The strange online saga of Justine Sacco

Justine Sacco was (note the tense!) a New York-based public relations executive for a media company called IAC, which operates a number of websites, including The Daily Beast.  Considering the nature of her job, she had a remarkably modest social media presence – less than 100 followers on Twitter, for example.  Before boarding a plane for South Africa to take an extended vacation, she issued a farewell Tweet to her little group of followers that included a bizarre joke: “Going to Africa.  Hope I don’t get AIDS.  Just kidding.  I’m white!”

Now, my immediate reaction upon seeing this Tweet (we’ll get to why I saw it in a moment) was to assume it was a poorly phrased jest against white privilege.  It sounds like guilt humor to me.  To the extent I found it controversial at all, I thought it was another irritating jab at white people who don’t care enough about the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

But it didn’t strike Andrew Kascynski of Buzzfeed that way.  Somehow he got wind of Sacco’s Tweet and cried, “This may be the worst Tweet of all time, actually the worst Tweet.”  He has a lot more than one hundred Twitter followers.

A firestorm ensued, raging across social media until IAC declared her comment “outrageous” and sacked her, as related by CNN:

In a written statement. Sacco apologized “for being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

She added that she is a native of South Africa and was upset that she had hurt so many people there.

“I am very sorry for the pain I caused,” she wrote.

Media company IAC “parted ways” Saturday with Sacco after the tweet, which read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

“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,” an IAC spokesman said in a statement.

“There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally,” he said. “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.”

What’s truly weird and unsettling is that this all happened while she was in transit to South Africa.  There was even a Twitter hashtag set up for gleeful online piranha to anticipate her landing, hopping off the plane, and learning that her life had been destroyed.  That’s pretty much what happened.  By the time she landed and plugged herself back into the social media universe, her Twitter account had been strip-mined for other strange comments and off-color jokes, swelling her account’s list of followers into the thousands.  She deleted her account shortly after learning she had been digitally tried in absentia, found guilty of insensitivity, and burned at the virtual stake.

Whom the gods would destroy, they first give Twitter accounts.  This is hardly the first time someone has blown her foot clean off with the howitzer of social media, although usually it’s someone higher-profile than Sacco was, or someone who unwisely makes an online post that directly insults her employers or supervisors.  The sub-genre of “private Twitter messages accidentally beamed out to the entire world” has brought us a number of memorable incidents.

It should further be noted that Sacco was a public-relations executive, making it very strange that she’d fill her Twitter stream with weird comments that might reflect poorly on her image, or that of her employers, understanding that in her position the two are entwined.  As with another big news story relating to free expression with professional consequences, Sacco spoke for herself, and made no claim of officially representing IAC in the forum she used.

It’s disturbing to think that we can make no distinction between our off-the-clock private expression and official communications.  Is that barrier even thinner when the person in question serves as the public face for their employer?  Do website administrators working for IAC have to worry about link-hungry websites trawling through their Twitter feeds for insensitive messages?  Does everyone have to watch what they say online, for fear of sudden broad exposure and swift official reprisals?  Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” was famous when he gave the magazine interview that led to his suspension; Justine Sacco wasn’t famous until perhaps the third time the beverage cart rolled through the aisle of her flight to South Africa.

The medium in this case is also significant.  Twitter allows messages of only 140 characters in length, so individual Tweets are almost completely devoid of the “context” so often cited in defense of controversial remarks.  No one involved in the process of tearing Sacco to shreds knew the first thing about her, but a high-rolling blogger with over 100,000 Twitter followers declared her the author of the worst Tweet ever written – in a world where al-Qaeda terrorists have Twitter accounts! – and she was eviscerated without any chance to defend herself, or explain what her joke really meant.

Here’s a bit of character witness from someone who does know her, Jeff Bercovici of Forbes:

Justine is an easy person to like – frank, funny, quick to laugh.  To a reporter, she’s the kind of flack who’s all too rare, the kind who doesn’t stop being a person when she bades in for the day at work.  Although a tough and forceful advocate for her employers, I could trust her not to waste my time or feed me a line, even when we found ourselves at cross purposes.  While we’ve never hung out socially, I’ve always enjoyed the occasional lunch or drink we’d have to catch up.

It was over such a drink a few weeks ago that the subject of Twitter came up.  Although she’d been using the service for several years, Justine was still figuring out its nuances.  One thing she’d noticed was that people seemed to like the Tweets that were just a little bit risque or outrageous.  She mentioned a recent post about Jimmy Fallon seeming like a “grateful lover,” which had gotten a strong response.

Well, not strong enough to get her bounced out of her office.  A company that would reprimand or discipline its P.R. executives based on their public speculation about the character of Jimmy Fallon’s lovemaking would be seen as hopelessly old-fashioned, wouldn’t it?

It seems a bit odd that a public-relations executive in the waning days of 2013 would still be “figuring out the nuances” of Twitter, but it would be fair to say her education is now complete.  I don’t mean to issue a self-fulfilling prophecy, but she’s probably going to have trouble finding work in her chosen profession, for the foreseeable future.  That punishment seems far out of proportion to the offense she gave, especially considering the near-certainty that she didn’t mean to give the offense that was taken.  This sort of thing only happened to famous people quoted by a far smaller media, just a few years ago… but in the Information Age, obscurity is no longer comfortable.