Twitter Terror

Posted October 7, 2015, under Gosh, That's Handy!

If you ever wondered what telepathy would be like in real life, Twitter might be your answer. Designed to be concise and convenient, Twitter is used by most people to broadcast literally whatever is on their minds. While this can be as banal and ridiculous as you would expect, many media-savvy folks use it to deliver delightful content — which may function as stealth advertising, but that just doesn’t matter when it’s clearly a labor of love, not calculated shilling.But we’re not here to talk about those wonderful, mad geniuses today.

It Was Right There in His Name

Probably most of you remember the other kind of labor of love that exploded in the news back in 2011: American politician Anthony Weiner, then a U.S. Congressman, tweeted a picture of his barely concealed genitalia to a 21-year-old woman in Seattle. Turns out that wasn’t his first or only such infraction, but it was Twitter’s ease of use — and the effective guarantee of widespread visibility — that turned shenanigans into scandal.

We honestly never expected to show a picture of a dick in the Lunch Meat.

After ineffectual attempts at damage control, Weiner resigned from Congressional duty — only to turn up a few years later as a contender for the position of New York Mayor. It didn’t take long for the next scandal to break.

Literally getting caught with his pants down wasn’t sufficient deterrent to Weiner. Operating under the alias “Carlos Danger,” the 49-year-old former lawmaker had continued to engage in behavior more appropriate to, well, the kids he was exchanging messages with (read: horny, barely legal idiots).

He didn’t win the election.

Out of Hand

A public figure should expect to have their lives examined and pulled apart. Right or wrong, it’s part of the world we live in. And Weiner was inarguably misbehaving.

But the magic of social media is that even any normal person can take the national — even global — spotlight, with just a single tweet. Sometimes that magic is dark, and the spotlight accusatory.

That was the lesson learned by Justine Sacco, a London-based PR executive, in 2013. Just prior to boarding a flight for her native South Africa, she dashed off a satirical tweet to her 170 followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Then she turned off her phone for the duration of her 11-hour flight.

Thanks to a reporter on a trashy tabloid site, the tweet exploded from there. In the course of those 11 hours, Sacco became the #1 trending topic worldwide. The hashtag “#HasJustineLandedYet” metastasized through the network; even Sacco’s bosses chimed in, pointing out that the offending employee was incommunicado.

Sacco was fired before she even touched down.

In an interview with New York Times reporter Jon Ronson, Sacco lamented, “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” It was meant to parody what someone entirely unlike her would say or think. But absent any context, the tweet was taken literally, and the Internet sprung into action.

It’s telling that the resulting New York Times article was titled, “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life.” Because that is what happened. That’s the real horror story here. The Internet fell on someone’s head, for a terrible, ill-advised joke, and made her the target of public shaming for months, costing her a job and lifestyle that she loved.

Sacco got through it and rebuilt her life, but not everyone is so lucky. The Internet Rage Machine can be a potent force for straight-up evil. Jobs, relationships, lives, absolutely can be destroyed. Women especially are subjected to threats of violence, sexual assault, even death, merely for speaking out about sexism in video games.

Yes, it desperately needs to change — but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that until it does, it would be wise to try to be mindful with your social media posting. We could literally populate an entire month of Lunch Meats with stories about people who didn’t.

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