Presenting the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscars, Sean Penn did all the right things to provoke a public shaming, and only by the grace of his hyper-celebrity did he escape unshamed. He split the envelope’s seal and stood squinting at the winner’s name. Then he paused dramatically and mumbled to no one in particular: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?” The winning film was Birdman, which meant the son of a bitch in question was Alejandro González Iñárritu, its Mexican producer, director, and co-writer. Within minutes, “Sean Penn” was trending on Twitter as viewers accused Penn of making a racist joke. But even with popular websites lowering their lips to it and blowing hard, the spark of umbrage never found its tinder. Counter-tweets noting Penn’s long friendship with Iñárritu began circulating, and, by the next morning, Iñarritu himself declared Penn’s joke “hilarious.” Penn’s Twitter-shamers sheathed their pitchforks and went home.
Justine Sacco, a PR executive from Long Island, wasn’t so lucky. As Jon Ronson narrates in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Sacco’s shaming ordeal began when she tweeted one last wisecrack before flying off on a South African vacation: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” That this tweet was meant to be doleful instead of callous—a grim take on the unfair distribution of suffering in the world, not a direct statement of Justine Sacco’s gratitude that it’s black people in Africa getting AIDS, and not her—didn’t matter to Gawker’s Sam Biddle. Biddle re-tweeted it to his 15,000 followers, after which it was re-tweeted thousands more times. By the time Sacco’s plane landed in Johannesburg, her life and career were destroyed.