Are there real Americans in America, or is everyone a nigger?
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) January 31, 2011
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When describing the question, those words are apt. Racism is disgusting, and it is fundamentally evil. But is there more in this tweet that meets the eye?
The controversial tweet was published over six years ago, when Twitter was still in relative infancy. Threaded tweets weren’t a thing yet — that came in 2013. As a result, it’s really difficult to see the context in which tweets from that era were posted.
As it turns out, the question in that tweet wasn’t asked by Ioffe, but rather by a Russian teenager. The teen was quizzing what the US was really like, and asked tellingly naive questions like “is it true that you can never fall asleep in America because it’s always light out?” and “if there’s a big flood, [will] America split into two islands?”
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) June 5, 2017
But the internet is the internet, and people don’t wait to ask questions before they pounce.
Those on the left were disgusted, and told her as much. Ioffe was told to delete her account, and that she would be fired. Those on the Right gleefully pointed out that a writer for a liberal publication posted something overtly racist, using it to make a point about how the left was inherently hypocritical. Others speculated that her account was hacked.
Jon Ronson, in his 2015 book So, you’ve been publicly shamed talked about the story of Justine Sacco, a PR representative whose life was dismantled after a joke was fatally misunderstood, and then went viral.
In 2013, Sacco was traveling from New York to Cape Town, via London. In Heathrow’s Terminal 5, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white!”
Her tweet went viral while she was in the air, and the Internet went about dismantling her life while she was oblivious. By the time the 747 touched the tarmac in Cape Town, she had lost her job and her reputation.
Ronson interviewed Sacco in the weeks following the tweet. In their interview, Sacco said that what was initially interpreted as a racist tweet gleefully flaunted her white privilege was actually mocking it. But that didn’t matter to the Internet, much like the context within Ioffe’s tweet doesn’t matter now.
The ancient gods of Rome have nothing on the wrathful nature of the Internet. Social media has made us wrathful. We are quick to anger, and even quicker to pass judgment. We mete out punishments that are brutal and widely disproportionate, with no recourse or possibility of appea.
It’s said that the first casualty of war is the truth. On Twitter, it’s nuance.