In the months that followed, Ronson began noticing that more and more people were being shamed on the internet for tweeting badly worded jokes to a small number of followers. One of these people was Justine Sacco, a PR professional with only 170 followers on Twitter. As she prepared to board a flight from London to Cape Town, she crafted a tweet that she thought was a funny, self-aware mockery of American attitudes toward travel to Africa. She tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!” By the time Sacco’s flight landed, the whole internet had seen her tweet.
By starting to tell Justine Sacco’s story, Ronson calls attention to how, in just a short span of time, public shamings quickly became less about righting the wrongs of privileged people or people with power, and more about destroying anyone who was perceived to have transgressed against a social norm or status quo. Even though Justine Sacco’s tweet was a joke—a joke aimed at exposing attitudes of American exceptionalism and white supremacy—the internet came after her for saying something that seemed offensive and jarring. This passage is also significant because it begins to introduce another new theme: the idea that women are disproportionately targeted and maligned when it comes to public shamings.
Weeks later, Ronson met with Sacco at a restaurant near her office—she’d been fired, and she was on her way to clean out her desk. Hours after her misguided tweet, Sacco had become the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide. While she was still in the air, her tweet had spread across the internet like wildfire. The online mob called her tweet “racist” and “offensive,” and they called Justine horrible, sexist names as they anticipated the moment her plane landed and she realized what was going on. Ronson had met with people whose reputations had been destroyed, but Sacco was the first person he’d met whose reputation had been destroyed by random people on the internet united against her.
Ronson singles out Sacco’s case as unique because of her obscurity (compared to someone like Lehrer), the minor nature of her transgression (a poor joke made for a small group of followers), and her gender. The internet wanted to destroy Justine’s life and tear her apart over a single tweet—and she wasn’t even someone like Jonah Lehrer, who’d been in the public eye or who had a responsibility to a dedicated, widespread group of readers.
Sacco’s name was googled over a million times in about ten days at the end of December 2013. Paparazzi awaited her at the Cape Town airport when she landed, and, when she arrived back in New York, they followed her around the streets of Manhattan. She was floored by the idea that anyone could have thought her tweet was literal—but it didn’t matter that Justine was just trying to make fun of an American “bubble” of ignorance. The internet gleefully took her down. During their interview, Sacco told Ronson that if she were to die suddenly, the world would remember her for her viral tweet, and it would not remember her kindly.
This passage shows how contemporary social media shamings are, in many ways, even worse than corporal-punishment-based public shamings of yore. Sacco was living in relative obscurity—but the power of the internet mob turned her life upside down and compromised her career, her privacy, and her well-being both physically and mentally. And the punishment didn’t end when a judge or some other arbiter decided it had been enough—the abuse just kept going on and on for as long as the mob on the internet thought it should.
Even journalists who should have reported her story with “fearlessness” toward the online mob called her tweet “vile” and “repugnant,” trying to signal their aversion to Sacco’s radioactive tweet. And even though Justine apologized publicly and cut her vacation short, vitriol and lies about her continued to spread. Her own extended family who lived in South Africa told Sacco she’d “tarnished” their reputations.
This passage shows how radioactive and repugnant the victims of social media shamings can quickly become—even to their loved ones. No one wants to be associated with someone who’s become a pariah overnight, which can overwhelm an otherwise rational person’s ability to assess the objective severity of the transgression. This adds to the collateral damage of public shamings, as a shaming targets a shamee’s emotions and relationships, not just their jobs and reputations.
Ronson got in touch with Sam Biddle, a Gawker journalist who retweeted Sacco’s tweet to his 15,000 followers—he is likely the person who began the firestorm surrounding the tweet. Biddle told Ronson that it was a “delicious” detail that Sacco worked in PR and that he’d gladly make the same choice to retweet Sacco again, if given the chance. Biddle felt that Sacco’s destruction was justifiable because she tweeted something racist. But Ronson disagreed; Sacco wasn’t a racist, so attacking her wasn’t “punching up.” And neither was attacking Jonah Lehrer in real time as he issued a public apology. Both lives had been ruined for the sake of “social media drama.” Ronson began to wonder what “rush” took control of people in such circumstances, and what the internet was gaining through these public shamings.
This passage shows how little it can take for a public shaming to begin. Biddle wanted to right a perceived wrong—and he knew that he could use his power to gain immediate support across the internet for his own purposes. Ronson clearly dislikes Biddle’s thirst for Sacco’s destruction, which he sees as targeting someone who didn’t have the power to defend herself. This furthers Ronson’s argument that people need to be aware of how vicious and destructive social media shamings can be. The “rush” of power one might experience after kicking off a shaming is an unacceptable reason to start the shaming process.
Biddle told Ronson that the internet’s attention span was short—users would move onto new fodder soon, and Sacco would be “fine.” But when Ronson relayed this to Sacco, she insisted that she wasn’t fine—she was suffering. She’d lost her job, she’d embarrassed her family, and now her story lived online for anyone who searched her name to see.
While the people who kick off social media shamings might think they’re low-stakes and innocuous, their brutality can’t be denied. Ronson implies that contemporary shamings are so terrible because while there might be a pattern, there’s no process—so the shamings can go on for a very long time, destroying everything in their paths without regard to what is just or fair.
When Sacco asked who else Ronson was interviewing for his book, he told her about Jonah Lehrer and about how Lehrer’s “broken[ness]” in the wake of his public shaming was often mistaken for shamelessness. Ronson was mystified by how people dehumanized those they hurt—and how the same thing that had happened to Lehrer was now happening to Sacco. Sacco told Ronson she didn’t want to meet again for several months, and he began to see that she “wasn’t thrilled” to be compared to Jonah Lehrer. He’d sullied his integrity—she’d just made a bad joke.
Even Justine Sacco could recognize that there was a marked difference between her own social media shaming (as a non-public figure who made a bad joke) and the shaming of someone who had made repeated professional transgressions that affected his ability to do his job with integrity. This passage implies that gender played a huge role in Sacco’s shaming—she’d done something far less bad than Lehrer had, yet she was being punished much more severely than he ever was.
The day after meeting with Justine Sacco, Ronson traveled to D.C. to meet with Ted Poe, a Houston judge turned representative for Texas’s Second Congressional District. As a judge, Poe gained infamy for his distinctive punishments. In 1996, Poe ordered a teenager who’d killed two people in a drunk driving accident to attend 110 days of boot camp rather than prison—and to carry a sign that read “I KILLED TWO PEOPLE WHILE DRIVING DRUNK” once a month for ten years in front of both high schools and bars. Poe also ordered the teen to commit to maintaining a memorial site for the victims for ten years, to keep their photographs in his wallet, to send ten dollars a week for ten years to a memorial fund in their name, and to observe the autopsy of another victim of a drunk-driving incident.
Ted Poe was notorious for giving people eccentric, shame-based punishments when he was a judge. Poe’s methods might be described as draconian or vicious, but Poe recognized something key about justice and penance: shame can be a powerful way to change behavior and mindset. And the major difference between Poe’s public shamings and the internet’s is that Poe’s punishments had a finite duration and a clear connection to the original transgression, whereas the internet’s punishments can be endless and random and excessively punitive.
During his meeting with Poe, Poe gleefully told Ronson about some of his favorite shamings. Ronson asked Poe if he was turning the criminal justice system into a form of entertainment. Poe admitted that the public often “liked” his punishments—but that 85% those who were shamed publicly never entered the system again. Poe’s argument, Ronson realized, was “annoyingly convincing.” And when Ronson spoke with Mike Hubacek—the teenager who’d killed two people driving drunk—Hubacek claimed to be “forever grateful” to Poe for pulling him out of prison and turning his life around by giving him the opportunity to connect with people about the dangers of drunk driving.
While Ronson’s book has so far been about the inhumanity of public shaming, speaking with Poe has thrown a wrench in Ronson’s conviction that public shaming is categorically bad—in fact, shame-based punishments administered via a court of law reduced the number of people who re-offended, which is a major goal of any kind of punishment. Furthermore, Mike Hubacek did not feel that his public shaming was overly punitive or worse than being allowed to remain relatively private by going to jail; Hubacek actually thought his shaming was an opportunity for growth that he wouldn’t have had with a more traditional punishment. So if public shaming can be productive in some circumstances, then the question becomes how to differentiate bad public shamings from good ones.
Ronson was even more confused when Poe told him that social media shamings were worse than the shamings he himself had devised for convicted criminals. Realizing that he was a part of that social media horde, Ronson began to understand how truly brutal the internet’s anonymous public shamings could be. He’d watched in real time over the years as Twitter transformed from a “Garden of Eden” of ideas and jokes to a watchtower for transgressions and misspeakings. Ronson became part of the mob himself—and over the years there had been so many transgressors, so many shamings, that he couldn’t remember most of them. Ronson concluded that Poe was right—the internet was more frightening than Poe was.
While Poe became famous for devising elaborate public shamings, he does not believe that internet shamings are helpful or fair. To him, it’s far crueler to be a victim of an internet mob than to have a public shaming administered in court. Of course, this could be self-serving logic (Poe justifying his punishments to himself), but based on Mike Hubacek’s reaction to Poe’s punishment versus the horrific humiliation felt by victims of online shaming, Poe’s opinion seems credible.