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. posted on

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.)

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

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!"

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

23. Soon it was trending worldwide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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"

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

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

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'

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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