“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes and prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own.” — The Twilight Zone, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
The classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” tells the story of a neighborhood gone mad with suspicion and fear. Believing that aliens are among them, residents point fingers and finally guns at each other, resulting in senseless death and destruction.
What happened last week to Justine Sacco, the now former IAC public relations person whose insensitive tweet about AIDS sparked an international outcry, did not result in the kind of mayhem that occurred on Maple Street. But it was as much a cautionary tale as that teleplay was more than 50 years ago.
“It was hard to ignore a disturbing feeling in the mob’s response (to the Twitter messages) and something creepy in the trial by social media that was going on in her absence,” wrote Chris Taylor from Mashable.
Taylor is right – it was hard to ignore because it was everywhere. The vacuum left by Sacco being offline during an international flight and a slow Friday news day before an upcoming holiday week was filled with hate, suspicion, derision, assumptions and characterizations. Sacco was fire and the Internet was tinder, burning through any semblance of civil discourse with sweeping efficiency.
Sacco eventually landed and apologized. She lost her job and likely her career. Not that these consequences weren’t warranted – her tweet was patently offensive, stupid, not funny, not even close.
Sacco has a right to an opinion. And the public has a right to voice its displeasure, its revulsion, even its anger.
But the public doesn’t have a right to spew hate. It doesn’t have a right to impugn. It doesn’t have a right to vilify or falsely accuse.
The social media age now has its own version of Bulimia Nervosa, ingesting massive amounts of information and then spewing it back without digesting. Speed is a weapon too often wielded by those who would rather be first or clever or self-righteous rather than be measured or mature. Moreover, the mere fact that anyone can publish anything instantly everywhere means that a lot of people, good and bad, right or wrong, can publish anything instantly everywhere.
We are capable of so much. We have done so many great things with our technology. We have given a voice to those who otherwise would never be heard. The benefits and promise of the Internet far outweigh any drawbacks.
But we are also, at times, scared and brittle creatures. We tear down perfect strangers so that other perfect strangers will pay attention to us. We become the things we despise.
And for a brief time over a quiet pre-holiday weekend in December 2013, we were the monsters on Maple Street.