Justine Sacco & South Sudan: How Just is “Internet Justice”?

Justine Sacco

Two deeply disturbing events crossed my digital radar in the past week. First, a (former) PR executive tweeted in epic ignorance, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Second, the people of South Sudan experienced sudden, horrifying explosion of violence and escalating civil war.

In both cases, the news piled up on my social media accounts and spilled into my inbox from friends who knew I would care. On the one hand there was outrage over the Justine Sacco story. What an idiot! That’s so offensive! How does this woman have a job? (Well, she didn’t for much longer). And on the other hand there was disbelief and grief over South Sudan. Why is this happening? Why can’t we just have peace? What is causing this violence?

In both cases, a powerful presence and demonstration of “internet justice” followed soon after, meaning that citizens of the digital world quickly banded together not only to make noise about these issues, but also to try and make a difference in the offline, real-time world.

When it came to Sacco’s case, digital vigilantes came out in full force to condemn and shame her ignorance. In some cases the response was sarcastic, like a user who tweeted, “Going to America. Hope I don’t get shot by George Zimmerman. Just kidding. I’m white!” Others, like Aid for Africa and other development organizations, cleverly hijacked this trending moment by rerouting www.justinesacco.com to solicit funding for HIV/AIDS programs. And still more users became nearly obsessive, digging through Sacco’s digital history for more examples of her ignorance, expressing delight as the consequences began to fall into place.

While this outpouring of support for social justice was deeply inspiring, the barrage of insulting, destructive commentary forced me to consider when ‘enough is enough’? While Sacco’s remarks were completely unacceptable and absolutely warrant her being fired, is there a point at which our collective, virtual mob’s aggression and outrage can actually become “too much”? A point at which we’re no longer enforcers of justice, but perpetrators ourselves? Writer Roxane Gay pondered this point eloquently in Salon:

Justine Sacco did not express empathy for her fellow human beings with her insensitive tweet. It is something, though, that the Internet responded in kind, with an equal lack of empathy. We expressed some of the very attitude we claimed to condemn….Social media is something of a double-edged sword. At its best, social media offers unprecedented opportunities for marginalized people to speak and bring much needed attention to the issues they face. At its worst, social media also offers everyone an unprecedented opportunity to share in collective outrage without reflection. In the heat of the moment, it encourages us to forego empathy.

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A similar scenario ensued in the coverage of the South Sudan conflict, though it has not been as widely covered as Sacco. For this reason I want to highlight it here on EA because of the even more dire consequences that “internet justice” could have. Since I’m not an expert myself, I asked my dear friend and talented writer Amou Ajang for her perspective on the matter, a student at Columbia University who hails from South Sudan. She had the following distinctions to make, about the dual properties of social media to be both helpful and harmful:

Updates from South Sudanese scholars, some members of press, or just sensible citizens alerted us to gravity of the situation and helped us to decide whether or not our families’ lives were in danger. For example, knowing on the spot that rebel troops had entered state of Bor prompted many of my friends to transport family living in rural areas to safer places. Accurate descriptions of circumstances as they unfolded impassioned several groups, with an emphasis on the youth, to take actions like contacting their media outlets in the first few days of the conflicts, and organizing rallies in the days to follow.

According to Amou, the international community could never have been galvanized so quickly (nor the people of South Sudan empowered so effectively) without this use of social media. Yet at the same time, she notes that digital commentators quickly began to play a blame-game as well, pointing fingers according to ethnic group to attribute responsibility for the violence. Although there are reports evidencing ethnicity is one undeniable driver of the violence, Amou reports on the consequences of sharing unverified information and fueling hateful fires in online spaces:

Updates that were unconfirmed and later proven to be false, divisive misinformation with respect to death toll by radically tribal groups, and choices words such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ have contributed to confusion about the source of the conflict, while needlessly inflaming ethnic resentment to higher degrees. All of this led to an increase of retaliation violence on the ground.
Amou’s assessment suggests that irresponsible social media use could ultimately escalate “small scrimmages” (with political motivations that remain unclear) into a potentially full-on war, one requiring the intervention of international authorities. “Equally important,” she concludes, “both accidentally misleading and intentionally contentious information is contributing to an over-all rebirth of severe mistrust amongst tribes (especially Dinka and Nuer, the two largest ones). These things will take much longer to heal and overcome than two minutes it took to send the statuses and tweets that contributed to them.
And so it seems that our social media presence and our non-digital voices possess the same dual power: the power to fight justice and the power to perpetuate injustice, even at the same time. Will we choose to behave as justly as we demand others behave? Or will we sink to their level in our attempts to condemn? It’s not up to technology to make this choice for us; the choice is ours to make as individual human beings.
As a final note, I was eager to take advantage of the Sacco situation for a good cause on Sunday night, and so I challenged my personal social media networks to get “outraged” online – but specifically to get as fired up about the need for girls’ education in Tanzania as they were about Sacco’s ignorant comments en route to South Africa.  I was stunned to see the response. In just 24 hours, over 30 funders answered the call and we reached our fundraising goal of $2,500 for Glory’s tuition. (You can still contribute for her small business for another 14 days!)

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I hope you take this as a reminder that we have opportunities every single day to galvanize our networks – online and offline – for amazing causes that improve the world around us. We can combine millions of small digital voices into a global roar, and it’s up to you and I whether we use that voice to live our values, and build up important work, or defy our values, and tear down our fellow (wo)man.

What does justice mean to you? How does it play out digitally, versus offline life? Is it possible to propagate injustice even as we fight for justice? How can we avoid falling into such a trap?

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