How one tweet can ruin your life | Jon Ronson

How one tweet can ruin your life | Jon Ronson


In the early days of Twitter,
it was like a place of radical de-shaming. People would admit
shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say,
“Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” Voiceless people realized
that they had a voice, and it was powerful and eloquent. If a newspaper ran some racist
or homophobic column, we realized we could do
something about it. We could get them. We could hit them with a weapon
that we understood but they didn’t — a social media shaming. Advertisers would withdraw
their advertising. When powerful people
misused their privilege, we were going to get them. This was like the
democratization of justice. Hierarchies were being leveled out. We were going to do things better. Soon after that, a disgraced
pop science writer called Jonah Lehrer — he’d been caught plagiarizing
and faking quotes, and he was drenched in shame
and regret, he told me. And he had the opportunity to publicly apologize
at a foundation lunch. This was going to be the most
important speech of his life. Maybe it would win him some salvation. He knew before he arrived that the foundation was going to be
live-streaming his event, but what he didn’t know
until he turned up, was that they’d erected a giant screen
Twitter feed right next to his head. (Laughter) Another one in a monitor screen
in his eye line. I don’t think the foundation did this
because they were monstrous. I think they were clueless:
I think this was a unique moment when the beautiful naivety of Twitter was hitting the increasingly
horrific reality. And here were some of the Tweets
that were cascading into his eye line, as he was trying to apologize: “Jonah Lehrer, boring us
into forgiving him.” (Laughter) And, “Jonah Lehrer has not proven
that he is capable of feeling shame.” That one must have been written
by the best psychiatrist ever, to know that about such
a tiny figure behind a lectern. And, “Jonah Lehrer is just
a frigging sociopath.” That last word is a very human thing
to do, to dehumanize the people we hurt. It’s because we want to destroy people
but not feel bad about it. Imagine if this was an actual court, and the accused was in the dark,
begging for another chance, and the jury was yelling out, “Bored! Sociopath!” (Laughter) You know, when we watch
courtroom dramas, we tend to identify with the kindhearted defense attorney, but give us the power,
and we become like hanging judges. Power shifts fast. We were getting Jonah because he was
perceived to have misused his privilege, but Jonah was on the floor then,
and we were still kicking, and congratulating ourselves
for punching up. And it began to feel weird and empty
when there wasn’t a powerful person who had misused their privilege
that we could get. A day without a shaming
began to feel like a day picking fingernails and treading water. Let me tell you a story. It’s about a woman called Justine Sacco. She was a PR woman from New York
with 170 Twitter followers, and she’d Tweet little
acerbic jokes to them, like this one on a plane
from New York to London: [Weird German Dude: You’re in first class.
It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.” -Inner monologue as inhale BO.
Thank god for pharmaceuticals.] So Justine chuckled to herself,
and pressed send, and got no replies, and felt that sad feeling that we all feel when the Internet doesn’t
congratulate us for being funny. (Laughter) Black silence when the Internet
doesn’t talk back. And then she got to Heathrow,
and she had a little time to spare before her final leg, so she thought up
another funny little acerbic joke: [Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS.
Just kidding. I’m white!] And she chuckled to herself, pressed send,
got on the plane, got no replies, turned off her phone, fell asleep, woke up 11 hours later, turned on her phone while the plane
was taxiing on the runway, and straightaway there was
a message from somebody that she hadn’t spoken
to since high school, that said, “I am so sorry
to see what’s happening to you.” And then another message
from a best friend, “You need to call me right now. You are the worldwide number one
trending topic on Twitter.” (Laughter) What had happened is that one
of her 170 followers had sent the Tweet to a Gawker journalist, and he
retweeted it to his 15,000 followers: [And now, a funny holiday joke
from IAC’s PR boss] And then it was like a bolt of lightning. A few weeks later, I talked
to the Gawker journalist. I emailed him and asked him how it felt,
and he said, “It felt delicious.” And then he said,
“But I’m sure she’s fine.” But she wasn’t fine,
because while she slept, Twitter took control of her life
and dismantled it piece by piece. First there were the philanthropists: [If @JustineSacco’s unfortunate
words … bother you, join me in supporting
@CARE’s work in Africa.] [In light of … disgusting,
racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today] Then came the beyond horrified: [… no words for that horribly disgusting
racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco. I am beyond horrified.] Was anybody on Twitter
that night? A few of you. Did Justine’s joke overwhelm
your Twitter feed the way it did mine? It did mine, and I thought
what everybody thought that night, which was, “Wow, somebody’s screwed! Somebody’s life is about to get terrible!” And I sat up in my bed, and I put the pillow behind my head, and then I thought, I’m not entirely sure
that joke was intended to be racist. Maybe instead of gleefully
flaunting her privilege, she was mocking the gleeful
flaunting of privilege. There’s a comedy tradition of this, like South Park or Colbert
or Randy Newman. Maybe Justine Sacco’s crime was not being
as good at it as Randy Newman. In fact, when I met Justine
a couple of weeks later in a bar, she was just crushed, and I asked her to explain the joke, and she said, “Living in America
puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on
in the Third World. I was making of fun of that bubble.” You know, another woman on Twitter that
night, a New Statesman writer Helen Lewis, she reviewed my book on public shaming
and wrote that she Tweeted that night, “I’m not sure that her joke
was intended to be racist,” and she said straightaway she got
a fury of Tweets saying, “Well, you’re just
a privileged bitch, too.” And so to her shame, she wrote, she shut up and watched
as Justine’s life got torn apart. It started to get darker: [Everyone go report
this cunt @JustineSacco] Then came the calls for her to be fired. [Good luck with the job hunt
in the new year. #GettingFired] Thousands of people around the world decided it was their duty
to get her fired. [@JustineSacco last tweet
of your career. #SorryNotSorry Corporations got involved,
hoping to sell their products on the back of Justine’s annihilation: [Next time you plan to tweet something
stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting
on a @Gogo flight!] (Laughter) A lot of companies were making
good money that night. You know, Justine’s name was normally
Googled 40 times a month. That month, between December the 20th
and the end of December, her name was Googled 1,220,000 times. And one Internet economist told me
that that meant that Google made somewhere between 120,000 dollars
and 468,000 dollars from Justine’s annihilation, whereas
those of us doing the actual shaming — we got nothing. (Laughter) We were like unpaid
shaming interns for Google. (Laughter) And then came the trolls: [I’m actually kind of hoping
Justine Sacco gets aids? lol] Somebody else on that wrote, “Somebody HIV-positive should rape
this bitch and then we’ll find out if her skin color protects her from AIDS.” And that person got a free pass. Nobody went after that person. We were all so excited
about destroying Justine, and our shaming brains
are so simple-minded, that we couldn’t also handle
destroying somebody who was inappropriately
destroying Justine. Justine was really uniting
a lot of disparate groups that night, from philanthropists to “rape the bitch.” [@JustineSacco I hope you get fired!
You demented bitch… Just let the world know you’re planning
to ride bare back while in Africa.] Women always have it worse than men. When a man gets shamed, it’s,
“I’m going to get you fired.” When a woman gets shamed, it’s, “I’m going to get you fired
and raped and cut out your uterus.” And then Justine’s employers got involved: [IAC on @JustineSacco tweet: This is an
outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently
unreachable on an intl flight.] And that’s when the anger
turned to excitement: [All I want for Christmas is to see
@JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks
her inbox/voicemail. #fired] [Oh man, @justinesacco
is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever
when her plane lands.] [We are about to watch this @JustineSacco
bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS
she’s getting fired.] What we had was
a delightful narrative arc. We knew something that Justine didn’t. Can you think of anything
less judicial than this? Justine was asleep on a plane
and unable to explain herself, and her inability was
a huge part of the hilarity. On Twitter that night, we were
like toddlers crawling towards a gun. Somebody worked out exactly
which plane she was on, so they linked to a flight tracker website. [British Airways Flight 43
On-time – arrives in 1 hour 34 minutes] A hashtag began trending worldwide: # hasJustineLandedYet? [It is kinda wild
to see someone self-destruct without them even being aware of it.
#hasJustineLandedYet] [Seriously. I just want to go home
to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet.
Can’t look away. Can’t leave.] [#HasJustineLandedYet may be the best
thing to happen to my Friday night.] [Is no one in Cape Town going
to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, twitter! I’d like pictures] And guess what? Yes there was. [@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed
at Cape Town international. And if you want to know
what it looks like to discover that you’ve just been torn to shreds
because of a misconstrued liberal joke, not by trolls, but by nice people like us, this is what it looks like: [… She’s decided to wear
sunnies as a disguise.] So why did we do it? I think some people were genuinely upset, but I think for other people, it’s because Twitter is basically
a mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people
who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other, and that’s a really good feeling. And if somebody gets in the way,
we screen them out. And do you know what
that’s the opposite of? It’s the opposite of democracy. We wanted to show that we cared
about people dying of AIDS in Africa. Our desire to be seen to be compassionate
is what led us to commit this profoundly un-compassionate act. As Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote
in the Boston Review, “This isn’t social justice.
It’s a cathartic alternative.” For the past three years, I’ve been going around the world
meeting people like Justine Sacco — and believe me, there’s a lot
of people like Justine Sacco. There’s more every day. And we want to think they’re fine,
but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled. They talked to me about depression, and anxiety and insomnia
and suicidal thoughts. One woman I talked to,
who also told a joke that landed badly, she stayed home for a year and a half. Before that, she worked with adults
with learning difficulties, and was apparently really good at her job. Justine was fired, of course,
because social media demanded it. But it was worse than that. She was losing herself. She was waking up in the middle
of the night, forgetting who she was. She was got because she was perceived
to have misused her privilege. And of course, that’s a much better thing
to get people for than the things we used to get people for,
like having children out of wedlock. But the phrase “misuse of privilege”
is becoming a free pass to tear apart pretty much
anybody we choose to. It’s becoming a devalued term, and it’s making us lose
our capacity for empathy and for distinguishing between serious
and unserious transgressions. Justine had 170 Twitter followers,
and so to make it work, she had to be fictionalized. Word got around that she was the daughter
the mining billionaire Desmond Sacco. [Let us not be fooled by #JustineSacco
her father is a SA mining billionaire. She’s not sorry.
And neither is her father.] I thought that was true about Justine, until I met her at a bar, and I asked her
about her billionaire father, and she said, “My father sells carpets.” And I think back on
the early days of Twitter, when people would admit
shameful secrets about themselves, and other people would say,
“Oh my God, I’m exactly the same.” These days, the hunt is on
for people’s shameful secrets. You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a Tweet
can overwhelm it all, become a clue to your secret inner evil. Maybe there’s two types
of people in the world: those people who favor
humans over ideology, and those people who favor
ideology over humans. I favor humans over ideology, but right now, the ideologues are winning, and they’re creating a stage
for constant artificial high dramas where everybody’s either
a magnificent hero or a sickening villain, even though we know that’s not true
about our fellow humans. What’s true is that
we are clever and stupid; what’s true is that we’re grey areas. The great thing about social media
was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we’re now creating
a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive
is to go back to being voiceless. Let’s not do that. Thank you. (Applause) Bruno Giussani: Thank you, Jon. Jon Ronson: Thanks, Bruno. BG: Don’t go away. What strikes me about Justine’s story is also the fact that if you
Google her name today, this story covers the first
100 pages of Google results — there is nothing else about her. In your book, you mention another story of another victim who actually got
taken on by a reputation management firm, and by creating blogs and posting nice,
innocuous stories about her love for cats and holidays and stuff,
managed to get the story off the first couple pages of Google
results, but it didn’t last long. A couple of weeks later, they started
creeping back up to the top result. Is this a totally lost battle? Jon Ronson: You know, I think
the very best thing we can do, if you see a kind of unfair
or an ambiguous shaming, is to speak up, because I think
the worst thing that happened to Justine was that nobody supported her —
like, everyone was against her, and that is profoundly traumatizing, to be told by tens of thousands of people
that you need to get out. But if a shaming happens and there’s
a babble of voices, like in a democracy, where people are discussing it,
I think that’s much less damaging. So I think that’s the way forward, but it’s hard, because if you do
stand up for somebody, it’s incredibly unpleasant. BG: So let’s talk about your experience, because you stood up by writing this book. By the way, it’s mandatory
reading for everybody, okay? You stood up because the book
actually puts the spotlight on shamers. And I assume you didn’t only
have friendly reactions on Twitter. JR: It didn’t go down that well
with some people. (Laughter) I mean, you don’t want
to just concentrate — because lots of people understood,
and were really nice about the book. But yeah, for 30 years I’ve been writing
stories about abuses of power, and when I say the powerful people
over there in the military, or in the pharmaceutical industry,
everybody applauds me. As soon as I say, “We are the powerful
people abusing our power now,” I get people saying,
“Well you must be a racist too.” BG: So the other night —
yesterday — we were at dinner, and there were two discussions going on. On one side you were talking
with people around the table — and that was a nice,
constructive discussion. On the other, every time
you turned to your phone, there is this deluge of insults. JR: Yeah. This happened last night.
We had like a TED dinner last night. We were chatting and it was lovely
and nice, and I decided to check Twitter. Somebody said, “You are
a white supremacist.” And then I went back and had
a nice conversation with somebody, and then I went back to Twitter, somebody said my very existence
made the world a worse place. My friend Adam Curtis says that maybe the Internet is like
a John Carpenter movie from the 1980s, when eventually everyone
will start screaming at each other and shooting each other,
and then eventually everybody would flee to somewhere safer, and I’m starting to think of that
as a really nice option. BG: Jon, thank you.
JR: Thank you, Bruno. (Applause)

100 comments

  1. The vast majority of us who live in the modern era and don't live in a third world country are vastly more privileged than any other human beings have ever been.

  2. I wish the world and humanity would have changed but I knew that it was going to get worse. I’ve been publicly shamed for supporting my friends through their own shamings and my own and it’s disgusting how I was treated. I was told to die and kms and for a while I had almost done that.

    Don’t let them win. Fight until the end. And to anyone out there struggling, just know that you aren’t alone, so don’t let the world make you alone.

  3. Basically what this guy said is, shame on you for shaming without context.. especially when you shame for self-gain & not justice.

  4. People exhibit medieval mentality. What do you think witch burning and sacrifice was about? Externalizing blame for the sake of entertainment at the expense of another human being. Desire to sidestep justice and avoid reasoning. In your mind the conviction against the person is so strong, that you ignore all arguments to the contrary. And the pressure of the public opinion. Many of us join opinion groups in order to reinforce what we already believe in, as it is safer than having ideas challenged. We gravitate to people who resemble ourselves, and then the mass develops it own gravity, sucking in even more participants. When the mass goes against an individual, that person is defenseless, unless they are protected by a more influential group. Over time this devolves into turf wars between large social networks and media groups. Their power is in the ability to rule over an individual, by controlling their social image. What people say you are is what you are forced to be perceived as. Shaming is not new either. All medieval trends made digital. The internet acts like a tribal village.

  5. If only Roseanne had watched this.
    Then again- had she stood her ground and DIDN’T HAND OVER HER OWN SHOW…
    She would’ve came out on top.
    Everybody knows what happens when you surrender to BULLIES.

  6. And now, in 2019, more relevant than ever…. I want so desperately for every person in the world to see this. See and understand..

  7. I get the point, but Twitter, just like any other tool doesn't do a thing other than allow people to join it for free and use it to say "whatever" they want (since people don't read terms of use and most people have very low awareness about delicate topics). If you think you don't look great, well, don't blame it on the mirror.

  8. I’m never getting social media, and kids watching I suggest not getting it. It’s gotten very terrible and I suggest face to face. I enjoy technology and messaging and all that, but it’s just not worth it, because saying one joke that a couple people don’t like will get everybody riled up and ready to jump on the band wagon. Frick you to everyone who’s going on these things and ruining lives just for your entertainment and glee. Nobody would say most of those things. Find better things in life then that

  9. I own and have read his book on public shaming. Justine was the actual victim of racism. Whites are under constant scrutiny, having to be careful of everything they say and do. Other races have much more freedom.

  10. I'm controlling my weight and I visit a site about diet. You have to register to get on it and when you post, everyone who reads your post rates it with a vote as to whether the post is positive and helpful. Also your post with a lot of upvotes rise to the top of the view order. And your username accumulates a score that others can see as to how well you contribute to the site's atmosphere. Result so far: almost no trolls and the most civil and helpful internet site I've ever been on. I'm not on twitter but if posters are somehow accountable for the tone of their tweets, perhaps it would not become so caustic.

  11. when your trying to look like you are passionate about african people while at the same time judging someone in the worst way possible to destroy them because of an unintentional racist joke.
    i hope we respond to the tweets like justin's using basic logic and understanding whatever she said is under the curtain of comedy, then advise her not to say that again without being triggered

  12. This is truer today than it was four years ago. Yeah, let's take Jon's advice and speak out against this mob mentality where it is unfair.

  13. I wonder what kind of person chooses to spend their free time shaming strangers online? Hearing stories like this is the reason why I no longer use social media for the last couple of years. I have better things to do.

  14. I don't use Twitter because too many people are ready to weaponize flippant comments written while bored. That, and Twitter is a platform for insufferable people.

  15. why anybody go on stupid TWEETER ?? ..those ridiculous things shouldn't exist if there wouldn't be stupid users . What story is that …this "joke " has nothing to do with humor …did anybody laugh ?

  16. Well, I feel bad for the person. I don't get the joke.
    Unfortunate how words can get misunderstood on the internet.

  17. Whatever happened to "the punishment should fit the crime"? When did cruel and unusual punishment become the rule of the day?

  18. All twitter would have to do to bring an end to cancel culture would be to make it against their ToS for a mob to try to cancel someone, but I guess seeing as the politics of the majority of those engaged in cancel culture are aligned with that of the people who own twitter, it's not going to happen. Maybe something will change if more people on the right start using the dirty tactics used by the left, I suspect that'll be the only way for them to understand that what they're doing is wrong.

  19. What if you never had a life? Like nothing to lose. I mean what is the worst that can happen? you die! It is going to happen anyway.
    If there are so few successful people then the majority are failures why is it so bad, you all of a sudden have more friends. I dont get it.

  20. I seem to be in the minority in thinking Sacco’s tweet was funny. That said, I’d have enough sense not to send that.

  21. Ya know what's funny, "cancel culture" is almost like the Salem Witch Trials. Not as intense, no, but sort of similar. People are being socially killed without any real trial, people are fighting fire with more fire, in their case, hate with more hate. It's very sad. We've come so far as a society all the while, we've also regressed. People are going after others for the smallest of offenses.
    Some people on Twitter state they are fighting racism but many, only with more racism, but only against whites. Hate speech with more hate speech and death threats. It's a vicious culture filled with hypocrisy and cruel, heartless people that say they're advocating for a better world all the while, doing it in most destructive ways possible. This culture destroys people's lives and then laughs while they do it. They justify themselves saying they're helping while all they do is destroy.
    And the saddest part? We've all participated. We're all guilty. It needs to end. No one deserves the power to destroy people's lives for a single mistake.

  22. most folks are cowards, very few will speak up of fear the mad villagers will turn on and tar and feather them.

  23. Think before you tweet, especially if it's a joke. Not shaming her, just be aware that text does not have intonation, you can mold it so it sounds exactly how you think it should sound, and that's dangerous. If talking is 3D, text is 1D. It's very basic.

  24. It's like the old days where you could demonize people calling witch, j*w and other stuff. But now those term changed to racist, white supremacist. If you can prove to the majority that one individual is a racist or white supremacist (even if he isn't), you get a free pass to destroy them w/o facing any consequences.

  25. Hate comes first because it's a drug. People become addicted, and like addicts cannot admit it. This manifests as fear, because fear is the perfect excuse. Fear is to hate as drugs are to addiction…the problem is the person, the drug is a catalyst.)

  26. Hitler could have had the peace symbol and raised the LBGT flag

    Actions speak louder then beliefs.
    I don't recall Starlin being racist and he killed more people than Hitler simply for disagreeing with him. …

  27. Tweets are the least of the social media horrors. Kids are uploading videos of themselves doing some nasty/naughty things. They are clueless that they are ruining there future.

  28. Women don’t have it more difficult. They twist their place in society to make it seem like boo hoo poor me. They can get away with almost anything. Say almost anything. Even though she’s getting destroyed here if she was a man and said the same exact thing….lol forget it.

    #antifeminist

  29. It's just a really dumb thing to say on the platform, its a joke an adult should know not to make in general, but worse to not understand what social media is. I don't pity what she said, but I do feel bad about the ability for an unrealistic amount of people to be able to see and engage with it. In real life, if you made this kind of comment in a room, maybe 5 people hear it, you piss off 5 people (and whoever they bother to tell if that happens). However, on social media it's just too public, everyone feels like they're just one person in the room. It feels like it's everyone's conversation when status messages usually aren't a conversation between people but like dropping a coin in a well. I would have focused the conversation less on witch hunting and more on how social media enables global participation on things that should not be global.

  30. While I fully support what Jon says here, I can't help but also wonder: did she really expect anyone to understand this tweet otherwise? I find it hard to believe that, given some thought, she wouldn't figure this tweet is poking the beast in the eye. This tweet screams racist, regardless of her motives. Her intentions may have not been bad, but holy crap, the execution was absolutely disastrous. What was she thinking?!

  31. Remember that the people who shamed her to unemployement are the same people who dictate what you should think and how you should feel.
    The same pathetic people with a worthless degree, who can only find joy in the virtual power they get when on the internet, because in real life they have none.
    The same people who call you racist or incel when you respectfully disagree to their deadly ideology of equity. They try to make everyone believe that you are resentful, weak and ill-minded, judge them not by their words, but by their acts.
    They are the pathetic people, they are the ill-minded and the resentful, those whom you cannot give power to without seeing said power abused. Power is respected by strong men, and abused by weak men. When you find joy in destroying someone's life for a joke, you cannot claim moral superiority, you live in delusion and hate. Period.

  32. The Orville did an episode on this. Gooood Sci fi. However, the point in that show was that this was a TRUE and LITERAL Democracy of "likes" and "dislikes". A certain number of dislikes and you become an… undesirable. Your life already ruined it spirals into more and more dislikes and then… you're a criminal and the justice system goes after you as if you committed homicide.

  33. THANKS, RON – Sad twtter story……..It is especially sad when you realize there IS NO "AIDS" virus, there NEVER WAS. Koch's Postulates were NEVER conducted or proven. "AIDS" by definition means "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome". It was ALL a CDC scam. Profits, baby, cold hard cash.There IS NO virus, bacteria or other pathogen that causes this. The poor Africans who were told they had this BELIEVED they had it. The poor gay guys who "had it", believed it. The truth is (and you can read the great journalist, Jon Rappaport, AIDS, INC. for the whole truth & nothing but the truth) is that the poor Africans were dying of starvation, maybe some STDs, or other infections. The gay guys were dying of TOO MANY DRUGS – cocaine, poppers, and on & on, PLUS a terrible diet – leading to physical collapse, and death from believing they were infected w/"AIDS". The name of it says it all: ACQUIRED IMMUNE DEFICIENCY SYNDROME. All the fake "AIDS: drugs, etc., brought in TONS of money for the CDC, MDs, etc. Good luck good people for FINDING TRUTH. cheers

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