Back in December of 2013, a woman named Justine Sacco boarded a plane in New York that was bound for South Africa. She was planning to visit family for the holidays.
She tweeted what was perceived as a politically incorrect message to her tiny Twitter following and by the time she landed, she was national news.
While she was in the air, her tweets were discovered and promoted by writers at Gawker and BuzzFeed and then the rest of the Twittersphere went into a fury.
Professor Jacobson addressed the issue:
Yesterday was the worst Twitter day of all time.
Or at least the worst that I remember.
Some lady no one had ever heard of and who had about 100 followers at the time sent the Tweet above.
The tweet went viral…. Whoever started it, plenty of websites picked up on it and ran with it to feed the mob and not miss out on clicks and eyeballs.
By the time I saw it, long after she became a hunted woman, my first impression was similar to that of John Nolte at Breitbart.com: Looks like the type of “white privilege” claptrap we read almost weekly at Salon.com or Slate.com. Some liberal white person coming to grips with her privilege and wanting the whole world to know about it….
Racist? You’d need to know a lot more. Maybe shoot her a tweet back and ask what she meant, or look her up and send her an email before proclaiming her to be a racist.
But no one could do that. She was on an airplane to visit her native South Africa. For 11 hours. And in those 11 hours she became a hated and hunted woman….
Greg Gutfeld summed it up best:
This #HasJustineLandedYet proves one thing: humans never change. We love a good bloodbath.
— GregGutfeld (@greggutfeld) December 21, 2013
Ms. Sacco was fired from her job as a result.
Here’s a video report ABC News provided at the time:
So whatever happened to Justine Sacco?
Jon Ronson of the New York Times provided an update yesterday. Here are a couple of key excerpts:
In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it. The journalist A. A. Gill once wrote a column about shooting a baboon on safari in Tanzania: “I’m told they can be tricky to shoot. They run up trees, hang on for grim life. They die hard, baboons. But not this one. A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out.” Gill did the deed because he “wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger.”…
Late one afternoon last year, I met Justine Sacco in New York, at a restaurant in Chelsea called Cookshop. Dressed in rather chic business attire, Sacco ordered a glass of white wine. Just three weeks had passed since her trip to Africa, and she was still a person of interest to the media. Websites had already ransacked her Twitter feed for more horrors. (For example, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night,” from 2012, was unearthed by BuzzFeed in the article “16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets.”) A New York Post photographer had been following her to the gym.
“Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS,” she told me. It was about the first thing she said to me when we sat down.
Sacco had been three hours or so into her flight when retweets of her joke began to overwhelm my Twitter feed. I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege — on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors. Sacco, like Stone, had been yanked violently out of the context of her small social circle. Right?
Gawker writer Sam Biddle claimed credit for starting it all, but has since noted regrets:
It’s possible that Sacco’s fate would have been different had an anonymous tip not led a writer named Sam Biddle to the offending tweet. Biddle was then the editor of Valleywag, Gawker Media’s tech-industry blog. He retweeted it to his 15,000 followers and eventually posted it on Valleywag, accompanied by the headline, “And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s P.R. Boss.”
In January 2014, I received an email from Biddle, explaining his reasoning. “The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious,” he wrote. “It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again.” Biddle said he was surprised to see how quickly her life was upended, however. “I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life.” Still, he ended his email by saying that he had a feeling she’d be “fine eventually, if not already.”
Luckily for Ms. Sacco, she eventually found a new job:
Recently, I wrote to Sacco to tell her I was putting her story in The Times, and I asked her to meet me one final time to update me on her life. Her response was speedy. “No way.” She explained that she had a new job in communications, though she wouldn’t say where. She said, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”
Be careful what you write on Twitter, folks. It’s a public forum, and you may be held accountable, like it or not.DONATE
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