5 things Justine Sacco’s ill-advised tweet taught us about the nature of social media

Poor Justine Sacco. She is definitely not having a very merry Christmas. Caught in an international mess, sending out a tweet she thought was harmless (hint: it wasn’t) has left her jobless and the subject of global ire.

Termed by BoingBoing as “the tweet heard round the world“, Sacco’s tweet has made us all think about the way we behave online and the power of Twitter.

If you haven’t heard, while getting ready to jet off from London to Cape Town, South Africa, Sacco thought she’d announced to world that she was headed to Africa:

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

When she sent that little tweet to her few hundred followers, she probably thought they’d scoff it off. Trouble is, it didn’t quite go that way. It spawned a hashtag #hasjutsinelanded and a slew of tweeters letting Sacco know exactly what they thought of her.

Sacco has since deleted her account and is now in the middle of a PR nightmare, ironic, no? But while she burnt at the stake of social media, here are some lessons we gleaned from her situation.

Do not abuse the megaphone

At its best, Twitter gives us the chance to have a voice in a world where sometimes it feels that no one is heard. Sacco may have thought that with her less than boisterous following, her little tweet would stay that way; little. A private, albeit tasteless, “joke” between her and her followers who would have read and ignored her previous tweets. As a PR executive, what she forgot was the potential for any one tweet to be heard around the world. Do not abuse the voice the internet gives you because it can take it away very quickly.

Tact is everything

People make stupid jokes about going to “Africa” all the time, because you know the people who live there obviously don’t have Twitter. If you are going to have a little fun with a pandemic that is sweeping through the world, not just Africa, don’t. Try to be tactful online. When you are speaking to the world, the potential to hurt people’s feelings is that much greater.

You will be judged even when you meant no harm

One of the most fascinating pieces about Sacco following the avalanche of news is a Forbes piece that explores a different side to the “joke”. The piece explores the idea that Sacco was in fact more self-deprecating than anything else. The piece quotes someone who thinks it’s more “white guilt” than racism:

“I think she was more mocking the aloofness white people can have on this issue, not celebrating that aloofness,” said the individual.

Your life is an open book

One bad tweet while on a plane for 12 hours means a thorough investigation of your entire life. After Sacco’s tweet everyone delved deeper into her Twitter feed to see the kind of person she was. This is our society now, where the sum of a life can be attested to or easily shamed by a series of 140 characters.

An op-ed by Mashable’s Chris Taylor sums up why it seems quite hard to defend Sacco’s tweet:

Sacco is nearly impossible to defend. It seems she has left a trail of casual racism across social media on her various travels, making the hacking scenario unlikely, and explaining why her company rushed to denounce her — they knew it was most likely the genuine article.

We will feed on the carcass of the defenceless

Sacco may have revealed her underbelly to the world with her tweet but the more disturbing and crushing of all discoveries is the underbelly we as a society showed. Sacco did Africa, its people, but mostly herself, a great disservice by sending that tweet. However, instead of pitying her and educating her ignorance, we crucified her at a time that’s meant to be all about good will and peace.

Sacco’s tweet is no more horrifying that things said by men in power, men who lead nations and wage wars men that no one has yet fired or dehumanised for their behaviour. For 12 hours, while she could not defend herself, we fought back with complete and utter bile.

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