The dangers of misusing social media

Social media is a great way to network, but be aware of the possible consequences.

Destanie Martin-Johnson

After tweeting some crude racial jokes while she traveled abroad in 2013, Justine Sacco, senior director of cooperate communications at IAC, lost her job and the respect of the public and her family.

Because she’s a public relations specialist, many people felt that Sacco should be fired, especially considering her final offensive tweet, which read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Sacco, with only about 170 followers, sent this last tweet before boarding her plane. She didn’t realize the damage she had done until she landed in South Africa.

When Sacco arrived in Cape Town, her tweets had gone viral. She got word that workers had threatened to protest at the hotel she had meant to stay in, and she was not promised safety, according to an extensive New York Times Magazine examination of Sacco’s tale published on Sunday.

Members of her extended family — who live in South Africa and are longtime activists for racial equality — told her that she had “tarnished the family name.”

Sacco has said that she did not mean to be literal and that people misinterpreted her sarcasm. While she never meant to sound ignorant or privileged, however, many people assumed the worst about her personality because of her tweets.

This reminds me of a similar situation that happened when I was in high school. A white girl tweeted something that was meant as a joke, but it was clearly discriminatory against black people. Moments later, the whole school became riotous. She received death threats and had to leave the school.

Some people wanted her expelled or, at least, suspended.

As citizens, we have the right to speak freely. However, especially in the professional world, consequences can occur when we publish something offensive for public view.

Social media is an easy medium for connecting to people, whether we use it for praising something or for shaming
something. In Sacco’s case, Twitter users used the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet to connect each other’s tweets, which made shaming her a fun social experience. People wanted to punish Sacco for her actions.

It’s important to never forget that Sacco is a human being, and so are the many others who fall victim to social-media shaming. I do not believe these people deserve death threats. However, from a professional standpoint, I do think that their lack of sensitivity to certain ethical issues is a problem. When people violate certain taboos, we must punish them heavily.

As a professional, your private life is never completely private. When you’re a businessperson, journalist, teacher, police officer or any type of worker, the public eye will look at you. If you fail to represent ethical values professionally, people can punish you professionally, and they can punish you socially.

What you say catches up to you. Online communication doesn’t allow for facial expressions or tones of voice, so it’s even more important to be aware of the unwritten messages you send whenever you write a post.