Is Twitter Becoming America’s 21st Century “Witch Trial”?

Witch Trial Whether or not you’re an active participant in the social media universe, The Times has published a must-read thought-piece on Justine Sacco’s now notorious Tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The real-life horror story recounted in the above link regarding the ferocious response to Sacco’s ill-conceived tweet (and its light-speed online explosion) – all while she was unaware and offline flying from London to South Africa – is not only harrowing but should really make us all think carefully lest we risk inflicting punishments that can sometimes vastly exceed the real or perceived “crimes” of others. What’s great about this article, written by the always compelling Jon Ronson, is that it doesn’t simply reassert what we’ve already heard thousands of times: e.g., that Internet speech (unlike, say, diamonds…) really is forever. Instead, Ronson tells Sacco’s story with genuine humanity. That’s not to say he isn’t also appropriately critical or insensitive to the reasons why such a tweet would generate controversy. He just highlights an additionally valuable warning: those who inflict the type of “public shaming” Sacco endured can end up just as emotionally and professionally crushed as their targets. I have no idea what a PR professional like Sacco was thinking, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t: “Hey – I want to broadcast some randomly racist views to the world!” (As the article notes, she was traveling to spend time with Nelson Mandela’s family…) More likely, she was exhausted, bored and NOT THINKING while waiting in an airport lounge. And then, due to one seemingly fleeting moment of poor judgment, she lost her career, her personal life and even wound up hiding herself as far away as Ethiopia. Whatever your position on Sacco, her tweet, or Twitter, this is certainly a 21st Century morality tale to which attention must be paid. I salute Mr. Ronson for reminding his readers that compassion ought play a substantially larger role in cyberspace – not to mention the real world.

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