Social media is sometimes comparable with a tantō, the Japanese sword that samurai warriors used to commit suicide when they were dishonoured. Why do some individuals never appreciate the danger that is inherent in making controversial remarks on Twitter?
The latest example of this phenomenon is PR executive Justine Sacco who tweeted what has been generally interpreted as a racist comment on Friday. She wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” The “joke” fell flat but released a torrent of Twitter-based rage that occurred while Sacco was en route. IAC responded in a press statement from executive Barry Diller: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC.”
Diller added: “This is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight.” The hash tag #HasJustineLandedYet was born, and the giant digital kangaroo court convened, with a horde of schadenfreude-hungry onlookers and others looking to take advantage of the sudden uncontained trending news.
Hate speech also popped up all over Sacco’s Instagram feed, even on pictures of the young mother and her child. A provider of in-flight Wi-Fi, GoGo, took advantage of the stir to tweet, “Next time you plan to tweet something stupid before you take off, make sure you are getting on a @Gogo flight! CC: @JustineSacco.” Even enterprising charities, in a smart and positive move, quickly set up JustineSacco.com to benefit African AIDS victims.
Meanwhile, Sacco was unaware that IAC was going to take “appropriate action,” and that on landing in Africa she might find herself “Sacco’d.” A large segment of the Twitter popular pored over her Twitter page, finding evidence that someone had not hacked Sacco’s account to leave the offending message. The PR exec was demonstrated to have a history of making bad PR for different cultural groups, deriding an animal rights activist, a “weird German dude” who according to her smelled bad, and Londoners for their “bad teeth.”
On arriving in South Africa, Twitter user @ZacR was at the airport posting photos and tweets to #HasJustineLandedYet. He spoke with her father, who he said was “apologetic” and lamenting the irony of wanting his daughter to be raised in the US because of South Africa’s racism. Perhaps more ironic is that the PR disaster was initiated by a PR executive. What a way to begin the Christmas holidays!