karma row: the virtual mob

Feb. 19th 2015

I’ve always avoided the sadistic pleasure of gang-ups because of natural compassion for anyone under attack, not  to mention the issue of context, which is essential. and easily missed, I might add, esp. on social media.

Lately, virtual bullying seems all the rage as schoolyard trolls go meta.  I’m thinking of the year-old case of Justine Sacco, the gift that keeps on giving. If you recall, she’s  the woman who tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” to her 120  followers, and in the 11-hour plane trip home during which she had no cell service, received 20,000 tweets shaming her for it. That someone in Cape Town, South Africa, would take up a Twitter challenge by a stranger thousands of miles away to go wait at the airport to meet and tweet Sacco’s shocked reaction when she learned of her infamy shows just how far people are willing to go. Sure, the tweet had become what her BFF called “the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now”, but still, really?!


If you don’t know what I talking about, I recommend reading  this excellent Times Magazine piece by Jon Ronson, a guy who acknowledges his own impulse to chastize in it. He shares how he began to control said impulse once he saw the wake of trauma it caused, having interviewed several victims of the virtual mob. Many, who like Sacco, were traumatized long after that elusive, all-important context came to light, and in some cases vindicated them. Ironically, one such case was a young woman from Michigan who dressed as a Boston marathon victim for Halloween, which I’ll admit was as tasteless as Sacco’s sick joke.  I’ll also admit that it made laugh out loud. Why I don’t know. Maybe the slapstick ghastliness of the costume seems perfect for Halloween?


I mean, OF COURSE its wroooooong, the idea of family members and loved ones enduring the joke makes it so. But as we all know, social media is all about getting attention, and such displays have become as pedestrian as bad tattoos and duckface selfies. That’s why its no surprise someone tried to up the Ante with a better costume – a kind of FUCK YOU to the morality police, I suppose, as well as  a way to capitalize on the reaction.

500x1000px-LL-47deebc7_ScreenShot2013-11-01at3.52.18PM All of this puts me in two minds on the issue. My unwavering commitment to defend free speech (always balanced by the equal conviction that people have a right to protest what they feel they must) undermined by a nagging “what did they expect would happen?” disbelief. The kind I typically reserve for the dangerously naive. Is that an invitation to jump on the Blame & Shame wagon (haters all aboooard, toot toot – I mean, tweet, tweet)? NO.  I’m just acknowledging the growing lack of responsibility/concern for one’s public behavior never mind the consequences of one’s actions when the stakes are so obviously high.

Clearly, social media exploits and encourages these outre outbursts. Twitter, which breeds sensationalism like Facebook on steroids, seems the worst. Another reason – in addition to just not having the time –  that I don’t tweet. The instant sharing of instant thoughts in a forum designed to make us want to be “liked”, “shared”, and “followed” has turned into a kind of virtual Russian roulette. I chose not to play. (And believe me, there’ve been many a social media scandal vis a vis the art world in which  I could’ve assumed a beef, or added my two cents, but abstained. Because I felt sorry for the person being attacked – the stuff of nightmares! – and/or was appalled by the hypocrisy of those joining the fray – their own bases ambitions for doing so being no better than those they sought to virtually lynch.) So where does that leave me? Disturbed.

APRIL 5, 2015/ UPDATE: This Atlanta piece offers a critical view on Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, 2015, claiming it “vividly warns about the power of angry mobs online but ultimately misdiagnoses what drives the modern cycles of indignation.” This pretty much gives you the gist, in a way, reflecting my own perspective, which is strangely reassuring: Stone didn’t mean for the image of her disrespecting a national monument to be seen by many people, but is it any great surprise that what’s literally the most anti-patriotic symbolic gesture a person can make might get out onto the wider Internet once it’s on Facebook? Sacco tossed into the world a joke about racism that actually came off, to many, as racist; is the takeaway that people are too sensitive, or that it’s a good idea to carefully consider matters before sending out a joke about AIDS in Africa, of all topics?

We are living in very tricky times when it comes to what is “appropriate” behavior in the public sphere, and to the backlash against all things PC, which intrigues me.