Social Media Opinion South Africa

When last did you bully someone?

Justine Sacco. Does that name ring a bell? Nope, didn't think so.

Perhaps if I remind you of a tweet she sent while on a flight to South Africa in 2013 - "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

Were you one of the people that took to every available social media platform to express righteous indignation at the stupidity of this tweet? I know I was one of the lynch-mob that descended on her, and tore her character to shreds for daring to tweet something so offensive.

But where is she now? What is she up to these days? Ever wondered about that?

Jon Ronson (in a recent piece in the New York Times) tracked Sacco down for a series of interviews, after her Twitter episode. He wanted to know what her life has been like since that tweet. In summary: she lost her job, she was ostracised by friends and family, and her life has never been quite the same.

In his piece, Ronson writes how the furore over Sacco's tweet had become "not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment". And that, I think, is where we lost the plot - we have forgotten that there are real human beings behind those Twitter and Facebook profiles. People that hurt, people that cry, people that make mistakes.

When last did you bully someone?
©marcos calvo mesa via 123RF

"In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer," says Ronson.

" those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script."

South Africa is by no means immune to ill-judged tweets and Facebook posts. I am sure you can easily list five examples right now.

We are all at risk of becoming cyber-bullies if we are not careful. Holding people accountable for what they say online is of course a good thing. But we must exercise caution that we are not sucked in by the seductive lure of the mob mentality.

Next time you want to express your anger on social media, think about the recipient of your shaming... The real humans (like Justine Sacco) who are the virtual targets of these campaigns.


About Martin Slabbert-Capper

Slabbert-Capper is an Account Manager at HWB Communications (Pty) Ltd, a communications and crisis management agency based in Cape Town. He has been working in the media and communications industry since 1995.
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