How the Internet Turns Justine Saccos Into Hester Prynnes


While people abusing the Internet’s power of anonymity to be cruel, and terrorizing through comments sections and social media, isn’t what anyone would call news (see: Amanda Hess’ award-winning “Why Women Aren’t Safe on the Internet,” Gamergate, etc.), a pair of articles in this weekend’s New York Times survey the damage in a way that suggests the Internet is in dire need of a code of ethics. With just one tiny misstep — or even just a misunderstanding — any one of us could become Hester Prynne for 15 minutes.

In an opinion piece, “The Epidemic of Facelessness,” writer Stephen Marche points out the absolute absurdity of our new power to threaten and abuse people: “There is a vast dissonance between virtual communication and an actual police officer at the door. It is a dissonance we are all running up against more and more, the dissonance between the world of faces and the world without faces,” he writes. In Marche’s eyes, the “Gyges effect” (an argument taken from Plato’s Republic that if we were invisible, we wouldn’t be moral; think of The Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum) blurs the impact of our online arguments, so for us to matter, to be considered at all, we have to say things that are more and more outrageous and violating. Recall Kathleen Hale’s controversial Guardian piece from last year, about when she hit a nadir of author madness and stalked a Goodreads reviewer and book blogger. Like a mantra, she repeated that she wanted to see and be seen.

Marche makes the point that, neurologically and philosophically, the face is the key to how we learn about empathy. We imitate other people’s expressions as a baby. We learn about how to feel by seeing how other faces feel. As Marche writes, “A world stripped of faces is a world stripped, not merely of ethics, but of the biological and cultural foundations of ethics.” He doesn’t have any solutions regarding how to deal with online trolls. There are the two obvious choices — ignore them or confront them; both have their faults. Compassion, is, perhaps, a third way, but easier to profess than to practice. After all, not every story has the nuance of Lindy West’s recent This American Life segment on engaging with her troll.

In “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” taken from his upcoming book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist and The Psychopath Test author Jon Ronson turns his curious eye on Twitter-mob phenomenon. Sacco’s moment of sudden notoriety occurred in December of 2013, when the IAC public relations executive posted a tasteless joke about Africa on her Twitter feed. Sam Biddle, a writer at Valleywag, was tipped off and wrote about it, and that’s when Sacco became a trending topic.

What makes Ronson’s piece particularly gripping is that he shows that there’s a real person behind the news story of “Justine Sacco the PR executive who got fired for a racist tweet.” Sacco is hardly the only semi-random victim of Internet pile-ons — from Biddle himself (who, a year later, posted an apologia to Sacco online) to Lindsey Stone, a Massachusetts healthcare worker whose photo at the Arlington National Cemetery had people calling for her firing. Ronson has met many of these people in person, and he writes, “the people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.”

The overwhelming feeling you get, reading Ronson’s piece, is that nobody wins. In one particularly frustrating case, he tells the story of Adria Richards, the developer and self-described “tech geek” who posted photos of male peers who made sexist jokes at a conference. Sadly, the tide turned on Richards, and she was targeted and harassed by men’s rights groups. The online mob, as it is, is ready to shame anyone who does something perceived as “wrong” by any one of many different factions.

Ronson’s piece is about real people losing their “personhood” after a mob decides that their existence offends some slippery sense of right and wrong, making each of its stories a case study in the principles Marche discusses. In the faceless world Marche describes, a code of ethics enforces ideals but doesn’t take into account the very real people who we perceive to have violated them, in whatever small way.

Both Marche and Ronson’s pieces nail something uncomfortable about the way we live now in 2015, when so much of our lives take place online. Ironically, though, I’m not sure if we’re ready to listen to what they’re saying about our casual cruelty online — a glimpse at the comments on either piece reveals anonymous voices saying that the writer is wrong, and in Ronson’s case, that Sacco knew what she was doing and deserved her fate. Depressing as that realization is, there’s still something hopeful in the growing conversation about what we’re losing online, and how the shaming mob often metes out something that’s less like justice and more like a warped tribute to its own bizarre beliefs and agendas. Perhaps it’s time for a new paradigm, where we start seeing human beings — as flawed and stupid as they can be — in all their complexity, rather than thoughtlessly punishing them for how they do and don’t represent our principles.