On Dec. 31 at 11 p.m., Safiyyah Nawaz, a 17-year-old from North Carolina, tweeted what she thought was a really random joke. She was sitting on the couch with her brother waiting for the New Year’s ball to drop when a silly thought popped up in her head.
“We were just hanging out. And right before I sent that tweet I wrote it in my phone and showed it to my brother,” She said via a phone interview. “And I said ‘I think I’m going to tweet this,’ and he said, ‘okay Safiyyah.’ And then I sent it out.”
And that’s when people got angry. As of publication time, Safiyyah’s joke about the age of the Earth has been retweeted 14,789 times.
Safiyyah’s Twitter account was fairly small before her New Year’s tweet. Going through her timeline, it was mostly silly jokes, conversations with friends, and funny pictures.
“I tweet weird stuff a lot, I guess,” Safiyyah said. “I had like a hundred followers, just my close friends.”
Once her tweet went out though, her relatively small account was brought to the attention of the rest of Twitter. It was passed from user to user entirely by word-of-mouth. She says the response from angry Twitter users was almost immediate.
Eight days before Safiyyah’s tweet launched across the Internet, another small-time Twitter account exploded into infamy. Justine Sacco, a now-former public relations director for InterActiveCorp tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!”
Unlike Safiyyah’s joke about the age of Planet Earth, Sacco’s tweet didn’t go viral exclusively via other Twitter users. The momentum around Sacco’s tweet came largely from Gawker’s Valleywag and a small group of influential accounts, who mentioned the tweet a few hours after it was posted. It was then picked up by larger sites, including BuzzFeed. The result was a media cycle adding more fuel to the fire around Sacco’s tweet.
The first article to be written about Safiyyah’s tweet, however, was by Mediaite’s Noah Rothman, who picked it up on New Year’s Day. By that point, Safiyyah had been retweeted over 9,000 times, many of which came from users who had discovered the message and decided to attack her without it being spotlighted by a media outlet.
Rothman made the connection between Safiyyah and Justine Sacco in his piece, writing:
On Tuesday night, the gaping mouth of the mob yawned open once again and demanded a sacrifice. The masses were apparently sated when a relatively anonymous Twitter user with just over 1,000 followers tweeted a harmless joke that provided thousands with the opportunity to feel superior to her.
And though Rothman put a spotlight on Safiyyah’s tweet fairly late in the game, she says that it did inspire a turning point for the reactions she was getting online. About a day after it went up users started to come to her defense.
“I guess there was bickering among people that were like ‘she’s got to be kidding,’ and some were like ‘I don’t know, people are that stupid,’” she said.
The high school senior said she didn’t tell her parents about the situation until Thursday night. They thought it was hilarious, Safiyyah said, but she just thinks it’s all very weird.
Even though people were coming to her defense, it did little to quell the attacks she was receiving. Safiyyah even changed her Twitter bio to make users aware that she actually knew how old the earth was and that her tweet was merely a joke.
“People just blow it out of proportion. And you know all of yesterday I kept getting notifications,” she said. “I turned my phone notifications off because I was getting way too many. And they’re still coming in.”
Adding to the weirdness of the whole thing was the fact that when she got to school the next day, all of her friends were congratulating her.
“People were coming up to me and being like, ‘congrats on your tweet’ and they’re just like talking about my Twitter fame,” she said.
Safiyyah said she had never really thought about ending up on the wrong side of an angry Twitter storm. It was only something she’d seen on YouTube videos or happening to celebrities.
But in the midst of it she decided to do something about all the attention she was receiving — she started tweeting about social justice.
“There are things that I’m passionate about and have always been said to myself, ‘I’m just one person there’s little I can do to help people,’” she said. “But this was an opportunity to help people in a way that I never expected.”
As for whether or not this whole thing has made her think twice about using Twitter, she said she understands trolls are just part of the internet. She knows Twitter’s just a social platform and it’s only what a person makes of it.
“People on the internet will say things and you won’t ever be able to stop them,” she said. “They’ll say bad things to you, terrible things to you, racist, sexist, discriminatory things, but those are not people that matter.”
At the end of the day for Safiyyah, Twitter’s just a place where she can write about what she cares about and she still likes that about Twitter.
“As long as I have this platform for saying cool things, I can tweet whatever I want and people will see it,” she said. “I can keep tweeting about social activism stuff and I don’t know why I would stop doing that.”