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Justine Sacco's Offensive Tweet and the Cost of Twitter Outrage

Social media's outrage may be a double-edged sword.
 
 
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PR executive Justine Sacco wrote an offensive tweet before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” she said. Between the time Sacco tweeted and when she landed in South Africa twelve hours later, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide. A great many of the tweets including the hashtag were downright hilarious. Even Donald Trump, a paragon of ignorance, chastised Sacco on Twitter, saying, “Justine, what the hell are you doing, are you crazy? Not nice or fair! I will support @AidforAfrica. Justine is FIRED!”

Internet sleuths figured out which flight Sacco was on and when she would land. Her work and cell phone numbers were uncovered. Her entire online footprint was revealed. She had made inappropriate tweets before. She had Instagram and Facebook accounts. These have all been deleted but nothing on the Internet really disappears. The digital echoes of her mistakes will endure. Sacco’s former employer, InterActiveCorp, immediately distanced themselves, condemned her words, and she was fired. During her flight, Sacco gained thousands of Twitter followers, an audience raptly waiting, somewhat gleefully, to see what would happen next. Justine Sacco unwittingly scripted a gripping, real-life soap opera and she wasn’t even there to watch it unfold.

Here was instant comeuppance for someone who said something terrible. Here was comeuppance for a white person generalizing shallowly about Africa, the continent, as if it were one large country with only one story to tell. Here was a woman reveling in her whiteness and assuming that her whiteness was some kind of shield against a disease that does not discriminate. I was amused by the spectacle. I followed along even though something in my stomach twisted as the hours passed. It was a bit surreal, knowing this drama was playing out while Sacco was at 38,000 feet.

At the same time, I was horrified. It all felt a bit frenzied and out of control, as interest in the story mounted and the death threats and gendered insults began. The online outrage and Sacco’s comeuppance seemed disproportionate. The amount of joy some people expressed as they engaged with the #HasJustineLandedYet hashtag gave me pause.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot that this drama concerned an actual human being. Justine Sacco did not express empathy for her fellow human beings with her insensitive tweet. It is something, though, that the Internet responded in kind, with an equal lack of empathy. We expressed some of the very attitude we claimed to condemn.

To be clear, Sacco’s tweet was racist, ignorant, and unacceptable. Her cavalier disregard for the global impact of AIDS was offensive. In that regard, it was heartening to see that someone purchased the domain  www.justinesacco.com and redirected it to Aid for Africa so that some good might come out of such a crass and careless remark. Justine Sacco’s actions should not have gone without consequences. In her case, though, the consequences were severe and swift. She made a cheap joke and paid a steep price. She has since apologized, though it is hard to take the apology seriously because we have become so accustomed to this cycle of public misstep, castigation, apology. Nothing really changes.

We can excoriate Justine Sacco but we need to interrogate white privilege and the relative comfort Sacco felt in demonstrating such poor judgment. It seemingly did not cross her mind that it would be inappropriate to make that joke in such a public forum. We also need interrogate the corporate culture where an attitude like Sacco’s was clearly not a deterrent to her success. As Anil Dash noted on Twitter, “That @Justine Sacco is offensive is obvious. The bigger problem is that her mindset is no barrier to corporate success.”

 
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