Blogging for The Nation yesterday, Michelle Goldberg expressed her sympathy for Justine Sacco, the former IAC public relations exec who found herself the target of significant and impassioned online backlash after tweeting the following just before a flight to South Africa last week: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Goldberg writes that the online backlash against Sacco’s tweet was “chilling” because, as it was happening, Sacco was “stuck in the air, unaware and unable to respond or delete her social media accounts.” I don’t think “chilling” is an appropriate word for the situation; unfortunate, yes, but hardly disturbing. Goldberg implies that Sacco, or anyone for that matter, should have been immediately and effortlessly entitled to click “delete” not only on the offending words themselves, but on essentially her entire online presence, in order to rescind her remarks and shield herself from the mounting backlash.
Twitter does indeed allow its users the ability to delete their tweets. But much like those who see somebody being attacked for expressing offensive opinions and cry out “First Amendment!” without realizing that freedom of speech does not also grant freedom from consequences, those who vocalize sympathy for Sacco because she was unable to delete her tweet or her social media accounts immediately after her words began inciting anger and pushback don’t seem to understand that public speech can never exist without accountability.
Goldberg writes, “Once we decide it’s OK to let a mob loose on anyone who’s offended us, the only people who are safe are those who never say anything at all.” First, it’s an outlandish overreaction to suggest that tweets somehow signify “a mob” (and downright offensive to liken them to a “lynch mob” as did Brietbart.com’s John Notle). But if you strip away all the hyperbole and overstatement from Goldberg’s words, the first part of her assertion could be rewritten as, “Once we decide it’s okay to let any number of people react in anger and outrage to people who offend them…” – and, well, I think we have decided that. By the very nature of tweeting from an unprotected account, Sacco agreed to allow – even encourage – any number of total strangers to react to her words however they saw fit.
The second part of Goldberg’s assertion – that the only people who are safe from the mobs are those who never say anything at all – is just as outlandish as what came before it. There’s an easy way to protect yourself from any number of people reacting in anger and outrage to your words: don’t say things that are likely to incite anger and outrage from entire social groups. Sacco’s tweet, on its surface, plainly demeaned Africans, non-whites, and those with AIDS. That’s a lot of people – and that’s only the people who it targeted on the surface, without digging into its deeper implications.
But there are and will continue to be those who stare this fact in the face, deny it, and make claims like, “There’s no telling what could offend someone these days; nobody is safe from being ridiculed and attacked by the masses for expressing any thought they have,” – or, a direct quote from Goldberg, “There may be no way to stop these sorts of digital pile-ons.” Responding to these assertions is even easier than the last one, though – protect your tweets. If you want to share your thoughts with people through social media, and there’s a chance that the thoughts you want to share might offend large numbers of people, consider controlling your audience. Even then, of course, you won’t be totally free from the consequences of your words – but it’s an easy way to lessen the odds of receiving flack from, say, Donald Trump, or of finding yourself the victim of a “digital pile-on.”
Goldberg outlines a laundry list of reactions and consequences that Sacco “didn’t deserve” to experience in response to her tweet – but whether or not she deserved each item on Goldberg’s list is irrelevant. Sacco approached the microphone of the masses, tapped it a few times to make sure it was working, and then said something that pissed a lot of people off. From that point on, those who were pissed off made their own decisions about how to react, some of which were undoubtedly extreme. But framing those who circulated and responded to Sacco’s words as “joining in the cyber-bullying of private citizens” as Goldberg does is an irresponsible refusal to acknowledge the purpose and terms of Twitter in the first place.
Justine Sacco might not be a bad person. But she signed her name next to a racist and xenophobic tweet that, as unprotected tweets are, was broadcast on one of the widest and most public communication networks that exists today. Her words were seen, circulated, and responded to, which is the purpose of Twitter – users display their words directly above buttons that allow other users to circulate or respond to them. And she was fired from her job, not only because her words were racist, xenophobic, and offensive to a wide range of people, but also because the position she held was one that required a professional knowledge of effective communication, which she publicly showed that she severely lacked.
Expressing sympathy for Sacco is not necessarily contemptible, but suggesting that Sacco deserves sympathy because she is a private citizen who was a naive victim of digital mob violence is nearly as irresponsible and ignorant as Sacco’s original tweet.