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