Other than a brief public apology last year, Justine Sacco has never publicly spoken about the tweet that took over the internet, lost her a job, and turned her into a punch line — one deployed even today, 365 outrage cycles later.
But next spring, with the publication of Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Sacco is breaking that silence, telling the author she has "really suffered."
"I had a great career and I loved my job and it was taken away from me and there was a lot of glory in that," Sacco told Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats.
The new book is being billed as an exploration of "famous shamees, shamers, and bystanders who have been affected." BuzzFeed News was sent an uncorrected advance proof earlier this week, though Ronson has also publicly read a passage from the Justine Sacco chapter, which, in the book, follows interviews with writer Jonah Lehrer and Michael Moynihan, the reporter who exposed Lehrer's fabrication.
Sacco was a public relations executive at IAC until December 2013, when, en route to a family vacation in South Africa, she tweeted, "Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding! I'm white." One of Sacco's followers tipped off Valleywag, which published the tweet along with the headline: "And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke from IAC's PR Boss."
It was a fairly quiet Friday afternoon, and Sacco's tweet mutated into a full-blown news story; three hours later, BuzzFeed published a story on the internet fury, including the trending #HasJustineLandedYet. When she did land, Sacco deleted the tweet and her account. The next day, IAC announced it had "parted ways" with her.
"I cried out my body weight in the first twenty-four hours," Sacco told Ronson.
"It was incredibly traumatic. You don't sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are. All of a sudden you don't know what you're supposed to do. You've got no schedule. You've got no" — she paused — "purpose. I'm thirty years old. I had a great career. If I don't have a plan, if I don't start making steps to reclaim my identity and remind myself of who I am on a daily basis, then I might lose myself. I'm single. So it's not like I can date, because we google everyone we might date. So that's been taken away from me too. How am I going to meet people? What are they going to think of me?"
After her firing, Sacco volunteered with a nonprofit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Ronson writes. In June, she was hired to help Hot or Not's relaunch, though the position was only temporary, according to the book. But Ronson spoke to Sacco before all that — on the day she was supposed to clean out her desk at IAC. Then, she said, she couldn't "fully grasp the misconception that's happening around the world."
"They've taken my name and my picture, and have created this Justine Sacco thats not me and have labeled this person a racist. I have this fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and googled myself, that would be my new reality."
Sacco also defended her joke, saying she thought "there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was a literal statement."
"It was a joke about a dire situation that does exist in post-apartheid South Africa that we don't pay attention to. It was completely outrageous commentary on the disproportionate AIDS statistics. Unfortunately, I am not a character on South Park or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform. To put it simply, I wasn't trying to raise awareness of AIDS, or piss off the world, or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble."
Ronson is sympathetic. And his reaction to Sacco reveals the book's core hand-wringing:
A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we've created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It's all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people. What rush was overpowering us at times like this? What were we getting out of it?
So You've Been Publicly Shamed is on sale in the U.S. on March 31, 2015, from Riverhead Books.
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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