Slow news week? Liberals whip up mob against PR exec

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
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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.

Other journalists frothed with fury at Sacco’s inability to grovel at their feet:

A screen capture made sure Sacco would be branded for all time.

Momentum against Sacco culminated in a tearful denunciation from her dad once she landed in South Africa. Twitter user Zac_R tracked down the distraught Mr. Sacco and asked him for comment:

By mocking a benighted moral inferior, the Twitter lynch mob gained plenty of pageviews, Facebook shares and likes, tweets, retweets, quoted retweets, favorited tweets, comments, Pinterest pins, emails, and even Google Plus shares for the four people still using Google Plus. A Google search for “Justine Sacco” returns 53,000 results in less than 0.14 seconds. The Twitter hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet rounds up fake movie posters, tweets from a parody account, and pages of  gleeful users piling onto Sacco like a pack of feral dogs.

Sacco is now reportedly holed up in South Africa with her irate father who called her tweet “unforgivable,” and she may lose her U.S. work visa after IAC terminated her. She issued an ashamed apology  on Sunday for the tweet that topped international sites and took precedence over negotiations between nations.

“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,” wrote an anguished Sacco to her inquisitors.

Merry Christmas, Justine. And a happy new year to all who tweet, knowing that their lives can be destroyed in the time it takes to type 140 characters.

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