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Welcome To Twitter, Mind The Lynch Mobs


A Twitter bio leaves room for just 150 characters. Once you’ve written “These views are my own.” you’re down to 127. If we learned anything from Justine Sacco’s problems though, it’s that professionals tweeting from accounts that have any association with their employers may as well save their characters. That disclaimer won’t protect them if they tweet something their company doesn’t like. The employer will still be associated with it; and they’ll still fire your hide to save their image.

But we learned something else from Justine Sacco’s disastrous tweet and the nightmare that followed: Twitter is not a pleasant place.

Sure, the people you engage with every day, the celebrities you follow, the reporters who tweet the news from war zones and disaster sites, the colleagues who keep you up to date on what’s happening in your industry, even in the public relations industry, they’re all nice and friendly and fun. They write tweets that are often witty and intelligent. They’re people you want to meet.

Until you make a mistake.

Then even someone as innocuous as Justine Sacco, a public relations executive with fewer than 200 followers before this story broke, can soon find that she’s being chased by a global lynch mob.

Who Grassed To Valleywag?

The way that lynch mob grew — from a short report at Valleywag  to a trending topic so popular that “Bieber” was no longer the first automated response to typing “Justin” into Twitter’s search box — reveals a frightening dynamic at work on Twitter.

Sacco’s tweet, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” was posted at 10:19 am on December 20th. According to Buzzfeed, the post, which would have had a pretty limited audience, was then emailed to Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, who described it in a quick post as a “funny holiday joke from IAC’s PR boss.” An addendum he posted three minutes later informed readers that IAC is the parent company of “things you use, like Vimeo, Tinder, OkCupid, CollegeHumor, Dictionary.com and  more.”

Clearly something had happened. One of Sacco’s followers wasn’t a friend who wanted to keep in touch. He or she was a rival (apparently with some understanding of public relations) who spotted an opportunity to cause some damage to a competitor by sending the post to the editor of an industry gossip sheet.

That post got the ball rolling. Other reporters picked it up and commented on Twitter. By 4.30 pm, when Sacco was on her way to South Africa, the country in which she had been born and had relatives, tweets written by people who had seen the reporters’ comments were turning nasty. She was described as “racist,” “a bitch” and wishes were expressed for her to get AIDS.

Buzzfeed attributes the first appearance of the #HasJustineLandedYet to a woman in Miami. Seven hours later it was trending around the world and by 2am, it was second in the list of Worldwide Trends. With Sacco still offline and unable to respond, the mob grew, memes developed, brands and charities weighed in, riding the wave of attention to promote their own industries and causes.

And then the backlash started. A second lynch mob grew to face the first lynch mob. Conservatives morally outraged at the moral outrage put on display by people waiting for Justine Sacco to land began displaying their own moral outrage.

By the time Sacco landed, her name had been tweeted more than 30,000 times, the hashtag had been used more than 100,000 times — and she was looking for a new job.

Controlling The Mob

The tweet that got the snowball rolling was insensitive but it could have been read as a comment on the degree to which one group in South Africa is isolated from the troubles faced by another social group. It didn’t have to be seen as racist. The snowball could also have been stopped early. At the same time that the mobs were looking for Justine Sacco, comedian Steve Martin, a much bigger target, responded to the question “Is this how you spell lasonia?” by tweeting “It depends. Are you in an African-American neighborhood or at an Italian restaurant?”

That was much harder to justify but he apologized quickly and deleted the post. He got lucky: few people noticed.

That users on social media can  form into lynch mobs powered by self-righteousness and moral outrage, and hound someone out of a job isn’t new. The growth of Twitter, though, has made those mobs more dangerous. They’re now bigger than ever and the tweets and hashtags are more likely to be noticed and spread outside social media.

But not only can those mobs be stopped  by a quick apology and a deletion, they can also be controlled and targeted. Back in 2009, BBC cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew interviewed singer Lily Allen during a break in a game.  Will Buckley, a senior sports writer for The Observer, accused Agnew of losing control when faced with the attractive, young singer and stated that he “had positioned himself firmly on the pervy side of things”

Agnew, though, was an early Twitter adopter. Even in 2009, his Twitter account (which  still carries the disclaimer “This is a private account and these are my views.”) had several thousand followers. He gave Buckley 24 hours to apologize and when he failed to receive that apology, encouraged his followers to write to Buckley’s boss and complain.  They did, in their thousands, and Agnew received his apology.

The problem for anyone using Twitter, especially people using it professionally, is that the platform is a deceptively dangerous place. We tweet fast and if we don’t pay attention to the reaction to those tweets we can soon find that we’re being hunted by a mob. That mob might have been created by someone with a grudge and it might even be controlled by someone with a grudge.

On the other hand, there is an opportunity here. Snaptweet, anyone?


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