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Tweet heard 'round the world

POSTED: December 28, 2013 12:30 a.m.

Let’s look at some numbers, shall we? Africa disproportionately bears the burden of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. There are 34 million people living with AIDS worldwide; of those, 69 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa.

An estimated 14 million children in Africa have been orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. In South Africa alone, 17.3 percent of the adult population has been diagnosed with the disease.

No matter how I consider those numbers, I can’t find a darn thing funny about them. But then, I’m not Justine Sacco.

As she was leaving London last week for a vacation in South Africa, Sacco issued a cavalier tweet. It read: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Then she boarded a 12-hour flight and turned off her phone. By the time her plane touched down in Cape Town, she had become an object of international derision and her career was over.

Sacco had been the head of corporate communications for IAC, the media company that operates websites such as The Daily Beast,, College Humor and This woman’s career revolved around having concise, accurate communications with journalists and always presenting her company in the best possible light.

So when IAC caught wind of her tone-deaf, possibly racist tweet, it lost no time in issuing a statement denouncing the tweet, firing Sacco and promptly scrubbing all evidence of her from the company’s website.

Sacco wasn’t a public figure. I doubt she was known outside a relatively small circle of friends and professional acquaintances prior to that fateful Dec. 20 flight. But all that changed once her tweet went viral. There were thousands of responses.

Someone even created the trending topic #HasJustineLandedYet to track her flight’s progress. One follower showed up at the airport in Cape Town to snap pictures of her as she exited the plane and checked her phone messages.

A little research made her gaffe seem even more bizarre. Sacco isn’t some airheaded millennial with no concept of the suffering in a land she’s never seen and can’t comprehend. She was born in South Africa. Of course, I suspect her upbringing was one of protected privilege; her father is Desmond Sacco, the mining magnate who is one of the richest men in Africa. So even in her fall from the heights of her profession, Sacco will probably have a soft landing.

There are so many frightening angles to this story. First, of course, is Sacco’s astounding stupidity, especially in light of the work she did. Who better than a PR person to understand the power of words?

The speed with which the Internet exacted mob justice was terrifying. Sacco’s fate was sealed long before her plane landed.

By then she’d found herself in good company. There was comedian Gilbert Gottfried who was promptly sacked (or should I say Saccoed?) as the voice of the AFLAC duck after he tweeted insensitive jokes following the tsunami in Japan.

There was the New England Patriots cheerleader who was fired when a photo of her turned up on Facebook. She was posing next to a passed-out partygoer who’d been covered in phallic symbols, swastikas, and the phrase “I’m a Jew.” If there was any doubt about her culpability, the purple Sharpie pen in her hand took care of that.

In these cases, I can’t find fault with the outcomes, but what about in more nuanced situations? A poor choice of words, an ill-thought-out photo posting, an angry, shoot-from-the-hip-retort, can all have repercussions that weren’t even imagined a few years ago.

I immediately thought of Ashley Payne, a Barrow County high school teacher who was forced to resign after a couple of pictures of her drinking adult beverages during a European vacation were published on her private Facebook page. Her attempts to be rehired are still working their way through the justice system.

Before tweeting, posting, blogging or commenting, remember the advice from Thumper in 1942’s “Bambi:” “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

We all think a lot of things, not all of them kind things, but that doesn’t mean we have to share those thoughts with the world.

With the recent suspension of theologian Phil Robertson from the hit show “Duck Dynasty,” there’s been a lot of talk about freedom of speech. That’s so true. You’re free to say whatever you like, within certain wide boundaries.

There is, however, no freedom from consequences. Just ask Justine Sacco.

Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears biweekly on Fridays and at


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