The immediacy and fast pace of the Internet can be magical.
But when someone makes a comment that the masses disagree with, a mob with 140-character pitchforks can develop in seconds and the Internet can become terrifyingly bellicose.
We saw this happen late-last week when Justine Sacco, now the former communications director for InterActiveCorp, better known as I.A.C., tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding a flight to Africa from London.
The response on social media came quickly. And the speed with which it turned ugly was even scarier.
At first the discussion around her tweet was relatively trivial, with people wondering if Ms. Sacco’s account had been hacked. Yet as soon as it was clear that she had made similar comments in the past, the Internet turned into a voracious and vengeful mob. Ms. Sacco was tried and judged guilty in a public square of millions and soon attacked in a way that seemed worse than her original statement.
Within hours, people threatened to rape, shoot, kill and torture her. The mob found her Facebook and Instagram accounts and began threatening the same perils on photos she had posted of friends and family. Not satisfied, people began threatening her family directly. The incident was a trending topic on Twitter and a huge forum thread on Reddit.
This all happened while Ms. Sacco was on a 12-hour flight without Wi-Fi to Africa. When she landed, it was game over. She deleted her entire social footprint online, including her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and was fired from her job, effective 12 hours earlier.
“This default to hate, this automatic mockery and derision, needs to be viewed with the same hatred as Sacco’s tweet,” wrote Tauriq Moosa, a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. “Indeed, more so, since more people do it, no one is arbiter of said hate, and it’s constant, wide-ranging and terrifying if you’re the target.”