Single Tweet, Lifetime Consequence

Twitter bird tarred and feathered
Photo illustration by Andrew B. Myers for the New York Times Magazine. The prop stylist was Sonia Rentsch.

The Justine Sacco case is an example where one stupid decision can lead to a long-term, disastrous outcome. This story by Jon Romson in the New York Times Magazine last month details the entire sordid encounter. In short: Ms. Sacco tweeted an unfunny and inappropriate joke while boarding a plane to Cape Town, South Africa. Thirteen hours later, the tweet had gone viral with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet and the public relations professional was out of a job.

There are two items of interest here. The first concerns the relative anonymity which Ms. Sacco believed would shelter her from consequence. As someone working in public relations, she really should have known better. The second, though, is possibly more disturbing: our suspicion that lurking in the digital shadows are paid professionals whose sole job it is to expose and slander the people who instigate these events, no matter how benign their intentions.

Just as the shroud of anonymity provides a false sense of protection, so too does the Internet’s transient quality as an evaporative medium. We are creatures with short attentions spans; we spend 12 to 24 hours enthralled by the spectacle before moving on to something else. Social media journalists who break stories about the Justine Saccos of the world understand this. As Sam Biddle, editor of Valleywag (the Gawker Media outlet who first reported the tweet) put it in an email to Mr. Romson:

“The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious. It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again … I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life. [However,] everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”

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