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Former IAC corporate communications director Justine Sacco found herself the subject of Internet scorn after she tweeted on a trip to South Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Since then, she was fired from IAC, made a public apology and briefly worked for the relaunched Hot or Not, but she’s only spoken about her ordeal on the record to one person, writer Jon Ronson, who includes her experience in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which is being released in March.
Buzzfeed posted excerpts from the book in December, with some of the most interesting quotes and details, but Ronson has now adapted part of his book into an article for this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which includes more details about how Sacco dealt with the fallout from her tweet, why she spoke to him and what she’s doing now.
Sacco sent out the AIDS tweet before the final leg of a trip from New York to South Africa on Dec. 20, 2013. She chuckled to herself as she hit send, Ronson claims, and didn’t get any replies from her 170 Twitter followers in the 30 minutes before her flight took off. But while she was sleeping on her 11-hour flight, an editor for Gawker’s Valleywag, who was tipped off to her comment, retweeted it to his 15,000 followers and turned her tweet into the subject of a Valleywag post. After that, her comment went viral, with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trending worldwide as tens of thousands of angry, outraged tweets were posted in response to her joke. When she got to South Africa, she found out what happened and had a friend delete her account, Ronson writes.
“Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS,” Sacco told Ronson shortly after meeting him, echoing her previously reported comments that she didn’t think such an outrageous comment would be taken literally.
Sacco has extended family in South Africa, whom she was going to visit when she sent out her tweet. They were longtime activists for racial equality, and Sacco’s aunt said her tweet disgraced her family.
“This is not what our family stands for. And now, by association, you’ve almost tarnished the family,” Sacco’s aunt said, she told Ronson.
Sacco spent a month doing volunteer work for an NGO in Ethiopia, where she was struck by how different life was there.
“It was fantastic,” she said. “I never would have lived in Addis Ababa for a month otherwise.”
She told Ronson that it was too harrowing and “inadvisable,” with her career as a publicist, to talk to many people about her situation, but she added that she wanted to show how “crazy” it was and how her punishment was too severe.
But she’s done talking now. After Ronson asked her to meet with him to update him on her life, she quickly responded “No way.” With a new communications job, she was trying to keep herself out of the media.
“Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative,” she said.
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