Journalist apologizes for #HasJustineLandedYet Twitter uproar after PR exec’s AIDS joke

Michael Walsh
Justine Sacco has made peace with Sam Biddle. (Facebook/ABC News/CNBC)

The journalist responsible for pushing a young woman into the crosshairs of Internet outrage says he has apologized and made peace.

Sam Biddle, then editor for Gawker's technology site, Valleywag, saw public relations executive Justine Sacco’s ill-conceived tweet before she boarded a plane for Africa on Dec. 20, 2013, to visit her family for Christmas.

It read, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

The tweet, Sacco says, was supposed to mock how many Westerners think of HIV/AIDS as an "African thing," despite the fact there is also an epidemic here in the United States.

It was intended as an ironic statement that her roughly 200 followers would understand to be a joke at the expense of racists, in the style of “The Colbert Report” or “South Park.”

But Biddle took her tweet at face value and posted it to the popular Gawker blog under the sarcastic headline, “And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke from IAC's PR Boss.”

It quickly went viral and spawned the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet, which people used to vent their anger and attack Sacco.

“Not knowing anything about her,” Biddle wrote in a Gawker article published Saturday morning, “I had taken its cluelessness at face value, and hundreds of thousands of people had done the same: instantly hating her because it's easy and thrilling to hate a stranger online.”

Aboard the flight, Sacco was completely unaware of the media firestorm surrounding her — until she landed.

She was branded a racist by countless strangers and lost her job as global head of communications for the American Internet company IAC.

In an interview with Jon Ronson for his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Sacco said, “I cried out my body weight in the first twenty-four hours,” according to Buzzfeed.

“They’ve taken my name and my picture, and have created this Justine Sacco that’s not me, and have labeled this person a racist,” she said. “I have this fear that if I were in a car accident tomorrow and lost my memory and came back and Googled myself, that would be my new reality."

Six months later, Sacco emailed Biddle to see if he would be interested in meeting for drinks.

“I realized suddenly that I felt very guilty about having, I assumed, destroyed another person on what was basically a professional whim. It had only taken half a year to kick in!” he wrote.

Biddle says that he tried to rationalize sharing her tweet with the world — to generate outrage/traffic — by viewing the act as media criticism, social justice, or karma, but that when he saw her in person, he knew he couldn’t suppress the guilt. 

In his Gawker article, Biddle writes that Sacco was not depressed or resentful but wanted to meet him so he would consider her a person, and not a meme, before writing anything about her again.

“She was serene, decent, and despite the continued existence of Twitter, hopeful: ‘Someday you'll Google me, and my LinkedIn will be the first thing that pops up.’ That part was heartbreaking,” he said.

Sacco recently got a job for a small startup in New York.

Earlier this week, Slate published a comprehensive package about the public’s growing rush to anger and judgment in the digital age.

The Year of Outrage,” which tracks the “righteous fury and faux indignation” of 2014, argues that outrage has been the default mode of politicians and pundits for years.

But now, with the rise of social media, it is the default mode for the rest of us.