Saturday 21 December 2013

A very suddenly dangerous, volatile firestorm erupts around businesswoman Justine Sacco.

A very suddenly dangerous, volatile internet firestorm erupts around businesswoman Justine Sacco.

It started as a whimper. A snide comment perhaps. There are many misperceptions of Africa. There are many perceptions of Africa. A white American woman associated with the left-wing of their politics, made an unexpected and controversial likely intended to be humorous statement. Certainly it must have been intended as a humorous statement. She said that she was going to Africa but that was okay, because according to her tweet white people cannot get AIDS in Africa.

Fate waylays the best intentions. A woman working for a company responsible for the left-wing rag The Daily Beast, a dating site for black people,,, and so forth might be considered an extremely liberal left wing woman. She might be considered to have very good views of Africans or at least African-Americans. The same woman by the name Justine Sacco however made a comment very insulting to African-Americans and to Africans of an African ethnicity. Media have since discovered that the woman in question has made other jokes which might be considered highly inappropriate, such as about a sex dream about an autistic person.

‘Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!’ Went the anthem of her terribly inappropriate tweet.

There can be several ways to read this inappropriate tweet. She certainly is going to Africa. She says she hopes she doesn’t get AIDS. Then she says she was just kidding because she is white. This therefore can be interpreted in two ways: firstly that she doesn’t mind if she does get HIV Aids because she is white. In context this statement does not seem to make sense. The second way in which this can be interpreted is that a white person need not hope that they won’t get AIDS because they won’t get AIDS. Either way HIV AIDS is associated by the individual in question with Africa. The way I read the tweet the first time I read it: was that the author of the tweet was mocking social perceptions of Africa and of black Africans and African Americans. After all, black Africans are often portrayed in Western media as infested with HIV AIDS: perhaps she was mocking this perception. This would seem to fit with the ideological base seemingly represented by the company she worked for. That is not how most users of Twitter interpreted it.

So how much of her perception was true? The HIV rate in South Africa is quite high. Edward C Green of Harvard University stated a few years back that in Africa HIV AIDS is connected to a specific set of cultural behaviours. Where it was an epidemic was in the gay community as in the rest of the world. However where it was an epidemic among heterosexual adults, this was only within cultures, nations, and societies where the practice of polygamy was an accepted part of cultural practice. As white South Africans don’t tend to practice polygamy their exposure to HIV tends to depend on whether they are homosexual men or straight. Among heterosexual white South Africans the amount of them infected with HIV is almost identical to the amount infected with HIV among heterosexual white non-polygamists in the United States of America. This is not due to skin colour but to differences in cultural behaviour. In Uganda the spread of HIV was slowed down tremendously and way in advance of where it was slowed down anywhere else. This is because the practice of polygamy was opposed by the government vocally. Most new infections in Uganda occur among the older population which still practice polygamy.

Does this mean that no white South Africans have HIV AIDS? No. Does this mean that all ethnic Africans have HIV AIDS? No. Does this mean that the person in question had no chance of gaining HIV AIDS on a trip to Africa? No.

Whether she was well-informed or ill informed, the individual in question made a tweet which caused an unusual firestorm. In a seeming threat to her physical safety and a threat of lynching, a hashtag asked when she would be landing in Africa. Some say that the reaction proves that there are Africans on Twitter. Others consider it extremely concerning that a seeming threat of lynching was easily visible to the international community today. The vocal and sometimes terrifying statements on the Twitter social network brought up some bad memories of South Africa’s President being booed publicly at the funeral related memorial service in front of many world leaders.

If the person in question was in fact mocking perceptions of Africa, it certainly backfired. Her career might well be over. She might not be racist. She might be informed or ill informed. The braying for her blood however did not wait for her flight to land. The incessant shaming sparked an event which could end even worse. Is witch hunting those with unpopular views the best way to change those views? I think in fact quieting debate and turning to name-calling of those who may or may not be ill informed: only perpetuates ill opinions of Africa.

It is a mark of a civilised society that even those with the most unpopular views are debated rather than shamed. This is not what occurred today. A better response might have politely informed her that she was wrong in the opinion of the person saying so, and requested that she withdraw her comment, defend it, explain it, or otherwise draw attention to the reality on the ground.

Instead the world got to see: a group of angry African people threatening the safety of a westerner. The result is no doubt similar to the perception created by the booing of our president at the memorial service. Is this the perception any South African wants to create of their country…

Update: Justine Sacco has apologised to the Johannesburg Star, stating that the tweet was unnecessary and borne of lack of experience of the plight of people affected by the disease. She said she deeply wanted to apologise to South Africans first and foremost, hence the interview with the Star. She also shared this fact of the interview with an America based broadcaster.

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