My experience with life has lead me to live by the motto that you should never say to one person what you would not want to be heard by many. Through our studies, we have learned that this mindset should be exponentially more prevalent in our social media discourse. In living through this motto personally, I have never run into serious issues with social media. I have managed to keep my overall online presence a positive one, but not everyone is able to do so. Weaving through the positives and negatives of social media can be like navigating a mine field, and for some, the effects can be life altering for better or worse.

The example that I would like to explore is one that I found fascinating. On December 20th 2013, highly successful public relations executive Justine Sacco was en route to Africa for business. Before boarding her plane, she was feeling a dark sense of humor and shared it with her followers on twitter. Her tweet read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Sacco shut her phone down as she boarded her Trans-Atlantic flight, as she rest in a 13-hour dead zone. Little did she know, as the tweet circulated through the internet, she began receiving a glut of backlash and hate messages. It quickly became the most popular tweet on the website, as users chastised her, making her name the most popular on the website for a time and for all the wrong reasons. People began to find out about her, her name, where she worked, what she was doing. “The hashtag ‘#hasjustinelandedyet’ was trending on Twitter around the world at the time as thousands awaited Sacco’s response. As Sacco’s Tweet went viral on the Internet she blasted for being ‘outrageous’ and ‘inappropriate’, with titles like ‘Worst Tweet of the Year’ stacking up against her.”As she arrived in Africa, people had their smartphones ready, taking pictures of her and laughing at the racist fool who had unknowingly become the poster child of what not to do on Twitter.

In the aftermath, numerous other tweets were pulled up from her past that were questionable, and only made worse by such a blunder. Sacco was fired from her job, condemned by her family, and became an outcast in her city. At the very least, she had the privilege of keeping her right hand, unlike John Stubbs in Standage’s explanation of his slanderous writing, but she did relocate and go into hiding for some time until eventually agreeing to do a low-key interview that focused on how a moment’s lapse in judgement lead to her world crumbling upon her. She described her tweet as “more of a joke about white privilege than disease struggles in Africa”, but It was far too late for Sacco to learn from such a mistake. One would figure that a regarded PR executive would have more sense in the first place.

This incident is not necessarily isolated as people consistently blow up on social media and “go viral” without ever intending to be noticed in such a large scope. The conversation of intended audience vs. audience reach is certainly relevant, however another conversation that came to light is the discussion of whether it is morally right to partake in the “internet mob” and tear people’s lives apart in ways such as this. It shows that in some ways the internet has ways of policing itself, but that force can be wildly disproportionate to the crimes committed. Justine Sacco made an extremely insensitive and frankly bone-headed joke, and the internet jumped on it and ruined her life. Meanwhile, real internet crimes, cyberbullying, “trolling”, and insensitivity occur on a perpetual basis with much of it going by the wayside. Why is that the case? Why did this one incident hold so much weight?

These questions have no exact answers, but it serves as a strong reminder that the internet is still an extremely volatile place and the words we write can never be unwritten. We are consistently reminded by our parents, teachers, etc. that prospective schools and employers will be watching our every move. In this world, it is extremely true. As a hiring manager myself, it takes me two seconds to google the name of whatever application I receive, and that two seconds has strayed me away from more than one applicant, and I can certainly see employers doing the same to me. I have spent much time trying to clear myself from google searches and not have my name attached to anything negative. Even more so, I do my best to avoid posting anything negative to social media in general. Our online identities have a tendency to stick with us, and it is something every user should be weary of.

This is not to say that there are no positives. Projects and other instances of positive performance that are connected to one’s name can be a powerful tool in job seeking and brand building. It is important that these types of feats are showcased in today’s tech-driven world where, “if you didn’t post it, did you really do it?”

As always, the moral here is to watch what you post. But we all knew that, right? Unfortunately for Justine Sacco, it wasn’t that simple. What she did probably had no malicious intent and was in some ways in tune with the sick humor of many of our internet dwelling friends. But she got caught, singled out, and had her spot blown up big time, paying a dear price. This kind of thing can happen to you, so keep your wits about you, keep it simple, and retweet a funny cat picture or something instead.

Works Cited

Bates, Daniel. “’I Am Ashamed’: PR Exec Who Sparked Outrage with Racist Tweet Apologizes after She’s Fired and Her Own Father Calls Her an ‘idiot’” Daily Mail (2013): n. pag. 22 Dec. 2013. Web.

Standage, Tom. “Chapter 5, Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple: The Challenges of Regulating Social Media.” Writing on the Wall. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. N. pag. Print.

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