Posted by: katieaoreilly | May 14, 2015

Internet shaming: Virtual Vigilantism

sacco tweetHere it is, the Tweet heard ’round the world. Justine Sacco (at that time the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, ironically) tried her hand at sarcasm in 140 characters, and the rest is history. She pressed send, turned off her phone, slept through her 11 hour international flight to Cape Town, and woke up the target of internet furor. Around the world, people were tracking her plane’s location using the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. Others were waiting at the Cape Town airport to snap photos of the moment she realized what she had done. Her reputation was destroyed, her credibility demolished, and her character torn apart by people she had never met. Certainly the tweet was in poor taste, but did Sacco’s punishment truly fit the crime?

In his newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Penguin, 2015)Jon Ronson examines the rise of online public shaming and the psychological toll it takes on its victims. The digital age makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection to be an arbiter of social justice when wrong-doing is perceived. Within hours, one person’s innocent mistake can explode into a virtual witch hunt; angry mobs forming behind their keyboards, ready to drag the perpetrator into the digital town square and pass judgement. This “democratization of justice” has proven to be an effective tool for keeping corporations and brands honest, but do individuals deserve the same level of watchdogging from the public? More importantly, why do we, the public, find so much joy in the destruction of another person? Is the online shaming of today any different from the public floggings and scarlet letters of old?

As students, we make a hobby of examining the social media mishaps of others through a professional or academic frame. I suggest we look at the same scenarios with a little more empathy. Go ahead and hold someone accountable for their actions, but at least be constructive. There’s no need to threaten someone’s well being. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, should you say it online?


  1. Hi Katie – thanks for posting this. I had forgotten about this and it brought back to memory a flood of other social media mishaps that’s happened since. For example, the ‘discovered’ L’Oreal model at last year’s World Cup. She was on her way to fame when a tweet was pulled from deep-space Twitterverse. In this tweet, she said that she was off to go on a Safari and hunt Americans. Oops! There goes her contract. People post so many dumb things. Another example would be all of the sexting that ruins marriages and policial careers.

    There’s a weird caviler f*** it all attitude that’s found on social media that’s hard to believe. Are these people really being who they are, or do they feel safe on social media to let their alter-ego do the typing?

    I agree with everything you posted above, especialy your call to accountability while remaining respectful.

    Great post!

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