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When 140 characters ruins your life.... Forever.

Think back to the stupidest joke you’ve ever made. Maybe it was a little bit racist, maybe it was about cancer or God or death. Now imagine if millions of people has listened in, and hated you for it.

Justine Sacco was 30 years-old when 12 words changed her life forever.

She was loitering around the gates at Heathrow airport, waiting to board a flight to South Africa, filling in time by checking and re-checking her social media. She was bored, and she chose to amuse herself by tweeting out a few jokes to the 170 people who followed her on Twitter.

In the first tweet, she joked that the German guy next to her should get some deodorant. In the second, she implied that all English people had bad teeth and ate cucumber sandwiches.

But in the third tweet? She lost her job, her income, her friends, her professional credibility, her privacy, and her right to personal safety.

This is that infamous tweet:

Half an hour after Sacco hit ‘send’ on this tweet, she boarded her flight to SA. She was in the air a full 11 hours, napping, watching movies, and staring at the back of the chair in front of her.

During that time, and without her knowledge, Justine Sacco became famous. Only, it was the type of fame you wouldn’t wish on an enemy; the sinister, contagious kind that happens to women online. While she was unreachable on her flight, Justine became the single most talked about person on the internet. A journalist retweeted her tweet, and soon enough Justine was accused of typifying white privilege, by implying that her nationality could protect her from a deadly illness like AIDS.

At first, people were outraged. They called Justine a racist, they promised to donate to charity to make up for her ignorance, and they morally elevated themselves by publicly shaming her.

But then, that rage morphed into something worse, something that made it easier for people to get away with verbally lynching this woman for an idiot joke taken out of context. Justine Sacco became sport for people with Twitter accounts and access to wi-fi.

Someone gleefully started the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, while others started tracking her flight path to work out when she would touch down in South Africa, turn on her phone, and realise she’d become a pariah. While that was happening, Justine’s boss at IAC fired her as head of communications, her colleagues denounced her, and her best friend Hannah panicked and deleted everything.

Justine Sacco.

Three weeks after the incident, Justine Sacco met with renowned British journalist Jon Ronson in a New York cafe. She was brittle then — shaken, unemployed, and desperate for the world to forgive and forget her.

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Ronson has just published her first and only interview in the New York Times magazine. It’s a full two years since the racist tweet incident, but Justine’s experience is still the perfect horror story for anyone who has ever put a thought on the internet.

Sacco told Ronson: “Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS…. To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make. I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”

But they did. Oh, how they did.

She continues, telling Ronson: “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours… It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.”

Amid the panic that followed Justine’s instant notoriety, she put this plea on social media:

For most people, watching Justine’s life splinter in such a spectacular way was entertainment. For most people, she was just an unlucky idiot to obsess over for 48 hours before the next one came along.

But for Justine Sacco, it was terrifying. It was life-threatening.

As Jon Ronson so accurately points out, the Justine Sacco scandal was very little about Justine Sacco. It’s evidence of a growing trend of online hate campaigns, where it’s like a game of moral Stacks On. We forget that real people are behind the stupid things they write on the internet, hoping not to be physically attacked or fired.

Ronson is the first to admit that, in his time, he’s publicly shamed people online for their wilful idiocy. But speaking to people like Justine Sacco for his book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” he changed his ways:

“Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.”

Justine Sacco is 32 now. She’s got a job in communications at a company she chose not to disclose. She’s single, and she says she’ll stay that way because nobody wants to date her since this incident. She’s trying to keep a low profile, trying to keep safe, trying to keep quiet.

12 words changed this woman’s life forever. She must have spent hours, days, and months wishing that the internet had a permanent delete button. Until it does, I guess we’re all at risk of having a Justine Sacco episode. That thought alone should probably inspire a little more compassion for whoever is the next Justine Sacco.

Don’t be mistaken; there will be another Justine Sacco. Give it about 48 hours.