A Single Tweet Can Ruin Your Life. Or It Can Ruin The Life Of Someone Else

shame-in-a-roomGoing to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

This is a tweet that Justine Sacco sent to her 174 Twitter followers while waiting for boarding in the London airport on 20 Dec 2013.

How does that tweet make you feel?

What would you do if you saw this in your Twitter feed?

Would you just skim through?

Would you laugh at this joke?

Or would you rage at Justine and tweet back at her saying what an awful kind of person you think she is (making sure all of your followers will see that)?

But let’s get back to the original story. No one replied to that tweet and so Justine got on her plane and turned off her phone.

She only tuned it back on when the plain landed in Cape Town.

Only to realise that her life was ruined.

Apparently someone from her 174 followers got so pissed off by this silly joke that (s)he send it to someone else and started a chain reaction.

What Justine saw when she turned on her phone were thousands of people on Twitter raging at her in the most peculiar ways.

And the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide:


  • And then her boss called to say she was fired.
  • And then every online publication covered the story.
  • And then her mom said some ugly things to her.

It took a single silly tweet to ruin Justine’s life. All because people on Twitter decided to publicly express their opinion about that tweet.

But the most important part of the story?

WE did it!

I mean people like you and me ruined the life of someone they didn’t even know exist.

And there’s actually a term to describe that.

Public Shaming

(though Wikipedia suggests another term – public humiliation)

I stumbled upon this story in an amazing book by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed


Here are a few quotes from that book that explain some psychology behind that public shaming on social media:

So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information. So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get in. They tend to get squeezed out. When someone says something or does something that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system, the other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilizing fragment and regain stability. And so the idea that there is another world of other people who have other ideas is marginalized in our lives.
Twitter is all about everybody proving things to each other. It’s what sparked the disaster. Justine wandering around Heathrow, killing time before her flight, hoping to be congratulated by her 170 Twitter followers for being funny. And it’s why everything spiralled while she slept. Thousands of people felt compelled to demonstrate to themselves and each other that they cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. It was the desire to be compassionate that led so many people to commit the profoundly un-compassionate act of tearing apart a woman as she slept on a plane, unable to explain her joke.
By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian that is, a creature acting by instinct . . . In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious.

(all of that actually goes back to the “people love tweeting things that will make them look good” concept that I’ve talked about before)

I’m not going to share any other stories and insights from this book, because I really want you to read it yourself from start to finish.

But the two most important things I’ve learned from it are:

  • Your chances of becoming a victim of public shaming are a lot higher than you think.
  • Think twice before you bash someone online. It may feel like you’re doing the right thing, but in reality you might ruin someone’s life (which I’m sure you will regret afterwards).

This book resonated with me a lot.

Probably because I’ve been a victim of public shaming quite a few times in year 2015 alone.

The scale of my shaming was almost non existent compared to Justine’s, but even on a smaller scale it felt terrible.

How I Got Bashed On Reddit

A few months after joining Ahrefs I decided to get my hands dirty talking to customers and random SEOs to get as much feedback about our toolset as I possibly could.

And so I started this thread on Reddit: “I’m Tim Soulo from Ahrefs and I’m looking for some feedback!”

At first it went really well and I was getting awesome insights from very smart people.

But then one particular topic started to prevail – Ahrefs is too expensive.

I carefully addressed quite a few of such comments, but as I was getting more of them I couldn’t resist joking about it:


The reason I allowed myself this joke is because I thought that Reddit was a laid back community and I could just relax and be myself there (and should you know I’m the kind of person who loves to joke about anything and everything).

I think I actually made a few other jokes in that thread, but there was nothing super disastrous about them.

And yet the guys from Reddit thought otherwise:


I got quite a few comments like this one. And it felt like there was a competition for the most ingenious insult.

But luckily some of the guys took my side:


All in all, the conflict didn’t escalate much. Partially because my jokes were really nothing sensational and partially because some people promptly took my side in that conflict (thanks, guys).

But even this tiny act of public shaming felt horrible.

The thought of “screwing up Ahrefs’ reputation” shortly after getting on board was making me cringe, especially after I saw how a similar thing had happened before with one of our competitors.

So that’s the story.

After joining Ahrefs I got exposed to a much larger audience than I’m used to and so it was very easy for me to get in this kind of trouble quite a few times.

I’ve shared the story of my “public shaming” with you for two reasons:

1. Be careful with what you say or do online. And the more eyes are looking at you – the more careful you have to be.

2. Don’t make snap judgements of people based on a single foolish tweet or a single lousy comment. And even if you do – don’t join the mass hysteria of publicly shaming that person. You can always send him(her) a private message if you really need to vent (but people rarely vent in private, because it doesn’t feel as rewarding as public shaming, right?).

And that’s it.

I really want you to read the original book and then share it with at least one person you know. You might almost literally save someone’s life this way.

Tim Soulo is the Chief Marketing Officer and Product Advisor at Ahrefs, a leading tool trusted by hundreds of thousands of SEOs and marketers worldwide. His SEO-related data research studies have been cited by media giants, including Inc, TechCrunch, and VentureBeat. He's also a regular speaker at some of the largest industry conferences around the globe, such as PubCon (US), BrightonSEO (UK), and the Digital Marketers Australia Conference (AU).