Bad Tweets, the Internet, and mobbing behavior

Illustration accompanying Jon Ronson's "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life," NY Times Magazine

Photo of illustration by Andrew B. Myers and Sonia Rentsch accompanying Jon Ronson’s NY Times Magazine article (Photo: DY)

Let’s say you have a Twitter account, and one day, in a flash of supposed brilliance, you think of something clever but offensive and edgy. Your brain’s screening process falls prey to your quick wit, and you decide to Tweet it. Even though you don’t have many followers, somehow your Tweet goes viral. Before you know it, thousands of people you’ve never met are calling you the worst human being on the planet and demanding that you lose your job (or worse).

Justine Sacco and others

If you doubt how easily this can happen, take a look at Jon Ronson’s excellent piece in the New York Times Magazine, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” In 2013, Sacco was a 30-year-old New York communications executive on her way to visiting family in South Africa when she issued a series of Tweets about her travel experience. Here is the Tweet that became her downfall:

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

By the time she landed in South Africa, it had gone viral, with the Internet lighting up with cries of indignation and racism. As a result of the outcry, Sacco would soon lose her job, and her reputation would be in tatters.

Ronson goes into some detail about Sacco’s experience, sharing parts of several interviews with her. In addition, he provides stories of other individuals who said or allegedly said something that caused offense and rippled at hyper speed through the online world, ultimately imposing a heavy price in terms of careers and reputations.

Mobbing behaviors

In most cases, the virulent anger fueling the responses directed toward offending Tweet authors far outweighs the purported sin. The stories that Ronson shares in his article are excellent examples.

It struck me as eminently fitting that Ronson’s piece is accompanied by the illustration above, showing birds ganging up on one of their own. During the 1980s, the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at employees by their co-workers. Leymann’s theories were informed by the mobbing behaviors of birds! (Leymann was a pioneer practitioner and theorist in addressing workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. You can learn more about his work here.) While the situations Ronson describes are not solely work-related, the mobbing dynamics resonate strongly with Leymann’s work.

The hazards of Tweeting

Of course, virtually any offensive or provocative online utterance these days has some potential to go haywire. As for Twitter specifically, while it is a tremendously useful tool for informational networking, when used as a horn for drawing attention to one’s self or opinions, there’s an instant premium put on sharp, witty, and/or clever turns of the phrase. It’s an easy recipe for getting into trouble with a reckless or thoughtless statement or joke. Misguided Tweets have become one of the leading sources of public apologies, not only for celebrities and famous people, but also in the case of Justine Sacco and others like her, for everyday folks as well.

Over the years, many people have suggested to me that I start a Twitter account in order to promote the work I’m doing. My standard reply is that when it comes to social media, blogging and Facebook are just about all I have time for right now. But if I’m being totally honest, I must confess that another reason why I stay off of Twitter is that I don’t trust myself to avoid saying something really, really stupid with it. I fully understand how easy it is to Tweet first, think later.

Online floggings

I’m not defending the publication of insensitive, offensive, or hurtful jokes and statements. Nor am I suggesting that those who engage in abusive behaviors should be excused for their actions. But stories of public mobbings in response to relatively minor offending words constitute more evidence that the Internet, and our public discourse in general, have turned into free-for-alls that implicitly permit people to pummel, pillory, and threaten others for their perceived mistakes. These are not the characteristics of a healthy, compassionate society.


Legal briefing

You may wonder after reading this and Ronson’s article how someone can be so quickly terminated for behavior unrelated or perhaps only tangentially related to work. In America, at least, the rule of at-will employment is the norm, whereby an employer can fire someone for any reason or no reason at all. This rule is grounded in a legal structure called “master and servant” relations, and you can guess who is the master and who is the servant. For more on this, see my 2013 blog post, “Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law.

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7 responses

  1. David, I have been thinking about this piece since I read it. I am a huge Jon Ronson fan, but I felt that the article didn’t clearly separate the issue of the online mob mentality from the issue of people posting things online they probably shouldn’t have. Justine Sacco is a communications professional. Undoubtedly the response to her Tweets was way out of proportion, but at the same time, I don’t think her employer was entirely wrong in firing her – a representative of that organization – for posting an incredibly insensitive comment about AIDS and race. I also felt that Ronson was way too kind toward the guys who made the “dongle” jokes at the tech conference. Sexism is a huge problem in the tech world, and again, while the online reaction to their actions may have been out of proportion, I don’t think it was entirely wrong for the woman sitting in front of those guys to call them out on it online.

    • Fiona, thanks much for your comment. From what I’m reading elsewhere online, this article has provoked strong reactions and responses, and I’m not surprised, as these topics press a lot of buttons.

      Because this piece is drawn from Ronson’s forthcoming book, it’s possible that he’ll be addressing some of these matters more extensively. In any event, I think it’s a brave writer who decides to tackle this stuff in a nuanced way, knowing that people will be critical of what he didn’t say as well as what he did say.

    • Should people be punished — not criticized, but punished — for voicing their opinions?

      Answer: no. In fact, hell no. Absolutely regardless of what those opinions are.

      Freedom of speech is precisely the freedom to offend, to wound, to hurt, and not be punished (in any way, shape or form) for it.

      Anything which has negative real-world consequences is punishment. Losing your job is in the same category as being beaten up or killed or having your house firebombed: not as bad, but fundamentally similar. Hurting feelings does not, of course, count as punishment. Your feels = your problem.

      Short form: mobbing is always bad, and the people who do it are quite simply bad people.

      Quick test: would you consider what happened to that person just and legitimate if it had been done to you or someone you approve of for saying something you consider OK.

      Remember, free speech is a CONTENT NEUTRAL right.

  2. So many thoughts about this article, Mr. Yamada. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for bringing attention to articles such as Mr. Ronson’s.

  3. I read the article. I liken it to Kenneth Westhues’ article between bullying and mobbing ( The quickness and speed of the online makes it easy for things to escalate and take things out of context. I think Ronson wanted to take his readers to the other side of the story…how runaway emotions can get out of hand, even when we are looking to police behavior. The questions that it raises for me is who gets to “judge” the comments and posts online as being offensive? How do readers know the context before commenting?

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