Image: Justine Sacco, Facebook.
Justine Sacco was, until Friday, the top PR person for InterActiveCorp, the New York media conglomerate run by Barry Diller. IAC owns the Daily Beast, Vimeo, About.com, Match.com and Ask.com, among many others. On her now-deactivated Twitter account, Sacco called herself a "troublemaker on the side" known for her "loud laugh." Perhaps it was inevitable that this self-image would clash with her high-rolling position.
Because Sacco has made a world of trouble for herself. As she boarded a plane Friday, a tweet emerged from Sacco's account, a joke of such monumental stupidity that it was hard for many people to believe her account wasn't hacked:
Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!
— Justine Sacco (@JustineSacco) December 20, 2013
Point of fact, nobody knew if Justine Sacco's account was hacked, or if she left her phone on when she boarded her plane in London. But that didn't stop IAC from issuing a preemptive press statement: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC,” the company said. “This is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”
If that were all there was to the story, it would have briefly lit up Twitter like a Christmas tree and burned itself out with Sacco's firing. But then there was the other part of the IAC statement: "Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight." You can't fire someone this senior for anything without talking to them first, and Sacco was on a very long, wi-fi-free plane journey — 11 hours, 20 minutes on British Airways.
That occasioned a tremendous schadenfreude, as users waited for 20th century transport to catch up with 21st century communications.
Here's a representative sample of the conversation, via the trending hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet:
#HasJustineLandedYet is NORAD Santa Tracker for adults.— jane davis (@janedavis) December 21, 2013
LAST Friday: "Surprise, heffas!" - Beyonce to the world THIS Friday: "Surprise, heffa!" - the world to Justine #HasJustineLandedYet— Bee (@BeeSince83) December 21, 2013
Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, twitter! I'd like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet— Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) December 21, 2013
It is kinda wild to see someone self-destruct without them even being aware of it. #hasJustineLandedYet— David Flor (@BrainClouds) December 21, 2013
Sacco is nearly impossible to defend. It seems she has left a trail of casual racism across social media on her various travels, making the hacking scenario unlikely, and explaining why her company rushed to denounce her — they knew it was most likely the genuine article. She certainly did herself no favors with this writer by sliming the British in a tweet during her pit stop in London earlier Friday.
Still, it was hard to ignore a disturbing feeling in the mob's response, and something creepy in the trial by social media that was going on in her absence. You could argue she did it to herself — all those pictures in the album "Too Much Swagger for White Girls (Miami '10)" are in the public part of her Facebook Timeline, after all.
Then you could also read the hateful comments recently placed all over her Instagram feed, including on pictures of her child. That's when you might realise this whole thing has gone too far.
There's a fine line between slamming Sacco for her blatant what-guys-I-was-just-kidding buffoonery, and taking an unconscionable delight in the misfortune of others while playing Big Brother on their lives. Quite apart from anything else, that sort of attention may play into the worst tendencies of someone who would write that. It grants her notoriety, maybe even a career in news channel punditry. She can pour out an apology to Barbara Walters.
In a statement released Saturday, IAC announced it had parted ways with Sacco: “The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.”
IAC continued, “There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.”
As for the rest of us, I hope we take the suggestion of several good souls on Twitter — if you are (rightfully) offended by what she said, channel your rage into donating to an AIDS charity.
— Diane Alston (@dianelyssa) December 21, 2013