The name Justine Sacco may not ring any immediate bells in an internet culture where, it seems, everyone gets their 15 seconds of life-ruining fame, but you’ll no doubt remember the circumstances that surrounded her in December 2013. Sacco was the the top PR person for InterActiveCorp who — before boarding an 11-hour flight to South Africa — tweeted the following:
Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
While on her half-day flight, that tweet was picked up by Sam Biddle at Valleywag, and by the time she’d landed the next day, it had gone viral. In fact, it had launched a hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet, as the internet circled her landing like vultures. There was even someone at the airport waiting for her in South Africa to snap a photo and continue piling on the shame.
To say that her life was ruined, at least for awhile, would be an understatement. She had embarrassed her South African family, longtime supporters of racial equality, and she was fired from her job and forced into seclusion, where she had “cried out her body weight” in the first 24 hours. Her life was destroyed over a stupid tweet.
Over on the New York Times this week, Jon Ronson wrote a fantastic piece on the culture of shaming pegged to Sacco’s story. It’s worth reading in its entirety, if only because it will make you think twice about publicly shaming someone without knowing all the facts or context. Ronson interviewed Sacco several times over the course of the last year, and one of the things that we learn from the piece is that Sacco is not actually racist.
The tweet was meant ironically, as an indictment of her own white privilege, and meant to be shared only with her small group of followers/friends. Once you get an idea of who Sacco is from the piece, it’s much easier to interpret the tweet as she designed it, although she would concede that it was in poor taste to share the tweet in a public forum, as she told Ronson in an email:
“To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make. I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal … Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform. To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”
Her tweet had been taken out of her little bubble and robbed of its context, and while I think we can all agree that a PR person should have been more careful about how she articulated herself on a public forum, was it really worth ruining her life over?
Fortunately, while it took a very long time, Sacco did eventually pick herself back up, but not before some setbacks. After spending some time working in Ethiopia, she took a job as the PR person for Hot or Not, and after doing so, Biddle struck again at Valleywag:
“How perfect!” he wrote. “Two lousy has-beens, gunning for a comeback together.”
But the story has a happy — and just — ending. Not long after Biddle mocked Sacco again, he got a taste of his own medicine when an ironic tweet of his own was taken out of context, and he (and his editors) ended up getting hundreds of emails demanding that he be fired. Biddle, ultimately, would not only apologize to Sacco for ruining her life, but they actually ended up going out to dinner together and becoming good friends.
In fact, Biddle suggested in his apology that no one is more qualified as a PR person than Sacco.
She has the expertise of ten lifetimes when it comes to dealing with bad press. She survived a genuine personal crisis. She’s unkillable, and smart, and she will tell you to shut up, idiot, it can’t get any worse.
Sacco eventually found a good job in a PR firm that she loves, although she wouldn’t identify where she works to the Times because, as she told Ronson, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”
See? She did learn from her mistake.
The lesson here, of course, is to think before you tweet. Consider how the rest of the world will see your tweet instead of how your small group of friends will view it. The other lesson is that maybe we on the internet shouldn’t be so quick to shame others.