PR executive’s AIDS in Africa tweet upsets the Internet

Posted on: 1:50 pm, December 21, 2013, by , updated on: 01:52pm, December 21, 2013

(CNN) – Before Justine Sacco took off for Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday, she tweeted:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she landed 12 hours later, the message had been magnified by a social media mob and Sacco’s employer, IAC/InterActiveCorp, had distanced itself from her. On Saturday her Twitter account disappeared and neither Sacco nor IAC had anything more to say – perhaps disappointing the many angry Twitter users who were expecting her to be fired on the spot over the offensive tweet.

The incident – Boing Boing called it “the tweet heard round the world” – was a glaring reminder that every word uttered on the Internet can be heard by seemingly everyone on the Internet, sometimes with serious consequences.

Sacco is the head of corporate communications for IAC, the media company chaired by Barry Diller that operates websites like The Daily Beast, About.com, CollegeHumor and Match.com. Her whole job revolves around communicating with reporters – which made her Twitter comment about Africa all the more shocking on Friday.

Sacco was in London and about to begin a long vacation in South Africa when she wrote the message. Her Twitter account was relatively obscure when she posted it – fewer than 500 people were following it. But the message went viral on Friday, unbeknownst to Sacco, who apparently did not have Internet access on her flight. Websites like Valleywag and Buzzfeed highlighted Sacco’s account, and soon it had thousands of followers – and thousands of harsh replies directed at it. Some were downright hateful. Others said they felt sorry for Sacco, regardless of how offensive her Twitter message was, because she hadn’t had a chance to defend herself during the 12-hour flight.

As Twitter observers parsed through her public posts, many were disturbed by her previous messages. (“I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night,” she once wrote.)

Her account was a laundry list of banal complaints about poor customer service and other apparent indignities.

“It seems she has left a trail of casual racism across social media on her various travels,” Chris Taylor, a writer for Mashable, opined.

Still, Taylor wrote, “it was hard to ignore a disturbing feeling in the mob’s response” to the Twitter messages “and something creepy in the trial by social media that was going on in her absence.”

On Friday afternoon, with hours to go before she landed, another corporate communications representative for IAC issued a statement that tried to address the online controversy.

“This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC,” the company said. “Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

The statement led many to believe that Sacco would be reprimanded or even terminated when she landed in South Africa.

Parody accounts started to appear on Twitter and Facebook that portrayed Sacco as a mean, bitter person. On Friday evening a Twitter hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet, became a running commentary about Sacco; some people observed that she’d have to put her crisis communications expertise to the test to save her own career.

Meanwhile, other Twitter users started scoping out Sacco’s past messages and flagged other questionable comments she’d made before, like this one: “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”

All of those messages disappeared, though, early on Saturday, when someone — presumably Sacco — deleted her Twitter account. IAC had no immediate comment about how or why her account was removed.

Some good does seem to have come out of the incident, at least. Advocates for AIDS relief set up websites to encourage donations; one of the sites read, “The AIDS epidemic is bigger than a tweet from a person in PR. If we want real change, we need to think beyond Justine. Let’s turn that anger into something tangible.”

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