Justine Sacco was a public relations executive about to embark on a trip to South Africa back in the day of 2013. Before boarding her plane, Miss Sacco put up a lame joke to her 170 Twitter followers: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The joke was a clumsy attempt to lampoon the racial inequities of post-apartheid South Africa. She apparently confused AIDS, which has afflicted millions of whites, with Ebola epidemics, which have afflicted mostly blacks Africans.
What followed, as recounted by Jon Ronson in his 2015 book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” was the stuff of nightmares. Someone discovered Miss Sacco’s tweet and quickly made hay. While she slept on the 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town, Mr. Ronson wrote, “[Miss] Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show.”
“By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke.” Worse, many tweeted demands that she be fired. “The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment,” Mr. Ronson wrote.
It had become bloodsport, tens of thousands of bored Internet denizens targeting a blithely unaware woman for their puerile pleasure. Miss Sacco lost her job and her sense of personal safety. She went into hiding for a time in Ethiopia. What happened to her has become a familiar bloodsport. The boys of Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky have not had to flee to steamy Addis Ababa. Not yet. But the parallels suggest that not much has changed for the better over the past six years.
Just about everybody has heard the story. A group of male high school students traveled to Washington to participate in the annual March for Life. Some wore the familiar red baseball cap that signifies support for President Trump. At the end of the march, the group collected at the Lincoln Memorial to wait for their bus home to Kentucky. Members of the radical Black Hebrew Israelite cult gathered around and began hurling vicious and racist abuses at them.
The Covington boys remained remarkably restrained. Indeed, rather than meet racist abuse with racist abuse, they began their school chant. A Native American man named Nathan Phillips walked into the crowd of Covington boys, banging a drum. He got in the face of one young man who stood impassively, saying nothing with the trace of a smile. Shortly thereafter, the inevitable video emerged. It was brief and did not show the Covington boys’ encounter with the Black Hebrew Israelites, nor of Mr. Phillips walking into the crowd, banging his drum. Instead, it gave the impression that the Kentucky boys had surrounded Mr. Phillips to jeer at him.
Dispensing with the normal responsibilities of actual reporters — checking facts, verifying evidence, interviewing witnesses — members of the mainstream media, some of whom knew better but all desperate to feed the maw of social media, ran with it. “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March,” The New York Times reported under that provocative headline. Then a longer video emerged with a different, correct version of events. The Covington boys were the aggrieved parties, trying to mind their own business. But the damage was done. The Covington boys were “doxxed,” or identified by name. The school received so many terror threats that it had to be closed temporarily. Twitter celebrities mused (from a safe distance) how they would like to punch out the young men.
Man has a weakness for mobs. From the mobs of Rome to the Terror of the French Revolution, to the pogroms of Eastern Europe and to the lynch mobs of an earlier day in America, mobs have been a tragic feature of life. Indeed, one of the purposes of constitutional government is to tame the passions of the mob.
The Twitter mobs that targeted Miss Sacco in 2013, the Covington students in 2019 and other victims between, are not a new phenomenon. They’re an expression of an ancient human perversion manifest in a new, technologically advanced form, a vivid illustration of one of man’s ugliest impulses, and a reminder that we haven’t advanced as far as we thought.