OPINION: Social Media and the Minefield

Cameron Gorman headshot

Cameron Gorman

I hadn’t expected myself to blow through the well-reported “Bad Blood,” by John Carreyrou, as quickly as I did. (The book, about the rise and fall of blood testing company Theranos, was wonderfully juicy; probably why it went so fast.)

In its wake, I decided to go for something I had been wanting to pick up for quite a while — “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” by Jon Ronson.

It’s a popular book. When I brought it up to a Kent State alum in a NYC diner this summer, she knew what I was talking about before I had the chance to mention the title.

It details several cases of exactly what its name suggests — well-known instances of social media’s mob mentality.

For instance, I bet you’ve heard of Justine Sacco — the woman who, after boarding a plane to Africa, sent out this tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she got off the plane, Sacco’s phone blew up. She’d become a hot topic all over the internet — and a hashtag had been born. #HasJustineLandedYet.

Yeesh, I know. I can’t possibly be asking you to have sympathy for that, can I? Well, is the tweet inexcusable? Undoubtedly so. Was Ronson’s follow up on her depressing? Yes. Yes, it was.

Sacco, you see, is never going to be able to escape that tweet. In the NYT article, she insists it was a joke. Still, it’s forever going to be the first thing that comes up when you search her name.

There’s a certain kind of schadenfreude that bubbles to the surface with this kind of thing — a feeling of, “What kind of idiot would you have to be to start that kind of mess?” What kind of idiot would you have to be? Well, probably not any more of one than most of us are.

Let’s consider a more recent example — remember Plane Bae? Rosey Blair and her partner documented the unfolding “romance” of two passengers in front of them during a plane ride. People ate it up.

Soon though, Blair was encouraging her followers to track down the woman they’d been documenting. The internet, ever a fickle beast, turned on her. She apologized, and, well, she still is. On Sept. 5, she posted a statement which said, in part, “A couple months away from the planebae action and I am still ruminating on the poor apology I gave.” Just like Sacco, if you Google Blair’s name, the second result is a Washington Post article detailing the story’s turn from “meet-cute” to “creepy.”

Nothing ever disappears from the internet, they say. They’re probably right. Even things first embraced by the warmness of Buzzfeed and other feel-good sites can quickly turn to condemnation. Is it earned? Maybe. But we, like Ronson has, have to ask ourselves if it’s something that should weigh on someone for the rest of their lives.

After all, I can recall times I’ve hesitated to comment, to voice my opinion, to retweet something for fear that it might be taken the wrong way. The threat of the mob looms over us on social media sometimes– if we’re smart. If not, we might end up the next person mentioned to oblivion. After all, saying something is much different than posting about it. The web of social media never, ever forgets.

Lately, though, I’ve also found myself on the flip side of this, too. Seeing an angry stream of tweets, it can feel validating to agree with the condemnation. But I’ve been pausing. If it were me on the other side of the screen, how might this stack up? When we feed into this anger, what kind of thought are we suppressing?

Does that mean, then, that I don’t think calling out serves a purpose? No. That’s dialogue. That’s the freedom to respond to something you don’t agree with.

But pause the next time you see a pile-on on social media. Consider the crime. Is it worthy of this kind of virtual execution? As Ronson muses, does the punishment fit the “gleeful savagery of the punishment?” And, well, how close might we have come in the past to the same fate?

Cameron Gorman is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected].