By unpopular opinion: Why Sam Biddle is wrong about Justine Sacco

Sam Biddle, formerly of Valleywag, broke the Internet this week.  His article on the unfortunate fate of Justine Sacco, who you no doubt remember from last year as the former head of corporate communications for IAC, was all over my Twitter feed, the junky infotainment sites I get my news from and was the talk of our office.

If you don’t remember, last December Justine Sacco tweeted a life altering tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She tweeted that right before her 17 hour flight to South Africa, and the tweet gained traction and spiraled out of control among the interwebs and led to the trending Twitter hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.

Sam Biddle wrote that he couldn’t understand how Sacco, as the global head of communications, could have tweeted such a crude and vile message. As a communications director, she no doubt understood the value of social media and its far reaching influence; you have to look no further than the Spaghetti Oh’s tweet, the Red Cross tweet or the Domino’s tweet.

Biddle writes that he met with Sacco before, and she told him that her tweet was actually intended to mock and mimic the things racist people would have said.

Uh huh.

They stayed in touch, but he never understood Sacco’s tweet and her mindset until he made a stupid mistake this past October that cost him his job:

And then, this past October, while sitting distracted and tired at my desk, riffing on the twisted online movement against “social justice warriors” in video games, I wrote a tweet of my own: “Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we’ve known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission.”

Impulsively, and sort of laughing to myself, I added another, saying that we should “Bring Back Bullying” to counter this rising tide of web militancy. It was insincere and over in an instant, to me at least.

But within a few hours, thanks in part to my similarly trigger-happy and trolly editor Max Read,I watched a whirlpool of spleen and choler swelling till it had sucked in most of my energy and attention, along with that of many of my coworkers. Hundreds of people tweeted or emailed me or my editors; blogs and minor internet personalities sprang into action to challenge me. Their demands started with my firing and escalated from there.

After #GamerGate, Biddle felt like he could relate to Sacco’s demise; his own careless tweet had landed him in the eye of the social media storm amongst demands for his job and career. He says he can now understand her plight, and recaps the following from their communications:

Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her. In the depths of the Gamergate blues, Sacco IMed me to ask how it was all going, and offered one piece of advice: “Just don’t engage.” Without any discussion, she knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.

I want to make a few points here:

  • Why do people not learn their lesson for engaging online? Time and time again, people are fired from their jobs for making stupid and insensitive mistakes online, and media are not exempt.
    • Man, I love his account, because it’s freaking hilarious, but Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times tows the line every day. He’s aware, though, and has publicly noted that people get fired for their mistakes online. If NYT journalists, who uphold the cornerstone of democracy, are at risk for their social activity, then so are you if you have a pulse.
  • I’m not sure why Sacco deserves the “best and biggest PR job.” Sure, she may be talented, but what does her epic blunder have to do with her being deserving of the best career?
  • Last but not least, I can’t imagine a more stupid thing to do than not apologize when you’ve publicly offended an entire group of people. Don’t engage, don’t let it get to you — I agree. But not apologize? Stupidity.

And I think that’s where Sacco went wrong. She was ghostly silent while the Internet tore at her like a wild animal. She didn’t make a peep. She should have issued some statement, something to note that she realized she made a mistake; that she was sorry. It’s PR 101, and that was (is?) her forte. She’s now the stuff of textbooks, of online articles…of legend. But the reason she’s generated such a bad reputation and her name lives on in infamy is in large part because she let the world chime in and declare her fate. She’s had chances to redeem herself, as much as one can, but if you let everyone around you publicly put words in your mouth and in your intentions, it’s impossible to shape and publicly declare your own opinions and notions.

Defense can be a risky game, but she failed to even try, and she let the world weigh in. Weigh in it has.

You can follow me on Twitter at @abigailjaffe.