Cyber Bully

Anyone with a social media account has seen articles that use inflammatory language to condemn an individual for statements, tweets or actions. Such blog and social media posts have become so commonplace they’re considered a new form of entertainment and gossip.

Few see them for what they often are: bullying.

The Internet breeds online bullying, or cyberbullying, because it allows people to hide behind their keyboards and abuse people from a distance. Cyberbullying can be seen in articles like Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet Heard ‘Round the World.

Sacco, a PR director at InterActiveCorp, was chastised widely after she tweeted an offensive message last month before her flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa.

The message read:

The tweet was tasteless, rude and perceived by many as racist. As a PR professional, Sacco should have known better.

Sacco’s tweet produced a flood of backlash on social media. Many expressed their indignation with vicious, personal and humiliating comments. The most pernicious were reposted by publications like BuzzFeed.

Sacco issued an apology two days after the tweet, in which she stated, “For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

Did Sacco deserve the career-ruining scrutiny and public humiliation that her tweet caused? Censure was certainly justified. However, most of the criticism of Sacco was nasty, cruel, venomous — often profane — and well beyond the boundaries of civil criticism.

The criticism, in fact, revealed more about the shortcomings and egregious motives of the critics than it did about Sacco. How can social media posters justify viciousness that approaches public lynching? How does a major online publication like BuzzFeed rationalize republishing such character assassination?

The freedom to vent has limits. Here and in other instances, the chattering class of social media has gone well beyond criticism and mutated into abusive bullies.

Several articles have since defended Sacco against the treatment she suffered.

John Nolte wonders why major media publications chose to “gin up” on a “nobody” like Sacco in Why Did Buzzfeed & Co. Target Justine Sacco for Online Assassination. It’s one thing to spotlight the mistakes of celebrities, who are used to being in the public eye and (usually) know to use caution on social media.

But Nolte can’t explain why Buzzfeed and other publications chose Sacco. He writes:

“If BuzzFeed and Co. wanted to feel self-righteous about themselves, there are literally millions of tweets out there that are unquestionably indefensible and that are not written by some defenseless, unsuspecting woman [with under 200 followers on Twitter] about to step off a plane and into social media Hell

If you think this woman should have been fired, fine. But your outrage should be directed at an elite media lynch mob that set out to destroy a private citizen without the benefit of the doubt or hearing her side, not some immature woman whose only crime is trying to ape Sarah Silverman. That elite media lynch mob is a threat to all of us. Sarah Silverman-lite is a threat to no one.”

In Social Media, Bullying, and the Growing Lynch Mob Mentality, Danny Brown points out that demeaning articles and conversations lead to a “bear pit mentality” that occur more frequently every day. As social media matures and provides outlets for mature discussions and connections, the audience seems to be going the other way.

Brown hits the nail on the head: “While we may feel it’s funny to latch onto a trending topic or viral event, it’s all too easy to forget in the heat of the moment what the eventual outcome may be.”

The Blurring Line between Professional and Personal

Sacco’s tweet and others like it also raise the question: where does “corporate” stop and “personal” begin on social media accounts? The offending tweet appeared on her personal account, yet she lost her job as a result of it. Others have also lost jobs as a result of inappropriate tweets on personal accounts.

Jay Baer writes an insightful piece on the blurring line between professional and personal lives on social media. Social media is rooted culturally in showing your entire self — social life, included, Baer explains in How to Balance Your Personal and Professional Lives in Social Media.

But social media users with their personal and the company’s reputation at stake must learn the difference between personal and inappropriate. Wise-guy comments like Sacco’s often backfire. Before tweeting, ask yourself: How might my followers react to this? Do people really want to read it? How might it affect my job? How might it affect my relationships? Will it hurt someone?

Humor that’s hurtful often backfires. Venomous retorts don’t help anyone, least of all the writer; When angry or upset, it’s usually best to just stifle yourself. In social media, “personal” and “professional” are not separate and distinct; they merge. Those are lessons still to be learned by many on social media.

What do you think? Did the social media world overreact to Justine Sacco’s tweet?

This article originally appeared on the CyberAlert Blog. It can be viewed here.