Public relations executive for InterActiveCorp Justine Sacco stepped off a flight to Cape Town Friday to find herself the object of international scorn, out of a job, barred from the U.S. and ritually denounced by her own father the Friday before Christmas — all thanks to one tweet.
Before boarding a plane to her native South Africa, Sacco fired off a lame joke:
Why Sacco tweeted this from her public account isn’t clear. Her Twitter feed showed other weird tweets before she deleted the account. A February 2012 tweet, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night.” One tweet directed at PETA is pretty damn funny: “I like animals, but when it’s this cold out I’ll skin one myself for the fur.”
Sacco’s account was public and listed her job, but she treated it like a private account read only by a close circle of pre-approved followers. She apparently sent her tweet and hopped on her flight without a second thought.
To be sure, making a joke about a sensitive topic like AIDS violates the flack’s code of honor by risking opprobrium for her client. And the message’s implication that whiteness is a defense against AIDS does not show a sound grasp of the mechanics of HIV transmission. Still, had Sacco deleted her tweet immediately and apologized, the matter would most likely have registered as a slight tremor on the Richter scale of scandals, maybe a blog post from a Gawker satellite with a brief rundown of the inevitable consequences.
But Sacco was offline for hours as she crossed the Atlantic, her account unlocked and transgression exposed for all to see.
Sam Biddle from ValleyWag copied and pasted Sacco’s tweet without comment besides the headline, “And Now, A Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s PR Boss.” Biddle posted gloating followups after he contacted her employer without bothering to send her fair warning as a perfunctory courtesy.
“This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC,” the company choked out. “Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”
BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski picked up the scent ten minutes later, calling Sacco’s offensive comment “the worst tweet ever” — a claim even less scientific than Sacco’s, considering that Twitter users send 400 million tweets a day, many of them spitting overt racist slurs and calls to violence, and that all the words in Sacco’s tweet were correctly spelled.
This may be the worst tweet of all of time. actually the worst tweet. https://t.co/x2tbQf5Kd7
— Andrew Kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) December 20, 2013
Other journalists frothed with fury at Sacco’s inability to grovel at their feet:
@AlexMLeo Still not deleted. STILL.
— Amy Tennery (@amytennery) December 20, 2013