Character Counts: What we can learn about social media from Justine Sacco

In 2013, as she was boarding her plane to Cape Town, South Africa, Justine Sacco quickly tweeted the following message to her 170 Twitter followers at 10:19 AM from London:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

The tweet was a joke – a ribbing of first-world naivety intended to be shared between Justine and her circle of friends. The joke went over very poorly, and the tweet spread beyond Justine’s social circle almost immediately after it went live. Stripped of its context, users online had interpreted Justine’s tweet not as satire, but as a racist declaration of privilege, and they were angry about it. Derogatory comments and hurtful jokes were hurled at Justine. Unaware of what was happening online and unable to access the Internet, Justine became the focus of an Internet firestorm, and because she was in the middle of her flight, she was completely unable to respond. The Internet piled onto what they felt was an episode of deserved schadenfreude, and watched with glee as Justine’s life fell apart.

Justine had unknowingly become the victim of Internet outrage. Here’s what we can learn from the aftermath of her mistake:

1. The Internet mob spares no one.

The rise of social media has no doubt created new communication opportunities for many different industries. Despite its 140-character limit, Twitter is a force for political dialogue – paving the way for movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party to thrive. As The Atlantic summarizes: “A candidate without Twitter is a losing candidate.” Social media is a lucrative home for brands and businesses as well: on the whole, it’s both cheaper and farther-reaching than traditional marketing, and its easy accessibility allows for marketers to measure, adjust, and improve messaging quickly.

Social media’s effectiveness is founded on its inherent democracy and candidness, which builds a natural trust between its users. Wielded properly it creates a positive, two-way dialogue between brands and consumers, politicians and constituents, journalists and readers, and celebrities and fans. For ordinary people, we see these benefits on a smaller scale daily: for instance, sharing a picture of a puppy may garner positive attention from someone we may not have spoken to in years. This feedback breeds good sentiment, forging a stronger bond between ourselves and an acquaintance. Moving forward, we may think of this person more fondly, and create more messages online to try and connect further with that person.

However, as demonstrated in Justine’s case, unshackled candidness can be a double-edged sword, catapulting regular people into infamy. Dialogue online is messy, polarized, disjointed and unfettered, and can quickly spiral out of control. As people on the internet pile on, you may find yourself in a difficult position: responding publicly could provoke further anger and give trolls more fuel to fight back, but you can’t recoup your online identity by laying low and saying nothing. Like a fire, controversy online spreads quickly, and reversing the damage can take time.

2. The punishment for a social media mistake will outlive the crime for years.

The New York Times estimates that it only took three hours for Justine’s tweet to completely engulf Twitter on December 20th. According to Twitter’s historical data, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet – a mocking reminder that Justine had no clue what was happening to her online – appeared shortly after Justine’s tweet surfaced, around 8 hours later. By December 21st, the hashtag had launched its way up the worldwide trending charts.

And then… There was nothing. Justine’s plane landed, she was quickly fired from her job, and the world moved on. A look into Google Trends confirms that the interest in Justine’s error was very short lived – peaking on the week of December 22, 2013 and then dying on the week of December 29, 2013. As Sam Biddle, writer for Valleywag put it, “Everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”

Despite her gaffe having only a two-week shelf life online, Justine felt the effects of her mistake – both online and offline – years after the fact. The trauma of being publicly humiliated took a toll on her emotionally. She cut her visit to Africa short after she was told that after her Twitter debacle, her safety in Cape Town could not be guaranteed. Her extended family, noted activists for racial equality, told her that her tweet had jeopardized their family name. She was unceremoniously sacked from her job as a PR executive, a job that she loved (and a title the Internet relished in pointing out). Even when she purposefully stayed away from the spotlight, people were eager to find new dirt about Justine to share, dragging her back again into the shame spotlight. Websites like Buzzfeed trolled Justine’s Twitter feed for more uncouth statements, hoping to get the most mileage out of a trending story.

Currently, Justine’s Google results unanimously reflect the firestorm surrounding her tweet, almost three years after the tweet itself went live. Even though the conversation about Justine moved on quickly, her online reputation still solely reflects a careless, split-second decision. Information ranking on Google tends to stick longer than it does on social media, and if negative information is the only information about you online, you may find it haunting you for years. This can misrepresent you to potential clients, employers, customers, voters, friends and even family, and can impact you both financially and emotionally years after a story goes live.

3. Your online reputation is not the sum of your internet activity, but rather every individual action under a microscope.

Six months after her social media fallout, Justine flipped the script and invited one of her loudest critics – Sam Biddle – out for drinks. Justine told Sam that he “owed” her: since Sam was one of the key people responsible for mobilizing the mob against Justine, the least he could do was get to know her before he wrote about her again. By the end of their meeting, Justine and Sam reconciled, and ended up keeping in touch. In a long, public apology to Justine, Sam acknowledged that Justine was a real person – a fun, wonderful person, even – and that he had held some responsibility in hurting her.

By meeting her in person, Sam Biddle had the opportunity to see Justine Sacco as something other than a disambiguous tweet – in his words, “Justine Sacco had a face that wasn’t made up of pixels.” Online, we don’t get this context often. Our words have to be deliberate if they want to be interpreted correctly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a charitable person, a loving parent, or – in Justine’s case – a hard working employee. A retweet or a screenshot can be easily stripped of context and contorted into something completely different than its intended purpose, and then amplified to millions of people.

Our Final Thoughts…

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google Alphabet, said that the internet is “The largest experiment of anarchy we have ever had.”

If the internet is anarchy, then social media is its megaphone, and it has the power to spread anything you say without any regard to situational context or personal history. Social media can opens doors for people, ideas, and products, but it can just as well shut them in a big, bad way. For a decade now, we’ve witnessed social media both build and burn careers, and as it becomes more integrated with our everyday lives, our only choice is to get as good as maintaining our online reputations as much as we have our offline reputations. A deliberate, mindful approach can go a long way for your digital reputation. Ignore it, and it just may come back to bite you in the end.