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This Is How A Woman’s Offensive Tweet Became The World’s Top Story

The anatomy of the Twitterstorm that cost media PR pro Justine Sacco her job.

1. At 10:19 a.m. ET on Friday, Justine Sacco, a PR director at InterActiveCorp (IAC), posted this tweet shortly before an 11-hour flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa.

2. She had only about 200 followers, but someone emailed it to Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, who told BuzzFeed. He published a brief item about three hours after it was sent.

3. He tweeted it at 1:30, to immediate notice of other reporters on a slow Friday afternoon. (The Duck Dynasty story had quieted down.)


Sam Biddle

@samfbiddle

Very funny/cool AIDS/Africa joke from IAC’s head of corporate communications, great work http://t.co/k7xfwITlIn

/ Via

Steve Kovach

@stevekovach

Whooo boy http://t.co/pqKXavswpl

/ Via

Evelyn Rusli

@EvelynRusli

The tweet has been up for 3 hr (?) rt @stevekovach Whooo boy http://t.co/Jijfd7cVE9

/ Via

6. Other members of the media (including BuzzFeed staffers) took notice, and began interacting with Sacco’s Twitter account directly.

Is that tweet real? You work in PR. You shld know better RT @JustineSacco "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

— Digidave (@David Cohn)

David Cohn

@Digidave

Is that tweet real? You work in PR. You shld know better RT @JustineSacco “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

/ Via

Shot: https://t.co/0rV5V8EyAR Chaser: https://t.co/x2tbQf5Kd7

— BuzzFeedAndrew (@Andrew Kaczynski)

Andrew Kaczynski

@BuzzFeedAndrew

Shot: https://t.co/0rV5V8EyAR Chaser: https://t.co/x2tbQf5Kd7

/ Via

9. As the story began to circulate, many Twitter users were at first flummoxed.

This lady is not very good at twitter dot com (ht @EvelynRusli) http://t.co/bocX18iaC8

— adholden (@Anne Holden)

Anne Holden

@adholden

This lady is not very good at twitter dot com (ht @EvelynRusli) http://t.co/bocX18iaC8

/ Via

Yes, but you're also clearly stupid. “@JustineSacco: Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!”

— TwitOvershare (@Whydya Tweetthat)

Whydya Tweetthat

@TwitOvershare

Yes, but you’re also clearly stupid. “@JustineSacco: Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

/ Via

12. And it didn’t take long before confusion turned to anger.

Justine Sacco should get fired....and get AIDS

— AlexDa_Great (@Baekwon)

Baekwon

@AlexDa_Great

Justine Sacco should get fired….and get AIDS

/ Via

Really has no words for that horribly disgusting, racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco. I am beyond horrified.

— aRedMosquito (@me.)

me.

@aRedMosquito

Really has no words for that horribly disgusting, racist as fuck tweet from Justine Sacco. I am beyond horrified.

/ Via

Someone plz kick Justine Sacco out of Africa. She is such a bitch mxm...a selo

— TheoBree11 (@IamTheo)

IamTheo

@TheoBree11

Someone plz kick Justine Sacco out of Africa. She is such a bitch mxm…a selo

/ Via

Justine Sacco. You racist ass bitch.

— OhGoshJuly (@July)

July

@OhGoshJuly

Justine Sacco. You racist ass bitch.

/ Via

Oh. Hell. No. Did this Justine Sacco person just say that? Did she really fix her keyboard to type that mess? Whyyyyyyyy? You racist bitch!

— Lilikins8 (@Ms. 3rd Ward-Lidah)

Ms. 3rd Ward-Lidah

@Lilikins8

Oh. Hell. No. Did this Justine Sacco person just say that? Did she really fix her keyboard to type that mess? Whyyyyyyyy? You racist bitch!

/ Via

I'm actually kind of hoping Justine Sacco gets aids? lol

— gimyweasley (@Miranda)

Miranda

@gimyweasley

I’m actually kind of hoping Justine Sacco gets aids? lol

/ Via

18. Some people thought her account was hacked, a theory that lost ground after other insensitive tweets were found, and IAC made a public comment.

Account hack or another stupid tweet from a PR exec? Blowback After IAC Exec’s @JustineSacco's AIDS-Africa Tweet http://t.co/OH9yfxRF4h

— augieray (@Augie Ray)

Augie Ray

@augieray

Account hack or another stupid tweet from a PR exec? Blowback After IAC Exec’s @JustineSacco’s AIDS-Africa Tweet http://t.co/OH9yfxRF4h

/ Via

IAC just contacted me with this comment, which suggests @justinesacco wasn’t hacked http://t.co/ZOjzHXSo2d

— samfbiddle (@Sam Biddle)

Sam Biddle

@samfbiddle

IAC just contacted me with this comment, which suggests @justinesacco wasn’t hacked http://t.co/ZOjzHXSo2d

/ Via

20. More sites picked up the Twitterstorm, including Business Insider and BuzzFeed.

I remember when you could be utterly stupid without the whole world finding out http://t.co/ziCIJFndBg

— LorcanRK (@Lorcan Roche Kelly)

Lorcan Roche Kelly

@LorcanRK

I remember when you could be utterly stupid without the whole world finding out http://t.co/ziCIJFndBg

/ Via

21. Justine Sacco began trending in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Stupid racist. Nxah! "@TrendsJoBurg: Justine Sacco, @justinesacco is now trending in #Johannesburg"

— mathidube (@OurJourneyContinues)

OurJourneyContinues

@mathidube

Stupid racist. Nxah! “@TrendsJoBurg: Justine Sacco, @justinesacco is now trending in #Johannesburg”

/ Via

22. Just before 5:30, a woman in Miami started the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.

@ArykanotErika @shortstack81 #HasJustineLandedYet

— GoodGirlRoxy (@CK)

CK

@GoodGirlRoxy

@ArykanotErika @shortstack81 #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

23. Soon it was trending worldwide.

Some stats on who's talking about #JustineSacco and #HasJustineLandedYet. Hint, the whole world.

— todaysabacus (@Jim Forrest)

Jim Forrest

@todaysabacus

Some stats on who’s talking about #JustineSacco and #HasJustineLandedYet. Hint, the whole world.

/ Via

24. The whole world waited for one person’s plane to land so she could get back online and respond to her critics.

#HasJustineLandedYet shows up at this time as Trend in Worldwide

— trendinalia (@Trendinalia)

Trendinalia

@trendinalia

#HasJustineLandedYet shows up at this time as Trend in Worldwide

/ Via

25. The firestorm was fueled in part by the fact that Sacco, who was on a flight without Wi-Fi, couldn’t get online to apologize or delete her tweet. Comedian Steve Martin shared an offensive tweet the same evening — but quickly deleted and apologized.

I did apologize. But again, a second later I realized what an offensive thing I'd done. Deep bow. @JustCindeh

— SteveMartinToGo (@Steve Martin)

Steve Martin

@SteveMartinToGo

I did apologize. But again, a second later I realized what an offensive thing I’d done. Deep bow. @JustCindeh

/ Via

27. But Sacco was still in the air and offline — and unable to delete the tiny piece of media that had become Twitter’s obsession.

I don't think America has watched a landing this closely since Apollo 13 re-entered the earth's atmosphere in 1970. #HasJustineLandedYet

— kjhealy (@Kieran Healy)

Kieran Healy

@kjhealy

I don’t think America has watched a landing this closely since Apollo 13 re-entered the earth’s atmosphere in 1970. #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

New reality show — first one to contact @justinesacco and get a comment after she lands wins: http://t.co/Gq8BrfRD8p

— mathewi (@Mathew Ingram)

Mathew Ingram

@mathewi

New reality show — first one to contact @justinesacco and get a comment after she lands wins: http://t.co/Gq8BrfRD8p

/ Via

I'm really busy tracking the flight of a woman on Twitter who made a racist joke so no, I can't come to your party. #HasJustineLandedYet

— dianelyssa (@Diane Alston)

Diane Alston

@dianelyssa

I’m really busy tracking the flight of a woman on Twitter who made a racist joke so no, I can’t come to your party. #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

Wldnt this has Justine landed yet thing be more credible if it weren't 2013 and all planes have Internet?

— joshtpm (@Josh Marshall)

Josh Marshall

@joshtpm

Wldnt this has Justine landed yet thing be more credible if it weren’t 2013 and all planes have Internet?

/ Via

31. Famous Twitter users and brands started tweeting about it…

“@alvaromano: Olivia Pope: "Gurl, you're on your own with this one" #HasJustineLandedYet ” LOL

— kerrywashington (@kerry washington)

kerry washington

@kerrywashington

“@alvaromano: Olivia Pope: “Gurl, you’re on your own with this one” #HasJustineLandedYet ” LOL

/ Via

Hey Justine, Maybe Paula Deen is looking for a communications director. #HasJustineLandedYet

— lizzwinstead (@Lizz Winstead)

Lizz Winstead

@lizzwinstead

Hey Justine, Maybe Paula Deen is looking for a communications director. #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

34. Including Gogo, a company that supplies wireless internet on flights. They later apologized for the tweet.

Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight! CC: @JustineSacco

— Gogo (@Gogo)

Gogo

@Gogo

Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight! CC: @JustineSacco

/ Via

35. While everyone waited for Sacco to respond, plenty of Photoshopped jokes began to pop up.

#HasJustineLandedYet

— gatorgoat (@Gators & Goats)

Gators & Goats

@gatorgoat

#HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

Where were you when @JustineSacco landed? Second photo released, well done @reddit ! #HasJustineLandedYet

— Jason (@jason)

jason

@Jason

Where were you when @JustineSacco landed? Second photo released, well done @reddit ! #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

*slow clap* RT @joepatrick15: Ok, trying not to feed into this...but found this hilarious #HasJustineLandedYet

— blogdiva (@Liza Sabater)

Liza Sabater

@blogdiva

*slow clap* RT @joepatrick15: Ok, trying not to feed into this…but found this hilarious #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

Internet processes things quickly--like faster than your flight. #HasJustineLandedYet

— Jason (@jason)

jason

@Jason

Internet processes things quickly—like faster than your flight. #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

40. AIDS organizations used the opportunity to plug their work.

Learn more about the fight to reach the Beginning of the End of AIDS: http://t.co/qWWr375dqu #HasJustineLandedYet

— ONECampaign (@ONE)

ONE

@ONECampaign

Learn more about the fight to reach the Beginning of the End of AIDS: http://t.co/qWWr375dqu #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

I like the effort by Aid to Africa etc to channel Justine rage to donations, eg http://t.co/QAqBY1HDGK and http://t.co/txraptq5Xk

— NickKristof (@Nicholas Kristof)

Nicholas Kristof

@NickKristof

I like the effort by Aid to Africa etc to channel Justine rage to donations, eg http://t.co/QAqBY1HDGK and http://t.co/txraptq5Xk

/ Via

The @AidforAfrica site crashed due to traffic overload. When it comes back up, consider a donation. Do it for Justine! #HasJustineLandedYet

— YourAnonNews (@Anonymous)

Anonymous

@YourAnonNews

The @AidforAfrica site crashed due to traffic overload. When it comes back up, consider a donation. Do it for Justine! #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

44. AID for Africa even bought www.justinesacco.com and redirected it to fundraising page.

Go to http://t.co/ZWY20ClrDv and donate to Aid for Africa. A coalition of 80+ orgs helping communities in Africa. #HasJustineLandedYet

— AidforAfrica (@Aid for Africa)

Aid for Africa

@AidforAfrica

Go to http://t.co/ZWY20ClrDv and donate to Aid for Africa. A coalition of 80+ orgs helping communities in Africa. #HasJustineLandedYet

/ Via

45. Scores of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts were created under Justine Sacco’s name.

For those of you who think you're actually retweeting Justine Sacco: #hasjustinelandedyet

— AdFreak (@AdFreak)

AdFreak

@AdFreak

For those of you who think you’re actually retweeting Justine Sacco: #hasjustinelandedyet

/ Via

47. When Sacco’s plane landed about 11:20 p.m. ET, she deleted the tweet and her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts without offering an apology.

#HasJustinelandedYet yep & she deleted her entire account. Must be shocking to find the internet threw you a surprise going away party.

— adland (@Adland)

Adland

@adland

#HasJustinelandedYet yep & she deleted her entire account. Must be shocking to find the internet threw you a surprise going away party.

/ Via

49. The story dominated the media, and was covered by The New York Times, CNN, ABC, BCC, and more.

50. Sacco was getting more attention than a major celebrity.

congrats on this major accomplishment re: #HasJustineLandedYet, Twitter:

— MattBinder (@Matt Binder)

Matt Binder

@MattBinder

congrats on this major accomplishment re: #HasJustineLandedYet, Twitter:

/ Via

51. But while no one person could claim responsibility for turning Biddle’s blog item into a storm, Twitter users began to express discomfort with how quickly the situation escalated. Wi-Fi provider GoGo”offered Sacco a direct apology.

@JustineSacco,apologize for response to your tweet.Right or wrong,It’s not our policy to engage on these subjects.We clearly need a review.

— Gogo (@Gogo)

Gogo

@Gogo

@JustineSacco,apologize for response to your tweet.Right or wrong,It’s not our policy to engage on these subjects.We clearly need a review.

/ Via

I actually feel bad for @justinesacco she's going to be under massive assault once she lands. What the hell was she thinking?

— armano (@David Armano)

David Armano

@armano

I actually feel bad for @justinesacco she’s going to be under massive assault once she lands. What the hell was she thinking?

/ Via

I actually feel sort of bad for Justine Sacco. That's pretty much the worst way for an international flight to end, outside of crashing.

— HarrisonMooney (@Harrison Mooney)

Harrison Mooney

@HarrisonMooney

I actually feel sort of bad for Justine Sacco. That’s pretty much the worst way for an international flight to end, outside of crashing.

/ Via

55. Biddle was not among those wringing their hands.

No one cares that I was first but I will know I united black and white twitters. Welcome to post-racial twitter, you're welcome, god bless

— samfbiddle (@Sam Biddle)

Sam Biddle

@samfbiddle

No one cares that I was first but I will know I united black and white twitters. Welcome to post-racial twitter, you’re welcome, god bless

/ Via

56. The conservative backlash got underway.

"Justine Sacco was the victim of a witch hunt. She was the target of a liberal media campaign to limit Freedom of Speech in America"

— SassyE (@Efe)

Efe

@SassyE

“Justine Sacco was the victim of a witch hunt. She was the target of a liberal media campaign to limit Freedom of Speech in America”

/ Via

@JustineSacco Sorry that this mob of moralistic jackasses is trying to destroy your life over a tweet.

— exjon (@jon gabriel)

jon gabriel

@exjon

@JustineSacco Sorry that this mob of moralistic jackasses is trying to destroy your life over a tweet.

/ Via

Is “Saccoing” an accepted term yet for ginning up an online lynch mob? #soon

— allahpundit (@Allahpundit)

Allahpundit

@allahpundit

Is “Saccoing” an accepted term yet for ginning up an online lynch mob? #soon

/ Via

— JohnEkdahl (@John Ekdahl)

John Ekdahl

@JohnEkdahl

/ Via

60. The story also spread to pilots.

o god pilot on our flight just told us we had a time to send last minute text or tweet before takeoff but to remember to 'be careful, kids'

— cwarzel (@Charlie Warzel)

Charlie Warzel

@cwarzel

o god pilot on our flight just told us we had a time to send last minute text or tweet before takeoff but to remember to ‘be careful, kids’

/ Via

61. #HasJustineLandedYet was still trending Saturday afternoon.

62. Since her tweet blew up, her name was tweeted more than 30,000 times, and the hashtag almost 100,000.

63. On Saturday, IAC announced that it had “parted ways” with Sacco, but asked that she herself not be condemned.


The company wrote in a statement:

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.

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.

64. UPDATE - Dec. 22, 8:51 a.m., ET: Justine Sacco issued an apology, first to a South African newspaper and then to ABC News.


“My greatest concern was this statement reach South Africa first,” Sacco said, after sending her statement to South African newspaper The Star, Sacco shared the follow apology with ABC:

Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.

This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.

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Alison Vingiano is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Alison Vingiano at alison.vingiano@buzzfeed.com
 
 
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