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What Happens Online Doesn’t Just Stay Online, Justine Sacco Edition

Sacco Tweet

Steven Taylor noted earlier today that people in the media often end up paying a price for saying rude, offensive, or just plain dumb things all the time, making the point that there’s nothing unique about what happened to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson earlier this week. Yesterday, we saw the same thing happen to Justine Sacco, a woman who was relatively unknown until she took to Twitter just before boarding a plane from the United Kingdom to South Africa:

(CNN) – Before Justine Sacco took off for Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday, she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she landed 12 hours later, the message had been magnified by a social media mob and Sacco’s employer, IAC/InterActiveCorp, had distanced itself from her. On Saturday her Twitter account disappeared and neither Sacco nor IAC had anything more to say — perhaps disappointing the many angry Twitter users who were expecting her to be fired on the spot over the offensive tweet.

The incident — Boing Boing called it “the tweet heard round the world” — was a glaring reminder that every word uttered on the Internet can be heard by seemingly everyone on the Internet, sometimes with serious consequences.

Sacco is the head of corporate communications for IAC, the media company chaired by Barry Diller that operates websites like The Daily Beast, About.com, CollegeHumor and Match.com. Her whole job revolves around communicating with reporters — which made her Twitter comment about Africa all the more shocking on Friday.

Sacco was in London and about to begin a long vacation in South Africa when she wrote the message. Her Twitter account was relatively obscure when she posted it — fewer than 500 people were following it. But the message went viral on Friday, unbeknownst to Sacco, who apparently did not have Internet access on her flight. Websites like Valleywag and Buzzfeed highlighted Sacco’s account, and soon it had thousands of followers — and thousands of harsh replies directed at it. Some were downright hateful. Others said they felt sorry for Sacco, regardless of how offensive her Twitter message was, because she hadn’t had a chance to defend herself during the 12-hour flight.

As Twitter observers parsed through her public posts, many were disturbed by her previous messages. (“I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night,” she once wrote.)

Sacco was in the air, apparently without WiFi access, for the better part of the day yesterday, but it must have become fairly apparent upon landing just how much a mess she had made for herself. Within hours, she had deleted the “joke” tweet and eventually, the Twitter account itself. She quickly re-established a new account in  which was apparently effusively apologetic while at the same time saying she was just making a joke. It’s unclear what happened with her position at IAC but one gets the impression from the initial comments from the company that it didn’t end well. It’s also worth noting in that context that her account, which appears to have been a personal account that, as the report indicates, consisted mostly bad jokes and banal observations about bad service at restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, specifically identified her as head of public relations for the company. Given that, it wouldn’t be surprising that the company would not appreciate being associated with someone who makes tasteless joke about AIDS victims and race.

Sacco no doubt regrets her comments now, and even if we accept her explanation that the whole thing was a “joke” and even if we accept her explanation it really doesn’t excuse much of anything, including her own stupidity. Once again, this is another example of the whole idea that one has to be careful about what one posts online, especially when its completely tasteless.

Update: Not surprisingly, Sacco was indeed fired:

InterActiveCorp said Saturday that it has “parted ways” with PR director Justine Sacco, a day after a racist tweet from her account went viral.

The tweet, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” sparked outcry online and spurred a hashtag that trended on Twitter.

“The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question,” the company said in an e-mail Saturday.

IAC is a New York media conglomerate whose clients include Match.com, Vimeo, Ask.com, UrbanSpoon, OKCupid and the Daily Beast.

“There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core,” the statement said.

The tweet was sent from London on Sacco’s account before she boarded a 10-hour-and-46-minute flight to Africa. The ordeal unfolded while she was in the air — on a Boeing 747 without Wi-Fi.

During that time, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet gained traction on Twitter, taking the top trending spot for hours.

Perhaps Sacco has learned a lesson here.

 

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. stonetools says:

    To be honest, I do think there was too much piling on for what was the kind of tasteless joke that we all make. Her mistake was in tweeting it.
    As always, don’t put anything online was you wouldn’t mind being put on a billboard at Times Square.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 10

  2. ernieyeball says:

    Q: How many Dumb Blondes does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
    A: Just two…but nobody knows how they get in there!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. CSK says:

    Doug, anyone stupid enough to Tweet that comment is probably too dense to learn a lesson. The only thing about this story that truly astonishes me is that she held the position she did for as long as she did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I almost never want people to be fired. I understand that corporations have that right, but I wish they exercised it less. I don’t want the Duck guy fired. I want him argued with. I felt the same way about Imus and most of the others mentioned in Mr. Taylor’s companion post.

    I also like to give people a chance to correct themselves. We all say things we shouldn’t. Are those things part of a pattern that reveals some dark thing about us? If so, fine, you gotta go. But a joke? Even one that was tasteless? That’s overreaction. Give the woman a chance to walk it back, to explain.

    None of this is censorship, but it is harmful to the spirit of give-and-take. It’s harmful to writing and communicating. Especially when, as was the case with Bill Maher, it contained elements of truth. If every statement has to be vetted in advance by a team of sensitivity experts we’re left with no dialog. That’s dangerous, far more dangerous than someone making a dumb joke.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 5

  5. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @CSK:

    Agreed. That someone was either stupid enough or just plain tasteless enough to post something like she did doesn’t surprise me.

    That said person was ostensibly a PR professional whose job consisted almost entirely of dealing with image presentation, especially with regard to the internet, is what really blows me away.

    She’s either incredibly stupid or she was incredibly bad at her job. Both of those usually result in hauling one’s boxes to the parking lot.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  6. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Wait… Is Fox News and the and the Usual Tea Party / Ultra Right standing up for her?

    After all, they could say that it’s just biblical, “Curse of Ham” and all that crap, right?

    So, they are outraged, right?

    Right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7

  7. Jewelbomb says:

    @stonetools: “the kind of tasteless joke that we all make”

    Speak for yourself. Not everyone thinks that unadulterated racism is funny.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 4

  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    The curse of ham. Damn, that reminds me: I have to start thinking about Christmas dinner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. KM says:

    @michael reynolds”

    I almost never want people to be fired.

    I also like to give people a chance to correct themselves.

    First, let me say I do agree firing should be a last resort, that someone’s livelihood being lost affects not only themselves but their family who are innocent in the matter. Its the nuclear option and should be used lightly.

    However, people like this don’t generally take to correction – it requires a level of self-awareness they intrinsically lack. She’s a PR exec for god’s sake – messaging is literally her job! If this sort of thing needs to be spelled out for her, she is better off seeking a different line of work. While tastes in humor vary, someone with her job should have a fairly good grasp on what you should not say in public and the fact that social media is not private by any means.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  10. Tillman says:

    @Jewelbomb: You’re probably tasteless about something else you don’t even realize yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    @michael reynolds: Try this:

    http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/portuguese_salt_cod_stew_bacalhoada/
    http://italianfood.about.com/od/fishdishes/a/aa110897.htm

    In Italy, that´s a dish that´s usually served during Christmas, in Brazil that´s a Good Friday staple(Since you are not supposed to eat beef during the Good Friday, people, obviously, eat large quantities of fish ).

    But it´s not difficult to prepare(considering that you manage to find the salted cod and that you manage to clean out the salt), and that´s an excellent dish for family reunions.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. Tillman says:

    Her tweet would’ve worked a lot better without the last two sentences. She could’ve still been accused of racism, but at least there would’ve been some subtlety to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  13. ernieyeball says:

    @michael reynolds: When I was in college we used to severely beat roomates with a pun bat for saying things like that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  14. dunce says:

    Tweeting is not something most people should ever do. Most people should act as though they had been Mirandized because anything they say on the internet can be used against them in a court of law or the court of public opinion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  15. PJ says:

    I guess the best defense here would have been for her to have claim that she suffers from pteromerhanophobia and that she was full of alcohol, anti-anxiety meds, or both when she wrote that tweet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Franklin says:

    @Jewelbomb: I’ve been known to make tasteless jokes in the past. Some might even sound like racism if you didn’t realize I was actually making fun of racists in the process. Now I don’t presume to know that’s what she did here. Certainly I don’t “get” the joke if she was. I just think our knee jerk opinions could change if we had more context, including being familiar with her style of comedy (such as it is).

    All that said, any qualified PR person would not have made that statement. The firing seems justified simply for her incompetence.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  17. Jeremy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I completely and totally agree with you. That’s why, even though I don’t like Phil’s actions, I don’t think he should have been suspended. And I’m not sure this woman should have been fired either. I think that’s cutting it pretty close to dangerous.

    However…she is a PR exec. As Franklin says above, she could easily be fired for incompetence, and that was pretty incompetent for a PR professional.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  18. John says:

    How do you know she wasn’t making a Sarah-Silverman-style comment on how racism leads to indifference? What if Sarah Silverman tweeted, “I’m
    driving a beat-up car with a broken tail light. Hope I don’t get pulled
    over for no reason by the cops and handcuffed. Just kidding. I’m
    white!” Would that be racist?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  19. Anonne says:

    Rightly or wrongly, her continued presence would be a stain on the company. She had to go. That’s it, really.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  20. MarkedMan says:

    I’m in the “People get fired way too easily for these things, but someone who works in Corporate Communications has essentially proved themselves incompetent.” On the other hand, perhaps her position didn’t involve interaction with the public…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  21. jack says:

    @stonetools: Haha, theres someone that just wants to get fired.

    http://goo.gl/rKS5mS

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. ernieyeball says:

    @dunce: Did your mamma pick that handle for you?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with all above who have pointed out that this woman was a PR professional and should have known better. She is a special case.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @John: The article I read on this issue noted that some guy a Breitbart made exactly the same reference–noting that she shouldn’t be fired for being a bad version of Sarah Silverman. Hmmmm…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. Matt Bernius says:

    @John:

    What if Sarah Silverman tweeted, “I’m
    driving a beat-up car with a broken tail light. Hope I don’t get pulled
    over for no reason by the cops and handcuffed. Just kidding. I’m
    white!” Would that be racist?

    Context matters.

    Sarah Silverman has built a career around provactive, social norm challenging humor. The woman in question built a career around helping people carefully create and manage their public image. Whatever her intention, this particular tweet clearly demonstrated a total PR failure.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  26. Dave says:

    @John: That was my first thought too, the tweet was attempted sarcasm at white insulation/privilege from AIDS in South Africa. But here’s the thing, she’s not a comedian. In fact, you could argue she’s one of the chief supporters of the current system by helping to build brands through PR. I get the feeling she’s really kind of clueless that the tweet, coming from her, is both insensitive to the people suffering from AIDS and a malpractice in terms of her being a PR executive which is a disservice to her (former) employer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  27. Wr says:

    And the real target of that proposed SS joke would be the white police who target blacks. Was this woman trying to shame the virus for racism?

    Actually, now that I mention it, what was the joke supposed to be about? I still don’t get it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. Tillman says:

    @Wr:

    Actually, now that I mention it, what was the joke supposed to be about?

    The impossibility of a white woman contracting AIDS in Africa.

    It…doesn’t really qualify as a joke. I’m trying to picture the kind of person who’d laugh at it and I’m drawing a blank outside sociopaths.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  29. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    First up, this woman was a well-credentialed liberal who was, apparently, trying to mock white privilege and ignorance, so I don’t have much sympathy for her after she was turned on by her ideological comrades. I dearly love blue-on-blue fights.

    However, this is another example of the Cult of Perpetual Outrage. She had less than 100 Twitter followers, and she wasn’t much of a public figure, so someone had to go looking for her Tweet. (My hunch is that someone searches for mentions of certain key words on Twitter, like AIDS, looking for remarks like this.) And she was exposed by a Twitter account with over 100K followers.

    In the old days, when a nobody said something stupid, most people just either ignored it or told them off. Nowadays, though, with the instant reactions of the internet, it’s easy as hell to round up a digital lynch mob.

    This guy at Buzzfeed knew exactly what the consequences of his actions were. By retweeting her lame-ass joke, he knew he would be unleashing a Twitter lynch mob that would, at the least, make her very uncomfortable for a little while. At the worst, it would cost her her career. Not just her job, but her entire career. And he did it anyway, probably telling himself “I’m not telling anyone to get her fired, I’m just repeating her own words. Let others make their own decisions.”

    A stupid joke, making fun of white privilege and ignorance, and now she’s the current subject of the Two Minutes Hate.

    Good luck finding a new career, lady. And I hope you remember who destroyed your life — your fellow liberals.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 6

  30. Rob in CT says:

    I love it. If a “liberal” (I don’t know if this woman is or isn’t a liberal) says something bigotted and is not smacked down vigoriously enough, the claim is “double standard!” (see also: Baldwin, Alec). If there is a smackdown, it’s “intolerant liberals and their two minute hate!”

    It’s quite predictable, really.

    Anyway, this yet another illustration that Twitter is basically a vehicle for showing off what a Twat you are in your moment(s) of maximum stupidity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  31. Rob in CT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    This is well said.

    The argument here would be “ok, what exactly did you think was funny about that tweet?” Because I’m really not getting it, and my sense of humor usually functions pretty well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  32. Wr says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Is there one single right wing fauxtrage that you have not whined endlessly about here? Why no. No, there’s not. So maybe you could give us a break from the sanctimonious wailing about the outrage machine. It’s pretty pathetic coming from such an obvious cog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0