By now, readers of BPI Campus have heard of the infamous tweet sent by Justine Sacco. The responses offer lessons for the rest of us. (More)

Justine Sacco: A Lesson for the Rest of Us

With this tweet began an international firestorm of ridicule that quickly escalated to the websites of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the International Business Times, the New York Daily News and the Huffington Post.

While she was en route from London to Cape Town South Africa, her plane tracked by thousands on Twitter, who created the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet and tweeted updates on which airline, what flight and when she would arrive in Cape Town. She was an easy target for ridicule, given that she was the director of corporate communication for IAC, a large firm with many well-known public brands. She was an expert on public relations. She ought to have known better. And yet, apparently didn’t.

The internet’s response was fierce, and should have been predictable. The internet has, from its earliest days, demonstrated a tendency for virulent ridicule directed at outrageous behavior and stupidity. Furthermore, this tweet comes the very same week as when Phil Robertson of the A&E television show Duck Dynasty was quoted in GQ magazine saying similarly insensitive comments about LGBTs and African Americans.

So Justine Sacco should have known better. And quite frankly, she deserved that ridicule. She effectively stood in the center of town and shouted at the top of her lungs something disgusting and inexcusable, as her employer quickly noted:

This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.

The function of shaming

Ridicule and public exposure of aberrant behavior serves a very important function in human society. By shaming an individual, it becomes a tool for social control that human communities can use to regulate unacceptable behavior. Anthropologist Daniel M.T. Fessler described the role of shame in how societies govern individual behavior.

And the Internet, as a microcosm of human culture and society reflects that behavior. Indeed, because the Internet largely only has one mechanism for controlling bad behavior – how else do you reach someone sitting at a computer half way around the world? – ridicule was the only means by which bad behavior could be controlled.

I understand this, and in my own way I shared in this communal response, following tweets, retweeting, and giving blow-by-blows to people who weren’t online but, I felt, should be aware of what was happening. I was part of the massive response to her tweet. And I relished it.

Ashamed of shaming?

Looking back, ironically, I found myself feeling ashamed, because I could see in my mind her arrival in Cape Town, and the absolutely humiliating way she was received by the world. I could see where her job was in jeopardy and could easily predict that she was either already unemployed, or shortly would be. I felt pity for her. The conflicted emotions caused me to think about what happened, and to ask myself if the public response was too extreme.

Justine Sacco is a public figure, but not in the way that Sarah Palin, Martin Bashir, or Phil Robertson are. She was largely anonymous until her infamous tweet. Somehow an internet flaming of a seriously misguided statement had become front page news across the globe. What should have been a limited Internet flaming, perhaps mostly contained to Twitter, and a few other venues became the topic du jour for major media. Yes what she said was incredibly crass. But any one of us could make that mistake. I felt the intense response was, in one aspect, over the top. Yes she deserved ridicule, but did she deserve being on the websites of so many major media outlets? Did her flaming need to expand beyond the bower of Twitter to include the larger world?

My first reaction when considering this is that no, it did not. Shaming should be a just response. And part of the justness of the response should include it being limited in scope to just the community in which the bad behavior was originally displayed. I.e., if you act out on one IRC channel, you should not be pursued from there to other channels, and then to ListServs, your email accounts and so on. That would be cyber-bullying.

In having her behavior aired in the larger sphere, the proportion of the response, to me, appeared excessive, and bordered on bullying. As Mashable’s Chris Taylor wrote, “it was hard to ignore a disturbing feeling in the mob’s response, and something creepy in the trial by social media that was going on in her absence.”

Or maybe not….

But when we consider that the full effect of shaming is not only to have an individual internalize that they have misbehaved, and cause them to alter their own behavior , but also, to make an example as a deterrence to others, then the scale of the response can be seen in a different light.

If the response had been limited to Twitter, as I thought was proportional, then the value of her shaming would be limited to only those people who were privy to the event on Twitter. An important lesson to for the rest of us would be lost.

If the behavior were truly as egregious as it seemed, then it needed a public airing that exceeded its original sphere. The larger community needs to know of such things, not only as part of a public shaming of a bad actor, but also to deter similar behavior by others. That deterrence only works if others hear about it.

Moreover, a bad actor on Twitter will almost always find a chorus of support from like-minded people, and that blunts the disciplinary effect of shaming. But when the shaming is reported outside Twitter, in forums like the New York Times, a comparative handful of like-minded bad actors is less of a buffer. The wider exposure of her bad act and its response made her wrongdoing and the consequences clear. She hadn’t merely offended a few ‘hypersensitive’ people on Twitter. She had violated the norms of the wider human community.

Shaming is effective

The proof of this can be seen in her immediate withdrawal from Twitter, and her deletion of her account which, as described in Daniel M.T. Fessler’s paper, is a behavior consistent with someone having been properly shamed. It is an acknowledgement the social justice of that shaming.

It can also be seen in her apology:

Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country that we read about in America but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

For being insensitive to this crisis – which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly – and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.

This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.

By offering her apology, she makes clear to anyone who might dare to act as she had, that she herself agrees with the condemnation she received. No one who comes after her will be able to use her as an example of why they might be right in their bad behavior.

But what about the “mob” response?

And despite some objections since, the Twitter response was not a “mob” ready to “stone” Sacco. There are real stonings in the world, truly horrific mob justice, often under the color of law. Only cameras awaited Sacco when she landed, and a father who had sent her to the U.S. as a child, hoping she would not be tinged with the racism then prevalent in South Africa, now ashamed of his daughter’s behavior. And one member of that ‘mob’ opened a website that redirects to the Aids for Africa charity site.

The few tweets that called for violent reprisals or exposed personal information about Sacco were quickly condemned by the same voices who condemned her tweet. She was not beaten or arrested. As Dr. Fessler found, public shaming is among the least harmful forms of social discipline. This was no “mob.”

The Justine Sacco saga offers lessons for all of us. We should all think before we ‘joke’ about race, sex, or other privilege-laden topics, even if you’re a professional comedian like Steve Martin. We should not tolerate offensive ‘jokes,’ nor should we tolerate doxing or calls for violence in response to such comments. If we’ve given offense, we should offer a sincere apology, as Sacco and Martin did. We should find ways to turn such mistakes into public benefits, as the Aids for Africa site link did. And when someone offers a sincere apology and follows through with appropriate behavior, we should forgive them and welcome them back into society.

I’m no longer ashamed of my small role in shaming Justine Sacco. It was a measured and appropriate response to outrageous public behavior. The alternative is for the rest of us to sit quietly and let ugly, hateful, public insults go unpunished. That is not acceptable.