In December of 2013, Justine Sacco, a senior director of corporate communications at InterActive Corp (IAC), posted a tweet right before boarding an 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town. In the tweet, which has since been deleted, she wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
At the time, Sacco only had 200 followers, but the editor of Valley Wag, a blog dedicated to Silicon Valley, republished the tweet with some critical commentary. As recounted by Buzzfeed, other reporters quickly picked up on the tweet, sharing it amongst themselves on a slow Friday, and expressed incredulity that it was still up hours later because, again, Sacco was on a long-haul flight and not online. As reporters continued to share the story, regular Twitter users noticed other insensitive tweets Sacco had posted, with a crescendo of outrage and calls for her termination.
By the time Sacco landed in South Africa, 11 hours later, she was the most talked about subject on the Internet. During her flight, everyone from celebrities to in-flight WiFi provider Indie GoGo had tweeted jokes at her expense; parody accounts and a satirical web domain had been set up to mock her, and her own employer had denounced her. Within hours of her landing, IAC fired her.
Sacco has become a kind of cautionary tale for people who are very online, from the dumb “never tweet” reactions, to criticisms of the angry politics of gawker, to white privilege, to worries about the misogynistic slant of many outrage storms. While those all have elements of truth in them, I think we can learn by examining the many reasons that went into her tweet’s viral impact, how some enterprising journalists created a scandal from nothing, and why the adage that things online don’t matter is tragically false.
A Theory of Viral Outrage
There is copious academic literature about how framing, agenda-setting, and priming in the media can create the base conditions for public reactions to a given story — even a particularly poorly-timed tweet. And there is a growing body of research about what makes some pieces of content go viral while others get ignored (since, after all, Sacco had, even in 2013, hardly posted the most racist content on Twitter). And finally, a quick environmental study can show how the evolving norms of discourse on Twitter have set the stage for an unending churn of outrage content.
The viralness of Sacco’s tweet can be understood using Jonah Berger’s theory of “social epidemics.” The virality of content has a few crucial elements that factor into how “contagious” an idea or a story online can be. Sacco’s case includes five of the six elements Berger says factor into how catchable an idea can be: Her tweet exhibited social currency (a form of signaling that occurs when people discuss a topic — in this case, expressing one’s anti-racism), triggers (when a hashtag about her trended, it formed a feedback loop that reminded people to participate in the conversation), emotion (people generally don’t like racism), public (again, a trending hashtag reinforced itself), and story (a lot of broad narratives about colonialism and racism in Africa).
There were broader cultural forces at work as well, which contributed to the unique environment for Sacco’s tweet to gain such virality. Racism is a topic of intense discussion on social media, and the election of Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 had raised public awareness of how race remained a constant of American discourse. A fascinating study by Bettina Love and Brandelyn Tosolt showed a form of racial “cognitive dissonance” in America, whereby (mostly white) people both express racist views while believing that racism has been “solved.” At the same time he was elected, psychological research was establishing a growing understanding of how exposure to racism, racist imagery, and racist jokes online can have deleterious effects on children. So even as many Americans felt racism was on the way out, racist content remained highly prevalent, and there grew increasing awareness of how destructive that is for children exposed to it.
The online disinhibition effect, as explained by John Suler, can turn the internet into a uniquely unfiltered place, where people online do not feel bound by norms about their behavior and thus act out in various ways. Because people feel relatively anonymous, they can feel empowered to make offensive remarks out of a false belief that those remarks will be consequence-free.
In addition, during Obama’s first term Sarah Sobieraj and Jeffrey Berry identified both online and in traditional media the rapid rise of what they called “outrage discourse.” While individual outrage can be an important mechanism of reinforcing social norms, they define outrage discourse as “a particular form of political discourse involving efforts to provoke visceral responses.” Individual outrage can also be contrasted with viral outrage, whereby thousands of random strangers who have no direct relationship to an incident “dogpile” the target of outrage – precisely what happened to Sacco. It creates what Takuya Sawaoka and Benôit Monin call a “paradox that the same individual outrage that seems laudable and necessary in isolation may be viewed more as excessive and bullying when echoed by multitudinous other users.” On social media, we call it cancelling.
But Sacco’s story is not as simple as a bad tweet going viral on its own and getting her cancelled. It also played into a specific cultural moment, amplified a growing trend of media framing, and was subject to agenda-setting by enterprising journalists. In Sacco’s case, it seems clear that Sam Biddle, an enterprising and aggressive blogger, successfully set an agenda in how to cover the tweet. This isn’t new to social media: As Stephen Reese wrote in 1991, three preconditions need to exist for a long-standing issue to become the subject of intense public scrutiny: “a) the media and public agenda correlate; b) the media agenda preceded the public agenda in time; and c) alternative explanations that respond to third factors, such as objective conditions, have been ruled out.”
Reese places this into the context of a power-relationship between journalist and subject for agenda-setting, which is salient to the media environment in which Sacco tweeted in 2013. Spiro Kiousis argued that there is a feedback loop of sorts at work in how agendas set by the media play into public attitudes, which further encourage more agenda setting to placate public attitudes. In other words, “agenda-setting involves the transfer of salience from the media to the public,” which is how Biddle could “push” the story to a far wider audience than it would have reached organically. Matthew Ragas and Spiro Kiousis conducted a study that suggested this type of agenda setting is more of a “packaging process, which involves selecting certain aspects of reality and making them more salient.”
Thus, Biddle’s use of framing created a specific slant on Sacco’s tweet — and because of the specific cultural moment of America in Obama’s second term, the internet public was already primed to respond to racist jokes. Kirk Hallahan’s models of framing suggest that people can “use association and expectation to make inferences about events and to impute meaning not manifested in the message itself.” In other words, people were already expecting to react to a racist joke, so when a joke that could plausibly be called racist was put in front of them, they filled in the missing context and reacted.
Sacco had a lot going against her. Being stuck in the air, with limited internet access at best left her unable to address the growing outrage. This essentially left her defenseless, as she was unable to maintain a relationship with the stakeholders pushing the scandal. “One of the most important aspects of crisis management is communication.” The reaction to her tweet grew so large because she couldn’t address it for so long.
Lastly, online outrage can boil over into drastic, real world consequences. While online interactions are often written off as being not real in some way, this has never been the case. In the early 90s, the journalist Julian Dibbel wrote A Rape in Cyberspace, which described how a player of an early online multiplayer game was virtually raped using the interactivity tools provided by the game, resulting in real-life trauma. Research in the two decades since established that online multiplayer games have important psychological consequences for people, both positive and negative, in part because of how much time the players spend in the game. Online is real life, in other words — separating the two doesn’t make any sense given how much of our social interactions are mediated by the internet. And because relationships formed through these communities and other forms of social networking can be as powerful as real-world friendships, it seems indisputable that events online can have powerful consequences offline as well.
How Trad & Soc Media Made a Mountain From a Molehill
Before her tweet went viral, Justine Sacco’s twitter feed was mostly wry observations about her daily life – often sarcastic, sometimes caustic, but generally bland. It wouldn’t be out of place in the group chats of most educated upper middle class people living in a big city. Despite her status as a high-ranking communications professional for a prominent firm, she treated her public feed like a private gathering of friends, where there was leeway to be sarcastic and edgy in a way that simply would not be appropriate in public.
But Sacco’s tweet would not have gone anywhere had it not been signal-boosted — and that required promoting it to a larger audience. The journalist who first publicized Sacco’s tweet was Sam Biddle, a technology journalist highly critical of Silicon Valley. He was a pioneer of using journalistic snark to not just mock celebrities (how it is often used in tabloids), but to drive home theories of social and criminal justice. The concept of snark (acerbic sarcasm) was defended most prominently by Gawker writer Tom Socca, who framed it as an authentic reaction to the inauthentic smarm that dominates “uplifting” and “objective” media. Snark is the dominant tone on social media, especially Twitter, and people often are far snarkier there than they ever would be in person. Biddle was a master of snark and continued to mock her for months after she was jobless and made into a pariah, which exacerbated how much she was affected by the outrage.
A selection of reaction tweets can also explain how and why people were so eager to demonstrate their disgust with Sacco’s tweet. A crucial aspect of viral content is the way it signals social currency on the part of the person sharing — the act of acknowledging a piece of viral content, to say nothing of commenting on it, let’s the poster demonstrate currency and relevance.
The social currency of keeping up with Sacco between the time her tweet was highlighted to the time of her landing in South Africa became a form of gameshow, as #HasJustineLandedYet became, briefly, the most-used hashtag on the internet. People were thrilled to demonstrate social currency by posting updates on her flight, to signal their own beliefs by condemning her joke, and to revel in the inherent drama of someone being cut off from the world at the exact moment they became a figure of infamy.
And those reaction tweets were a problem. Justine Sacco’s content landed in a perfect storm of cultural movements, where a white woman making a racially insensitive joke as she travels to Africa would bind together many social and media forces, destroying her career in the process.
A year after starting the internet storm, Biddle apologized to Sacco, and in that apology, he revealed some of his motivation for pushing the outrage storm. “Twitter disasters are the quickest source of outrage, and outrage is traffic. I didn’t think about whether or not I might be ruining Sacco’s life. The tweet was a bad tweet, and seeing it would make people feel good and angry—a simple social and emotional transaction that had happened before and would happen again and again.”
There are three things to unpack from this quote. The first is that Biddle was aware of the forces that Berger identified as driving virality online and trying to deliberately trigger them. He also was required to do this, as generating viral content was a revenue strategy for Gawker. Lastly, he simply didn’t care about the person he targeted – a common theme for viral outrage, where the target of outrage is rarely viewed as worthy of consideration. Sociopathy and the right cultural moment came together to create disaster for Sacco.
Biddle had already primed his followers to react, angrily, to his content – that was his entire beat at Gawker, where he prided himself on collection “scalps” from random figures in the industries he targeted with efforts at generating viral outrage. The way Biddle framed these stories (“a critical activity in the construction of social reality because it helps shape the perspectives through which people see the world”) created momentum for creating viral outrage. Thus, a misstep by the management at a startup firm wasn’t just a misstep – in Biddle’s frame, it was evidence of mendacity and fraud. Because his audience always saw stories framed in such an uncharitable way, whenever he would post about executives or other wealthy people in coastal California, his thousands of twitter followers would pile on with snarky commentary and often personal jabs at the subject.
As a rule, publicly racist commentary is frowned upon. However, commentary that appears racist can be either retracted or corrected in a timely manner if the person who made it is available to participate in the discussion. Sacco, however, posted her racially insensitive joke during a period where she would be unable to manage any fall out. While this detail was not in her tweet, she posted the joke immediately before boarding an 11-hour flight, which limited her ability to either apologize or delete the joke. This provided a gut-level impression, even if understood on an intellectual level to be unfair, that she did not care and was simply oblivious to the effects of her post. Sacco was unable to communicate on her flight (though many raised the question of why she wasn’t on in-flight wifi, considering this was often an expensive service it isn’t necessarily indicative of negligence on her part).
Was Sacco wrong to tweet that joke? Yes. However, while the specific pathologies of viral outrage or, as it’s now known, “cancel culture,” are worth examining in detail, there are more immediate lessons that can be drawn. The internet has presented an interesting challenge for people and organizations trying to manage their reputations online — the very well known processes of framing and agenda-setting can combine with the unique attributes of a social epidemic and draw global attention to an otherwise obscure racist joke. By participating in a specific media culture with a disparaging point of view to those it considered more powerful, Gawker had laid the foundation for an explosion of outrage. In addition, the nature of Sacco’s tweet, which cut through several extremely controversial topics in a very short amount of space, had multiple building blocks of viral content.
Gawker, where Biddle wrote at the time, was part of an intentional agenda-setting by a small group of online journalists. In a famous 2007 confrontation, the television host Jimmy Kimmel confronted an editor at Gawker about her posting images of him being intoxicated. When he accused her of throwing rhetorical rocks at celebrities, she responded, “aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks.”
The concept of “punching up” – attacking those perceived to have more power than you do because they deserve it in some way – in journalism has its roots in Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley. His mockery of the press is often quoted as “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” even though Dunne’s book presents Dooley as being highly critical of the muckraking yellow journalist of the late 19th century. However, in this case, the “piles of money” do not protect the supposedly powerful executives from the barbs thrown their way. Ultimately the highly-trafficked blog Biddle wrote for had far more power to generate public intrigue than the virtually anonymous corporate public relations worker he had targeted. While traditional agenda-setting theory places the largest amount of power in the corporation, in reality the power dynamic was flipped. In a very real way, Biddle was punching down — though he would never admit such a thing.
That isn’t to say agenda-setting is discarded, or can explain everything. The traditional media have always had a role to play in shaping the public’s perception, and that involves a calculation between a journalist and their source. But social media doesn’t really work that way — most of the time, the sources are also the targets of coverage, and quite often both are fellow journalists.
Much of the media discourse on social media is performative — journalists are performing for each other to frame and capture reality in a way that is mutually impressive. You can see this as an act of curation (and in fact, many journalists describe their social media profiles as curation), where bits of reality are selected or deselected for amplification. The temperament and judgment of the journalist online then becomes vital to understanding why and how they will fixate on one piece of content but not another. Thus, when you take Gawker’s institutional belief that any and all corporate executives above an unspecified level of income are fair game to single out and mock, it becomes clear that Sacco’s tweet was not destined for infamy – she just had incredibly bad luck in that someone happened to find her bad content.
There are two observations about this incident that are worth noting. The first is that real-world consequences for online events are simply a fact of life and won’t stop. The endless hand-wave that online outrage is limited and contained and therefore not “real” is, simply, false. Sacco was an early victim of viral outrage leading to career ruin, but there is a growing list of people who have experienced a similar process. In fact, that growing list is partly why and how Sacco was able to move on with her life, eventually – because the internet did first.
The second observation is a variation of the cliche “never tweet.” Sacco confused the public for the private and did not realize her public twitter feed could be strip mined for content for a muckraking blog. Even in 2013, this demonstrates a lack of awareness and fluency in how online media is generated and consumed (which is, to be unsparing toward Sacco, not a great place to be as a PR executive). It is also worth noting that certain types of verbal sarcasm translate extremely poorly to the written word, especially when experienced by people outside of a closed social group.
But we can still take lessons from her dreadful experience and hopefully avoid a similar fate. The modern social media platforms are designed very specifically to hack your dopamine cycle and make you crave the validation of strangers for posting emotionally charged content. It is a system designed to coax ever more personal information about you into the open where it can be strip-mined for marketing insights. While we obviously cannot control all of the data about us floating in the aether, every single thing that we intentionally post online will be exploited and used in some way that affects us.
Secondly, developing offline relationships is really important. Biddle did not change his opinion of Sacco until he bothered to talk to her in person. It was directly seeing the cost his treatment had imposed that he reconsidered how he had treated her and what sort of power he held over people. And it wasn’t until more and more information about the severe personal toll this incident imposed on Sacco emerged that people realized just how horrific her experience was.
Sacco’s “rehabilitation,” as one critic put it, did not always reflect well on her. While her humanization was undoubtedly a personal relief, it doesn’t change the fact that her Twitter post was in very poor taste. Someone getting hammered for posting truly bad content makes for a very poor poster child, as one critic put it: “The plain meaning of what she said still remains, resonates beyond her intentions, and amplifies the volume of an already corrosive discourse.” Sacco’s tweet drew on a lot of very painful history for an entire continent of people, and that history is inescapable. While the exact treatment to which she was subjected turns out to be profoundly bad luck, she would never have had to face it if she hadn’t made a racist joke in the first place.
Even so, “never tweet” is a shallow conclusion to come to. It is unrealistic to expect people to exist in public, online, for the sake of employment and social currency, but also shrug when one is subsumed into a storm of viral outrage. People need room to make mistakes and to be able to apologize and come back from that mistake, but the current norms of social media don’t allow that sort of personal growth to take place. That doesn’t mean condemnation for bad behavior gets taken off the table, by any means (and hiding behind “free speech” to justify racist speech is not okay, either), but it should mean there is a little bit more grace for people who do want to change and grow. Sacco has, luckily, had that opportunity to learn from her experience. Maybe others need that chance, too.