon-ronsonI 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).

Justine Sacco

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.

Death by @Twitter: Do my tweets matter that much?

A strange thing happened to me on Twitter a little while ago.

It was at the time that the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was being sent to jail on outrageous, fabricated charges in Egypt and I tweeted something like:

I think the Abbott govt would have made more of an effort to help Peter Greste if he worked for News Corp.

The tweet was in bad taste, but I had blundered even further by being completely unaware that the verdict had just been handed out in a Cairo kangaroo court.

It stayed up a couple of hours while I was out at the movies.

When I returned, my Twitter notification box was lit up: half a dozen people had seen my remark and hurled abuse at me – via tweets calling me an insensitive so and so.

Others had retweeted their condemnation of my tweet. The wheels – I thought – were in motion.

For a moment, I was in a blind panic. Would I suffer the fate of Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted about going  Africa and getting AIDS and become a social media sensation (for all the wrong reasons) and get sacked?

Justine SaccoWould #whereisLarry? start trending?

In a cold sweat, I frantically deleted the tweet and tweeted my apologies to the most incensed in the Twitter-sphere (Complete strangers actually).

We all made up – and life went on.

Looking back on it now, I can’t decide if I completely over-reacted or on the other hand – had defused a ticking time bomb.

I think perhaps the former: My tweet was not nearly provocative enough and it was neither racist, sexist or xenophobic, the kind of tweets that really land you in to trouble.

In fact, now I kind of wish I’d left it up – just to see what might have happened.

Andy Warhol famously predicted in 1968 that in the future, everyone would get their 15 minutes of fame. He probably never thought that so many people would achieve it via social media or reality TV?

Had I missed out on mine?

The strange, dangerous, addictive world of @Twitter

twitterA colleague at work tells me I’m the worst tweeter in the world.

I laugh and shrug, but agree he could be right  (some of the time).

Mostly, it’s to do with my inane comments on sport, particularly Australian Football, which I admit I know very little about.

Still that doesn’t stop me winding up my 1200 or so followers, some of whom are friends who support opposing teams to the high-flying Sydney Swans, the team I barrack for.

What can  I say, I like to wind people up by saying this coach couldn’t teach a primary school woodwork class or that full forward couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo – let alone guide the Sherrin through the middle posts.

My problem is that I occasionally tweet my private thought and let’s be honest everyone has some pretty dark or silly ideas running through their brains at one time or another (before Twitter came along in 2008 the worst you could do is send a text message while drunk or angry) .

Some tweets are so explosively bad, they have the potential to be disastrous.

This was famously illustrated last year when PR executive Justine Sacco tweeted to just 400 followers before boarding a long-haul flight from the US to South Africa:


Twelve or so hours later, her racist remarks had been retweeted thousands of times – by people who had tens of thousands of followers creating a huge multiplier effect – and the Twitter-sphere was up in arms.

A hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended around the world and Ms Sacco found herself with 8000 unwanted “followers”.

Ms Sacco lost her job, her reputation was in tatters and she promptly vanished from Twitter and social media to lick her wounds (though amazingly someone has hired her again!)

Of course other more famous people have gotten into trouble for tweeting including fiery cricketer Dave Warner, who tweeted an expletive-ladden attack on cricket writers and was promptly fined by Cricket Australia and Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher who tweeted to his 8 million followers his support for American college football coach Joe Paterno after he was sacked for not doing enough to prevent the abuse of children by his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

A bad tweet can end a career, ruin a reputation and cost a lot of money in legal fees – comedian Roseanne Barr was sued by the parents of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin – after she tweeted their home address. The Zimmermans claimed Ms Barr incited a lynch mob. She later deleted the tweet but the damage was already done.

Undeniably, Twitter has incredible power.

While Facebook’s influence is arguably waning, Twitter is getting bigger and bigger (pop star Katy Perry has 54 million followers) and it has that incredible multiplier effect through retweets. Give a tweet time (as in the case of Justine Sacco) and the results can be tsunami-like.

Twitter’s power is its immediacy, punchiness (just 140 characters forcing people to condense their thoughts into bite size chunks) and ability to reach so many people.

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn and others, where there is some level of privacy (messages can be restricted to friends and networks), Twitter is a free-for-all where everything is public.

It’s an addictive place where you can read the private thoughts of some of the world’s most powerful people  like right-wing media baron Rupert Murdoch  – @rupertmurdoch  – who actually writes his own rambling tweets.

It’s where you can interact with your favourite celebrities (who doesn’t like to brag about getting a reply from a favourite actor or a retweet or mention) and get involved in discussions on politics, sport, religion and every topic in between.

There’s a strange kind of pleasure when people from far-flung places respond to your tweets. For example, this exchange after I posted my thoughts on the book Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which I had just read. I got a reply from an actor appearing in the play of the novel in the UK.


Twitter is a great place for sharing stories, thoughts, inspiration, recipes, photographs, anecdotes, jokes and grievances (nothing better than winding up a big corporation who can’t help themselves but responding to every criticism).

Twitter is where many of the biggest news stories are broken (I remember a colleague at work shouting out: “Someone has just tweeted that Oscar Pistorious has shot his girlfriend” before it became a huge worldwide story).

But you have to be careful what you write even if you are a humble journo hack like me.

A point I have to keep reminding myself every time I think I’ve thought up something witty to say and have my finger hovering over the “Tweet” button.

“Just remember Justine Sacco,” I tell myself.

Follow me @larryschles