Full text of Jon Ronson, writer and documentary filmmaker, on How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life at TED Talks conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: MP3 – How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life by Jon Ronson at TED Talks
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. 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.”
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!”
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. 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.”
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 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.”