On the Justine Sacco Apology

So…how was your weekend?

Now that #JustineHasLanded, the endless and largely pointless analysis of her rapid downward spiral may begin.

First let’s review her apology.

“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. 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.”

It seems honest, so we can call it a good start. Now cue round two of the outrage—and while you’re at it, find a way to make generalizations about your political opponents using this story as an example. Oh wait, you’ve already done that? Good job being predictably terrible, Internet.

See, we might mention how IAC rep Justine Sacco‘s unfortunate incident illustrates the speed at which “news” moves in the digital age. We might mention the new concept of accountability, which means that one can almost never dismiss publicly visible statements with an “I was just joking” follow up. We might mention that there’s a reason so many funny tweeters don’t use their real names unless they’re professional comedians. We might even mention Sacco’s failure to mention the other inappropriate sentiments expressed in her (public) feed. But you’re going to read plenty of “think before you tweet” stuff elsewhere, so we won’t get into it.

Now for the questions.

Was Sacco’s repetition of an “I’m going to be as offensive as possible” joke dumb? Duh. Was the sentiment especially troubling coming from a South African whose country only recently emerged from a history of institutionalized racism? Oh yes. Was the fact that someone turned her name into a URL that links to the charity Aid for Africa a good example of making the most of a terrible story? Yep. Will New York magazine’s prediction that she will “probably end up getting another PR job somewhere down the line” prove true? Doubtful. Was hers the worst tweet ever written in the history of tweets? Hardly.

Did Sacco deserve to get fired? “Deserve” is the wrong word—she had to get fired. Can you imagine the intense pressure InterActive Corp would have faced if it had refused to let her go?

Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are the two things that surprised and/or depressed us most about this story:

  • That anyone would try to defend her statement. Yes, everyone knows that Africa faces the world’s most severe public health crisis, but the “she was just stating a fact and the act of firing her infringes on her right to free speech” argument is so clueless that we don’t even know where to start.
  • That the Internet so quickly declared her the worst person ever in the history of the world and Google stalked her to find evidence of that fact. This not a greater offense than the tweet itself, but it’s still quite discouraging.

Our conclusions (as if they weren’t obvious enough already):

  • Many take pleasure in shaming others, and social media seems to intensify that primal urge.
  • No matter how many times you write “RTs do not equal endorsements and do not reflect the opinions of my employer”, they pretty much do if you put your legal name on a publicly visible account—especially when your job is quite literally to represent that company.

Will we need to prove this point yet again in the near future? We hope not, but something tells us the answer is yes.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: December 23, 2013 https://stage.adweek.com/digital/on-the-justine-sacco-apology/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT