On Friday, Justine Sacco, a senior P.R. person for corporate giant IAC, which owns dating sites you’ve likely used as well as media companies, tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” First spotted by Sam Biddle at Valleywag, it went viral, garnering countless retweets, angry responses, and a meager amount of defenses of Sacco’s edgy humor. Meanwhile, Sacco was shielded from the Internet on an international flight, completely unaware that she would be infamous by the time she landed and that her employer had informed the media that it was taking the “appropriate action.”
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I looked at Sacco’s old tweets and I would say she has a history of irreverent tweeting, whether making fun of German people’s body order, Brit’s bad teeth, the worst “motherf****** service” at a restaurant. A Buzzfeed reader has compiled some other questionable ones. While her account was a personal one, it’s a reminder that one public platforms like Twitter, our actions remain tied to our employers, especially if they’re mentioned in your bio. As head of PR, Sacco’s job was to decide how IAC communicates its message to the world, and likely to look at the public social media of her colleagues to make sure they’re not saying anything that could come back to haunt the company. Instead, it seems that her colleagues should have been taking a closer look at her own social media activity. Dear companies everywhere, now would be a good time to look at your P.R. team’s unofficial public presences to make sure no one is going to get Sacco-ed.
“To be Sacco-ed” will certainly enter the lexicon. This is one of those incidents where the Internet rose up as one to punish an offender for her terrible judgment, or just to see the inevitable pillorying. #HasJustineLandedYet began trending on Twitter as the schadenfreude spectators snowballed. I cringed watching it, thinking about what it was going to be like when she turned on her phone after landing. Mentioned countless times on Twitter. Emails. Facebook messages. A vacation-ruining message from her boss. Even airport WiFi provider GoGo jumped into the fray, though it later apologized for tweeting, “Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight!”
This is the world we live in now; we are present digitally even as our real-world selves go offline. Some teens have found a way around this, danah boyd has found, by making their Facebook pages inactive when they’re not using them. Other people have started to embrace data deletion so that their words, photos, and videos of an instant can’t stick around forever to haunt them.
Sacco, though, wanted the world to see this tweet. Apparently, she had not thought about how it would be perceived by a wider community who would not be hearing it in an comedy theater where edginess is expected but on a professional forum that Sacco is supposed to be a master of, by virtue of her job. By the time she landed, her online actions were not the only ones being followed closely. A Twitter user, Zac, in Cape Town, South Africa figured out that she was flying there and when she would land. He went to the airport and took photos of her, and talked to her family. He made clear he wasn’t a reporter, just a normal person interested in the story.
— Zac (@Zac_R) December 21, 2013
This is how fast a normal person can become an infamous world-wide celebrity: the span of one long flight. Sacco deleted her Twitter account when she landed. It “showed social media’s power to propel a story, in this case turning a previously little-known executive into a figure of notoriety while raising issues of free speech and tolerance,” wrote Ashley Southall in the New York Times.
Zac R, who was there to meet and photo Sacco at the airport, later experienced some angst about the severity of the swift, crowd-sourced justice.
“I don’t think Justine’s ‘a horrible person that needs to be punished’. I think she’s joked about something that should never be joked about. Let’s not get consumed by mob mentality and run her name through the mud. Rather focus on the subject she joked about. Not the tweet,” he tweeted. “Let’s not pretend like we all haven’t joked or said something in private that we regretted after. Let’s wait for her apology…. Instead of following the herd & being nasty. Let’s rather donate money to HIV/AIDS victims.”
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