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.
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.