Justine Sacco was 30 years old in 2013. At the time, she was working as the senior director of corporate communications at her firm. While on vacation heading to South Africa, she started to tweet little jokes about things that were frustrating her while traveling.
One joke was about a passenger who was on the plane with her traveling from JFK international airport. For example, when referring to a German passenger on the same plane with her, she called him “Weird German Dude” and encouraged him to get some deodorant. She concluded by thanking God for pharmaceuticals.
When she arrived at Heathrow airport for a layover, Justine tweeted that the bad teeth, cucumber sandwiches, and cold weather were indications that she was back in London.
In the final part of her trip to Cape Town, she wrote that she was going to Africa and hoped that she did not get AIDS. She concluded by saying, “Just kidding, I’m white.” For the next hour or so, she wandered around Heathrow international airport and looked at her phone from time to time. No one replied, but she wasn’t surprised because her Twitter followers only numbered 170.
She hopped on her plane and continued on her 11-hour flight to Cape Town. During most of the flight, she slept and likely forgot about the tweets that she sent. When the plane landed Cape Town, she turned her phone back on and was surprised to receive a text from someone she had not communicated with since high school. The friend told her, “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.”
Justine was taken aback. She had no idea what her friend was referring to. Shortly thereafter, another text came this time from her best friend, Hannah. Hannah told her that Justine needed to call her immediately. Her phone began to receive one text and one alert after another. Then the phone rang. Hannah was calling Justine. She informed Justine that she was the number one worldwide trending tweet.
Her Twitter feed became a nightmare. One message after another came decrying her racism, questioning her qualifications for her job, and questioning her human decency. Soon, her coworkers began to chime in. Finally, her employer commented on how outrageous and offensive Justine’s comments were.
People went from being simply indignant with Justine’s tweets to see the building tweetstorm as a type of entertainment. Many gleefully commented that they could not wait to see Justine’s reaction once she landed and realized the reaction her tweets were having. While Justine was flying, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet started to trend around the world. People were asking travelers in Cape Town to find Justine and take pictures of her as she arrived at the airport. And people obliged Twitter. Upon her plane’s landing, multiple people took photographs of Justine and uploaded them to the Internet.
This is an example of how social media can be used to make the life of a person miserable. Posting a poorly considered joke can lead to them being berated, losing their job, and being traumatized.