Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

So now the news of Justine Sacco’s moronic tweet heard round the world is well-documented: The top PR person for InterActive Corp. (but otherwise unknown) Sacco stupidly tweets an offensive update (now deleted):

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!
—Justine Sacco (@JustineSacco) December 20, 2013”

Her employer, IAC—a New York media company that owns the Daily Beast, Vimeo, CollegeHumor,, and, among others—issues a preemptive statement distancing themselves from her: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC,” the company said. “This is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

Sacco was on a long, apparently Wi-Fi-free British Airways flight from London to South Africa. And in the 11 hours it took for her to arrive, a kind of Twitter mob formed—mocking her, condemning her, threatening violence, and looting her other social accounts (Facebook and Instagram, later deleted) for evidence of her despicability.

Some brands jumped in on it, too—flexing their clearly undeveloped and puny real-time marketing muscles. I can’t fathom why.

There was something disturbing and creepy about the whole mess.

On Justine’s part, and on the part of the crowd jeering from the sidelines at her colossal idiocy, and waiting for the moment she landed in Cape Town.

But waiting for what, exactly?

Some might argue that people merely wanted to see an apologetic response, an acknowledgment of her wrongdoing. But many seemed to be waiting for something more dramatic than that: A comeuppance of sorts. Some called for Cape Town locals to meet her at the airport. For what? A confrontation?

Justine Sacco

There’s no question Sacco’s comment was despicable. But the mob behavior was despicable, too.

“There’s a fine line between slamming Sacco for her blatant what-guys-I-was-just-kidding buffoonery, and taking an unconscionable delight in the misfortune of others while playing Big Brother on their lives,” wrote Chris Taylor over at Mashable. “Quite apart from anything else, that sort of attention may play into the worst tendencies of someone who would write that. It grants her notoriety, maybe even a career in news channel punditry. She can pour out an apology to Barbara Walters.”

Ugh. Giving Sacco more air time? Now that would truly be the nightmare before Christmas.

This comes down to the idea that “publishing” is a privilege, as my friend Tom Fishburne often talks about. That’s true whether it’s a newspaper column, a blog post, or a single tweet.

We all have access to a platform. We all have great power to influence, educate, entertain, and help, but also to dupe, trick, anger, and… sometimes… pile on.

I’m not trying to be sanctimonious here – I understand it’s human nature to grab a pitchfork and a club and join the march.

Or is it? Can’t we expect more from an evolved, networked, smarter world? Aren’t we better than that?

The challenge for companies is to treat content publishing as a privilege—to respect your audience and deliver what they want in a way that’s useful, enjoyable, and inspired. But the larger challenge for humans is to treat publishing with a similar respect—understanding the responsibility and power than comes with the ability to communicate with a global audience.

PhoebeSometimes that’s a wonderful thing: We saw that last week how Lauren Bishop Vranch used social media to reunite a little girl with her #LionBear she’d accidentally left behind on a London train. But we also glimpsed a dark side when Elan Gale fabricated his antagonizing of a fellow “annoying” airline passenger—which culminated with his telling “her” to “eat my dick.” And disturbingly too many of us feted him like a hero.

As my friend Mack Collier commented then: “We always talk about how brands need to be ‘more human.’ Sometimes we ‘humans’ do too.”

When my children were younger, I used to talk to them about the idea of beside smart and aware of where messages came from; later, they’d hear about it in school as media literacy.

But lately I’ve been wondering whether our networked, global society needs to develop a different kind of literacy—like a publishing literacy—to make us all a little more aware that words have not just power but also a new breadth and depth.

Publishing is a privilege. And our actions—in the case of publishing, our actions are our words—are what matter.

To look is one thing,
To see what you look at is another,
To understand what you see is a third,
To learn from what you understand is still something else:
To act on what you learn is all that matters.
—Taoist saying

Total Annarchy

Join at least a handful of your peers and all of Ann's relatives. Get new posts by email.

OR Subscribe via RSS Reader

67 Responses to Justine Sacco: When Bad Gets Ugly

  1. Brian Blake says:

    Love getting your insights, Ann.

    It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and throw “social media insults” at this woman for her ignorant tweet, but the higher road really is the way to approach this. “The source” of this buffoonery isn’t worth the attention!

  2. Andrea Cook says:

    Well said Anne. I am amazed out how fast the social mob snowballed. Can’t we all just get along?

  3. Mack Collier says:

    Yes yes yes.

    Just think of all the good that could be accomplished in the world if all that energy could be harnessed and used to help others instead of getting one immature girl fired.

    Sometimes people say stuff on Twitter that should get them fired. And sometimes we let our need to be outraged get the better of us.

    • Ann Handley says:

      “And sometimes we let our need to be outraged get the better of us.”

      I’m as guilty as anyone sometimes – but there comes a point when it goes too far. This was one time, in my view.

  4. Jonathan says:

    It’s sad when the world losers it’s sense of humor. Yes, some misguided people threatened violence. There will always be those types. But the overwhelming reaction was one of humor and lightness, some of our better human traits. I mean the whole dialogue was largely around the hashtag #HasJustineLanded. That’s in the best tradition of Twitter. You’ve been around long enough to remember the website (whose own unreliability spawned

    If you read Justine’s tweet history (which I did before it was taken down), this isn’t an isolated instance, a mistake. It’s a pattern of behavior, for which she rightly paid with her job. The rest of us weren’t so much a lynch mob but rather a mix of humor, community and even some social good. Proper outcomes all around.

  5. Jonathan says:

    Grrrr. Loses its. Darn autocorrect.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I don’t know Jonathan – it was more than “some.” And while she clearly is a clueless person, the mob mentality as I was following it last night on Twitter turned from funny into just flat-out weird at one point.

      The spectacle of it felt at best uncivilized and at worst barbarous. To me, anyway.

      • Ike says:

        I’m just wondering out loud here.

        She got fired for tweeting something that, if spoken by Sarah Silverman in an audience of 200, would get her… paid?

        I don’t like what she said, and I am not certain that she is clever enough to have meant something more off-handedly noble. Hell, maybe she was making fun of *other* people’s stereotypes, in an absurd way.

        But the witch hunt makes me sick.

        I know there are a lot of people who won’t agree with me. I certainly hope I don’t piss any of them off enough that they start scouring my feeds for vengeance.

        I am seriously considering shutting everything down.

  6. PamR says:

    Her double-whammy comments are abominable; the kindest way to describe them as thoughtless. But this urge to hunt people down–meet her at airport???–is just insane and borders on the vicious.

  7. Heather MacLean says:

    Great post Ann. Watching this whole mess unfold was amazing to watch. I feared where this was going. There will be still more to learn from this I am sure.

  8. Ryan Cox says:

    Here were my thoughts Ann: How does making threats and overly-bashing her make you (meaning anyone who did) a better of a person? Whether you believe in God, a god, at the root of every good person is “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” — basically be good, and treat people like you want to be treated.

    Mistake it was, OBVIOUSLY. But her tweet was one tweet, albeit stupid, and horribly offensive — but the piling-on is MASSIVELY more despicable and life-threatening IMO. What if she was crushed under the massive mob attack, and couldn’t take it…and took her own life? Would all of those attacking her say, “Good, she deserved it?” My hunch is no.

    You summed it up beautifully here: “Publishing is a privilege. And our actions—in the case of publishing, our actions are our words—are what matter.” That goes both ways, the bad-tweeter and the reactionary-tweeters.

    I loved how the question you raised, outside of the simple fact it was an obviously offensive tweet.

    • Ann Handley says:

      Thanks, Ryan. Before her account was shut down, I read a bunch of her tweets that suggested that her latest wasn’t an isolated incident. But regardless, the frenzy last night bordered on bizarre.

      As I said on Facebook, at one point last night I actually started to fear for a woman I know I’d dislike immensely. Which was a pretty odd feeling.

  9. Katybeth says:

    I am so glad that I could not tweet of Fb when I had my first job. A job that I was way to young to handle. This girl seems to have made a habit out of screwing up if the media reports are correct. And consequence’s should certainly be faced. But since when did social media give us the right to be judge and jury? You said it so much better, but in my opinion, we need to be very wary of witch hunts. Showing compassion does not equal agreement.

  10. Gordon Diver says:

    Well said Ann. Ms. Sacco made a clear blunder demonstrating a lack of good judgement; at the very least. Best to talk about the inappropriate behavior, not the person; as you have done so well in your post.

    For every mistake that is made; fortunately there are many excellent examples to look to instead.

  11. Alan Wolk says:

    Thank you Ann for writing down what I was thinking while I saw this unfold. And it wasn’t just on Twitter, it was all over Facebook.

    What was incredible was that after a while people started to assume she was someone famous who they’d somehow never heard of.

    As for the behavior, it’s sort of the flip side of the “No one in the world is more upset about Typhoon Haiyan than I am* (*even though I couldn’t find the Philippines on a map)” syndrome, where people somehow feel sharing a post from Upworthy somehow counts as an act of charity.

    What would be fascinating as an intellectual exercise would be to understand how the firestorm here got started: she is, after all, an unknown and people tweet far worse things on an hourly basis. So why did hers blow up?

    • Ann Handley says:

      I wondered about that, too, Alan. Maybe this blew up because of the heightened real-time drama of it — and because of the suspense of waiting for her response (which never came). Both added a layer of theater to what was happening. Obviously just a guess, though.

  12. Erica says:

    Very eloquently put Ann.

    I too have been cringing at what has become social media’s version of the town’s people with pitchforks. And have commented as much at times, like over how crass Elan Gale became to that woman on the plane. It too has been troubling me at the number of people that are cheered on for such behaviour and how few speak out for human decency.

    Good for you for speaking out.

  13. Ann –

    As always, great insights and thanks for taking it into a ‘lessons learned’ mode.

  14. Raymond Casey says:

    You nailed it and thanks! It is about privilege. Fundamentally first you need identity, authentication, authorization and finally privilege. These are all basic security concepts baked into all the OS’s that provide the infrastructure for all social networking. One other HUGE missing component is EMPATHY, that is the human part that we all ought to exhibit. And u fortunately there that is something we social networkers lack more and more. This is evident more and more on the net and ironically it trolls (sic) right back to identity, authentication and privilege…

  15. Adam Zand says:

    “Going to the Internet. Hope I don’t make a joke. Just kidding. I’m a marketing content creator!”

  16. Adam Zand says:

    I love what Ann wrote. I have never worked with Justine Sacco and have no idea what she does for her clients/associated websites – she may be a great employee – I’ll never know (or care). She will be fired and the pitchfork masses will move on to their next outrage. We should spend this week with family and friends and OFF of the Internet as much as possible IMHO.

  17. Alan goswell says:

    Hi Ann, firstly, a well observed critique. The ‘pitch-fork’ mentality was right to be called out, and thank you for the eloquent manner in which you did it. I have 2 ‘issues’ with this. Sometimes, this ‘pitchfork social media’ has real consequences. I recall the poor nurse who committed suicide after revealing details of the recent (UK) royal pregnancy. I’m sure the weight of all the media ‘bullying’ didn’t help. And this leads me to my first main issue. Too many people hide behind a twitter account and say (write) things they wouldn’t say in person. There are no personal consequences, therefore no consideration nor deep understanding or background checking of facts etc., for what is written. And this leads on to my second issue. IAC have condemned a tweet which includes amongst other things, a racist comment (“I’m white”). The very same organisation (according to the BBC) own I find this equally racist and thus consider IAC to be at least in part, guilty of double standards. I am sure a website that excludes so-called blacks, perhaps called, would find the owner condemned of racism. So, whilst Ms. Sacco’s tweet is being condemned, perhaps the whole double standards and inverted racism, agism and sexism should be addressed.

  18. I’m not sure if you can hear my golf clap over her. Bravo Ann. With this type of perspective I’m so glad you are part of this big old world .

  19. Tim A. says:

    C’mon. Let’s be real.The only thing that really matters here is the reaction of the audience. I’m a big proponent of crowd-sourcing. Whether or not you or I or anyone else is offended by that reaction is absolutely irrelevant. In this case, the reaction was fast, brutal, and widespread. Period. Brands don’t take social media very seriously, and this is the result. This woman was the director of PR for a giant corporation for gadssake, posting on a public forum (“Big Brother” has nothing to do with it – she put it all out in the open, posting multiple offensive Tweets over time, no probing necessary). With regard to the AIDS/Africa “joke,” I don’t think I could come up with a more offensive Tweet if you paid me.

    This sort of thing does NOT happen very often. But when it does, it makes headlines. Whether or not it “should” or “shouldn’t” matters not. In terms of humor, I thought #HasJustineLandedYet was a priceless hashtag and funny as hell.

    May the next senior corporate communications person who publicly Tweets a “joke” about AIDS and black people, or having sex with children, or beating up the handicapped, or something equally offensive, also be the target of the wrath of Twitter. The world will be a better place for it.

  20. Robert Collins says:

    Part of the human condition challenge is the desire and sometimes viable need to belong. To a community, a family, region, religion – a culture. It helps instill a sense of identity, support, belonging and purpose. The real tragedy comes when one community needs to justify its sense of value, right & values at the expense of ostracizing, vilifying and distancing themselves from others.

    Perhaps the greatest loss is the engrained cultural judgements instilled within one community about another. Preconceived prejudices inhibiting common connections – where a sense of ‘Us vs Them’ prevails – and becomes more primal & unruly when a mob momentum kicks up.

    Yes – individuals need to support their communities but also help their families & friends of one to not justify their own existence & values at the judgmental expense of others.

  21. Mary-Frances Makichen says:

    Hi Ann,
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. What I find the most interesting is how social media brings out a desire in many people to have their say or express an opinion that they would not express to someone in person–especially someone they don’t even know in real life. I’ve watched myself have that same desire.

    It’s in those instances that I remind myself that what you write online is out there forever and that we really don’t know what’s going on, or the underlying issues in someone’s life, that may be contributing to the situation. That’s not an excuse for poor behavior or judgement but I always try to keep in mind that without first hand knowledge of a person who am I to judge.

  22. Robert Rose says:

    This is just so good and so well said. I don’t have a ton more to add to this conversation – mostly because you framed it up so well. But I just wanted you to hear the huzzah from here in La La Land…

  23. Larry Heinrich says:

    It’s called mob behavior for a reason. Why would anyone support mob behavior, unless you knowingly want to add insult to injury. Doesn’t mean anything to criticize it. It’s part of who we are as a species.

    We’re not better than what you would hope for, Ann. Social media will not be the salvation for the human race.

    • Bruce Smith says:

      In the digital morass there certainly are mobs… I haven’t been much of a new media user (I’m old). And, of course we’re not ‘ better than that’. A smart phone (or anything else) does not take away the human part.

      Consider what our grandparent’s parents thought about people that actually communicated with people using that new telephone thing… what will society become. It was the first time in the world’s history that physical presence was technologically overcome (I suppose you could say telegraph or even smoke signals, but…). In about 100 years, cell phones, fifteen more brings smartphones, five for wearables… implants will do amazing things with direct nerve connections… imagine! Then, what we don’t imagine yet.

      Things change faster and faster, but kindergardeners will always surround some poor fool pointing and laughing, and after 20 years of ‘growing up’, some people (out of 7 billion, a lot!) still have it in them.

      The new media make everything more immediate, a lot good, but the bad too.

  24. I’m deeply disturbed that any brands thought this was a real time marketing opportunity to jump onto.

    The tweet from a person in communications was bad enough. I admittedly questioned if she actually wrote it given her position. It was and is offensive to the nth degree.

    But the internet added additional horror to the mess. Much like Redditers made it a thing to hunt down the Boston Marathon suspects based on blurry images and scare the bejeezus out of parents who’s son was missing, then suspected and then found dead (he wasn’t involved). I’m not saying she didn’t tweet it. But many sure do jump to conclusions in their effort to beat CNN to the punch or be featured for the wittiest tweet about current events.

    Some brands lost my respect and my business for their participation in this mess. It wasn’t an opportunity to market, it was an opportunity to show professional behavior….and they blew it.

  25. GREAT Perspective Ann. Thank you.

  26. “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

    There was a story earlier this year about an Asian entrepreneur who said some bad things about San Francisco and got filleted on social about it.

    Then there was the Reddit gang that jumped to conclusions about who the Boston bomber was.

    Before that was Kenneth Cole and the Egypt tweet.

    And so on and so on. George made that quote a long time ago, but it’s still on the money.

  27. Wandile Zwane says:

    What, would you rather she was cheered and had confetti showered on her. Iam South African and get to see the effects of AIDS on a daily basis. We need solutions not ”kidding” as Ms Sacco seems to think.

  28. Pingback: Justine Sacco and Online Reputation Management in the Age of Twitter « Amanda Miller Littlejohn // Washington, DC Maryland Virginia Publicist // PR Consultant // Branding Coach // Social Media Trainer // Corporate Speaker

  29. Pingback: About those Content Marketing Predictions... | Sword and the Script

  30. Pingback: The 2014 Content Marketing Predictions Episode: Google to Buy Yahoo!?

  31. Pingback: I’m mad as hell. Social Media: We’re the illusion | Digidave

  32. Pingback: The 2014 Content Marketing Predictions PNR Episode: Google to Buy Yahoo!? | Inbound Media

  33. Pingback: Behaving Badly Online and the Power of Eating Your Own Dog Food | - Social Media Training and Consulting

  34. G. Rhodan says:


  35. Pingback: Joint Effort: Why Ben & Jerry's Won Social Media Last Week

  36. You ought to take part in a contest for one of the highest quality websites on the net.

    I will highly recommend this website!

  37. Pingback: 8 Writing Tools I Use Every Day

  38. Steven Traylor says:

    Dear Ann Handley,
    For years I have wanted a blog site so I could tell people what I think of the things they do, but then they used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, it is better to say nothing at all.” However, if this were true, some people would never talk, tweet, write or Morse code another word. Not that it would not be a bad thing. Poor Justine, it matters that what she said was insensitive, maybe just downright stupid, but should they drag her into the street, whip her with canes, stone her, set her on fire, then pull her lifeless body apart and hang pieces in every country in the world as a reminder of her error? Since we are on sayings, How about, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. This does not mean only those sins you have been caught at, we all have or will say something stupid at some point, and most of us will realize it as soon as the screen says, “SENT” No matter how bad, or insensitive it may be sometimes they are just honest speak before we think errors, and with no evil intent, and most times intended to be humorous, or so we thought. I say let the punishment fit the crime, an apology, and with compassion the rest of us move on. Most people punish themselves for moments of indiscretion far more than what we say or do.
    If we lose our compassion for human error do we not lose our humanity?
    Thanks for reading my thoughts.

  39. Pingback: - Wiral Media

  40. Pingback: These people |)runk out of the health - Wiral Media

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *