How to destroy your life in 140 characters – the Justine Sacco saga

By Caitlin Hogg

Last Friday, the 20th December, a social media storm erupted globally, completely unbeknownst to the initiator in what has become another cautionary tale for social network users to watch their words. Justine Sacco, now-former corporate communications director for New York based internet company, InterActiveCorp (IAC – parent company of,,,,  amongst others) tweeted just before boarding a flight on Friday from London to Cape Town:

Justine Sacco Tweet






Sacco’s oops went viral despite her only having 200 followers, when Sam Biddle, a writer for picked up the message and posted it to Valleywag. Biddle also shared the tweet with, whose digital population is 23.7 million people in the U.S alone.









All the while, Justine was on the flight to Cape Town, completely unaware of the saga that was unfolding. Initial speculation that her Twitter account may have been hacked was quickly disregarded when other more insensitive content from her account was uncovered.

At around 1:00am South African time (12.41am GMT +2) on 21 December 2013, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was initiated by a tweeter in the states, creating a worldwide platform for conversations about what would happen on her arrival in Cape Town. A large amount of memes were quickly created and shared by followers of the conversation that have since gone viral across the web.

A member of the twitter community posted a screenshot of a Google search he had performed of Sacco’s name, detailing her name, job, her real-time flight route, personal accounts amongst other online footprints she has left.

The IAC released a couple of statements to initial Gawker poster Sam Biddle, who shared them with his readers.

IAC Comments










By the afternoon of the 21 December, the same day she arrived, Sacco was officially dismissed from her position as IAC’s Corporate Communications Senior Director, with IAC commenting again;

“We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.”

In discussion boards on the original Gawker post by Biddle, a few messages refer to the possibility that the one-liner is a referent joke paraphrased or in a similar style as comedian Sarah Silverman, who commented on the 21st Dec at 7:51am :

Unfortunately Sacco’s tweet was taken at face value, though many consider it ‘an attempt at bad humour’. Due to the nature of the 140 character limit and sporadic nature of posting, it is difficult not to take tweets out of context, considering there is none, really. Nor is there space for intonation, gesticulation or facial expression, enabling a reader to gain the full gist of what is actually implied by the writer.

Often marketers have been known to make use of Twitter to generate conversations around their company’s brand, creating rapport between company and consumer. Gogo, a local Wi-Fi provider attempted the same, but was met with mixed responses by the Twitter community. The tweet was quickly followed up by another more apologetic message.

A follower of the whole story who was at the airport at her time of arrival took a photo of Sacco in Cape Town International on Saturday morning, and posted it alongside her twitter handle/account name to ensure that it would be seen by those following the whole spiel.

Just before 7:00am GMT+2, Justine deleted the tweet and very soon after deleted her account, however mock accounts have surfaced since. One such account by the name of @JustineeSacco has only two posts, one being a copy of the tweet that started it all, and is followed by 500+ people.

Sacco since released an apology to The Star, stating that it was most important that the message be received by the South African public first and foremost;

Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet,” Sacco said. “There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. 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.

Since the release of this statement, IAC have commented further once more;

“There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.”

A single positive side effect from this story has come to light, with an anonymous user having purchased the domain name, redirecting it to the Aid for Africa donations page which has subsequently generated a huge amount of awareness of and interest in the charity.

* Caitlin Hogg looks after social media for


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