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  • In the early days of Twitter, it was like a place of radical de-shaming.

  • People would admit shameful secrets about themselves,

  • and other people would say, "Oh my God, I'm exactly the same."

  • Voiceless people realized that they had a voice,

  • and it was powerful and eloquent.

  • If a newspaper ran some racist or homophobic column,

  • we realized we could do something about it.

  • We could get them.

  • We could hit them with a weapon that we understood but they didn't --

  • a social media shaming.

  • Advertisers would withdraw their advertising.

  • When powerful people misused their privilege,

  • we were going to get them.

  • This was like the democratization of justice.

  • Hierarchies were being leveled out.

  • We were going to do things better.

  • Soon after that, a disgraced pop science writer called Jonah Lehrer --

  • he'd been caught plagiarizing and faking quotes,

  • and he was drenched in shame and regret, he told me.

  • And he had the opportunity

  • to publicly apologize at a foundation lunch.

  • This was going to be the most important speech of his life.

  • Maybe it would win him some salvation.

  • He knew before he arrived

  • that the foundation was going to be live-streaming his event,

  • but what he didn't know until he turned up,

  • was that they'd erected a giant screen Twitter feed right next to his head.

  • (Laughter)

  • Another one in a monitor screen in his eye line.

  • I don't think the foundation did this because they were monstrous.

  • I think they were clueless: I think this was a unique moment

  • when the beautiful naivety of Twitter

  • was hitting the increasingly horrific reality.

  • And here were some of the Tweets that were cascading into his eye line,

  • as he was trying to apologize:

  • "Jonah Lehrer, boring us into forgiving him."

  • (Laughter)

  • And, "Jonah Lehrer has not proven that he is capable of feeling shame."

  • That one must have been written by the best psychiatrist ever,

  • to know that about such a tiny figure behind a lectern.

  • And, "Jonah Lehrer is just a frigging sociopath."

  • That last word is a very human thing to do, to dehumanize the people we hurt.

  • It's because we want to destroy people but not feel bad about it.

  • Imagine if this was an actual court,

  • and the accused was in the dark, begging for another chance,

  • and the jury was yelling out,

  • "Bored! Sociopath!"

  • (Laughter)

  • You know, when we watch courtroom dramas, we tend to identify

  • with the kindhearted defense attorney,

  • but give us the power, and we become like hanging judges.

  • Power shifts fast.

  • We were getting Jonah because he was perceived to have misused his privilege,

  • but Jonah was on the floor then, and we were still kicking,

  • and congratulating ourselves for punching up.

  • And it began to feel weird and empty when there wasn't a powerful person

  • who had misused their privilege that we could get.

  • A day without a shaming began to feel like a day

  • picking fingernails and treading water.

  • Let me tell you a story.

  • It's about a woman called Justine Sacco.

  • She was a PR woman from New York with 170 Twitter followers,

  • and she'd Tweet little acerbic jokes to them,

  • like this one on a plane from New York to London:

  • [Weird German Dude: You're in first class. It's 2014. Get some deodorant."

  • -Inner monologue as inhale BO. Thank god for pharmaceuticals.]

  • So Justine chuckled to herself, and pressed send, and got no replies,

  • and felt that sad feeling that we all feel

  • when the Internet doesn't congratulate us for being funny.

  • (Laughter)

  • Black silence when the Internet doesn't talk back.

  • And then she got to Heathrow, and she had a little time to spare

  • before her final leg, so she thought up another funny little acerbic joke:

  • [Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!]

  • And she chuckled to herself, pressed send, got on the plane, got no replies,

  • turned off her phone, fell asleep,

  • woke up 11 hours later,

  • turned on her phone while the plane was taxiing on the runway,

  • and straightaway there was a message from somebody

  • that she hadn't spoken to since high school,

  • that said, "I am so sorry to see what's happening to you."

  • And then another message from a best friend,

  • "You need to call me right now.

  • You are the worldwide number one trending topic on Twitter."

  • (Laughter)

  • What had happened is that one of her 170 followers had sent the Tweet

  • to a Gawker journalist, and he retweeted it to his 15,000 followers:

  • [And now, a funny holiday joke from IAC's PR boss]

  • And then it was like a bolt of lightning.

  • A few weeks later, I talked to the Gawker journalist.

  • I emailed him and asked him how it felt, and he said, "It felt delicious."

  • And then he said, "But I'm sure she's fine."

  • But she wasn't fine, because while she slept,

  • Twitter took control of her life and dismantled it piece by piece.

  • First there were the philanthropists:

  • [If @JustineSacco's unfortunate words ... bother you,

  • join me in supporting @CARE's work in Africa.]

  • [In light of ... disgusting, racist tweet, I'm donating to @care today]

  • Then came the beyond horrified:

  • [... no words for that horribly disgusting racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco.

  • I am beyond horrified.]

  • Was anybody on Twitter that night? A few of you.

  • Did Justine's joke overwhelm your Twitter feed the way it did mine?

  • It did mine, and I thought what everybody thought that night,

  • which was, "Wow, somebody's screwed!

  • Somebody's life is about to get terrible!"

  • And I sat up in my bed,

  • and I put the pillow behind my head,

  • and then I thought, I'm not entirely sure that joke was intended to be racist.

  • Maybe instead of gleefully flaunting her privilege,

  • she was mocking the gleeful flaunting of privilege.

  • There's a comedy tradition of this,

  • like South Park or Colbert or Randy Newman.

  • Maybe Justine Sacco's crime was not being as good at it as Randy Newman.

  • In fact, when I met Justine a couple of weeks later in a bar,

  • she was just crushed,

  • and I asked her to explain the joke,

  • and she said, "Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble

  • when it comes to what is going on in the Third World.

  • I was making of fun of that bubble."

  • You know, another woman on Twitter that night, a New Statesman writer Helen Lewis,

  • she reviewed my book on public shaming and wrote that she Tweeted that night,

  • "I'm not sure that her joke was intended to be racist,"

  • and she said straightaway she got a fury of Tweets saying,

  • "Well, you're just a privileged bitch, too."

  • And so to her shame, she wrote,

  • she shut up and watched as Justine's life got torn apart.

  • It started to get darker:

  • [Everyone go report this cunt @JustineSacco]

  • Then came the calls for her to be fired.

  • [Good luck with the job hunt in the new year. #GettingFired]

  • Thousands of people around the world

  • decided it was their duty to get her fired.

  • [@JustineSacco last tweet of your career. #SorryNotSorry

  • Corporations got involved, hoping to sell their products

  • on the back of Justine's annihilation:

  • [Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off,

  • make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight!]

  • (Laughter)

  • A lot of companies were making good money that night.

  • You know, Justine's name was normally Googled 40 times a month.

  • That month, between December the 20th and the end of December,

  • her name was Googled 1,220,000 times.

  • And one Internet economist told me that that meant that Google made

  • somewhere between 120,000 dollars and 468,000 dollars

  • from Justine's annihilation, whereas those of us doing the actual shaming --

  • we got nothing.

  • (Laughter)

  • We were like unpaid shaming interns for Google.

  • (Laughter)

  • And then came the trolls:

  • [I'm actually kind of hoping Justine Sacco gets aids? lol]

  • Somebody else on that wrote,

  • "Somebody HIV-positive should rape this bitch and then we'll find out

  • if her skin color protects her from AIDS."

  • And that person got a free pass.

  • Nobody went after that person.

  • We were all so excited about destroying Justine,

  • and our shaming brains are so simple-minded,

  • that we couldn't also handle destroying somebody

  • who was inappropriately destroying Justine.

  • Justine was really uniting a lot of disparate groups that night,

  • from philanthropists to "rape the bitch."

  • [@JustineSacco I hope you get fired! You demented bitch...

  • Just let the world know you're planning to ride bare back while in Africa.]

  • Women always have it worse than men.

  • When a man gets shamed, it's, "I'm going to get you fired."

  • When a woman gets shamed, it's,

  • "I'm going to get you fired and raped and cut out your uterus."

  • And then Justine's employers got involved:

  • [IAC on @JustineSacco tweet: This is an outrageous, offensive comment.

  • Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.]

  • And that's when the anger turned to excitement:

  • [All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco's face when her plane lands

  • and she checks her inbox/voicemail. #fired]

  • [Oh man, @justinesacco is going to have the most painful

  • phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands.]

  • [We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time.

  • Before she even KNOWS she's getting fired.]

  • What we had was a delightful narrative arc.

  • We knew something that Justine didn't.

  • Can you think of anything less judicial than this?

  • Justine was asleep on a plane and unable to explain herself,

  • and her inability was a huge part of the hilarity.

  • On Twitter that night, we were like toddlers crawling towards a gun.

  • Somebody worked out exactly which plane she was on, so they linked

  • to a flight tracker website.

  • [British Airways Flight 43 On-time - arrives in 1 hour 34 minutes]

  • A hashtag began trending worldwide:

  • # hasJustineLandedYet?

  • [It is kinda wild to see someone self-destruct

  • without them even being aware of it. #hasJustineLandedYet]

  • [Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar

  • is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can't look away. Can't leave.]

  • [#HasJustineLandedYet may be the best thing to happen to my Friday night.]

  • [Is no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival?

  • Come on, twitter! I'd like pictures]

  • And guess what? Yes there was.

  • [@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town international.

  • And if you want to know what it looks like to discover

  • that you've just been torn to shreds because of a misconstrued liberal joke,

  • not by trolls, but by nice people like us,

  • this is what it looks like:

  • [... She's decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.]

  • So why did we do it?

  • I think some people were genuinely upset,

  • but I think for other people,

  • it's because Twitter is basically a mutual approval machine.

  • We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do,

  • and we approve each other,

  • and that's a really good feeling.

  • And if somebody gets in the way, we screen them out.

  • And do you know what that's the opposite of?

  • It's the opposite of democracy.

  • We wanted to show that we cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa.

  • Our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit

  • this profoundly un-compassionate act.

  • As Meghan O'Gieblyn wrote in the Boston Review,

  • "This isn't social justice. It's a cathartic alternative."

  • For the past three years,

  • I've been going around the world meeting people like Justine Sacco --

  • and believe me, there's a lot of people like Justine Sacco.

  • There's more every day.

  • And we want to think they're fine, but they're not fine.

  • The people I met were mangled.

  • They talked to me about depression,

  • and anxiety and insomnia and suicidal thoughts.

  • One woman I talked to, who also told a joke that landed badly,

  • she stayed home for a year and a half.

  • Before that, she worked with adults with learning difficulties,

  • and was apparently really good at her job.

  • Justine was fired, of course, because social media demanded it.

  • But it was worse than that.

  • She was losing herself.

  • She was waking up in the middle of the night, forgetting who she was.

  • She was got because she was perceived to have misused her privilege.

  • And of course, that's a much better thing to get people for than the things

  • we used to get people for, like having children out of wedlock.

  • But the phrase "misuse of privilege" is becoming a free pass

  • to tear apart pretty much anybody we choose to.

  • It's becoming a devalued term,

  • and it's making us lose our capacity for empathy

  • and for distinguishing between serious and unserious transgressions.

  • Justine had 170 Twitter followers, and so to make it work,

  • she had to be fictionalized.

  • Word got around that she was the daughter the mining billionaire Desmond Sacco.

  • [Let us not be fooled by #JustineSacco her father is a SA mining billionaire.

  • She's not sorry. And neither is her father.]

  • I thought that was true about Justine,