Hillary Clinton, The Alt-Right, And Me

I had no idea how truly dangerous the Alt-Right was, or that it even existed, until it discovered me.

I expected a backlash when I began writing a blog about what it’s like to live with genital herpes. Speaking from personal experience about a taboo topic like sexually transmitted infections was never going to be easy, and I prepared myself to face judgment from strangers online. Social mores about sex may be changing, but women who frankly discuss their sexuality — and their feminism — meet pushback from an online culture of outrage and shame. What I could not have anticipated in my wildest nightmare was becoming a favorite target of the Alt-Right.

It is difficult to explain the loose web of sexist trolls and “conservative provocateurs” that compose the Alt-Right to someone who isn’t immersed in Internet culture. There are the anti-establishment radicals who hate Paul Ryan, the anti-Islam YouTube vloggers who pushed hard for Brexit, and the Twitter users who create memes like #TheTriggering to mock social justice activists. The Alt-Right also overlaps with groups like Men’s Rights Activists, who are convinced matriarchy is oppressing them on a global scale, and the bizarre online hate mob that is GamerGate. Conversations about these men — because they are almost always men, and they are almost always white — are usually dismissive. We call them “trolls,” implying they’re the dimwitted underworld denizens of the Internet. As long as they stay in unread comment sections, what risk do they pose to the rest of us?

In retrospect, this was inevitable. My work consists of raising awareness of STI stigma and how disproportionate it is to the reality of living with conditions like genital herpes. I work at the margins of body-positive feminism: STI stigma is still not recognized as a credible feminist issue by much of the community. It’s a conversation that is only just starting, and it’s one that I am proud to have contributed to. As a result, my activism still seems bizarre before people pay attention to what I’m saying — even the most progressive souls sometimes guffaw at the idea that people with herpes are discriminated against. STIs are seen as a consequence of personal choices, and herpes lacks the visibility of viruses like HIV. As a result, herpes is even less understood by the general public despite how common and harmless it truly is.

To the Alt-Right, I’m a goldmine of entertainment. What a stupid feminist, wanting the social acceptance of herpes! Get a real problem, and don’t make such terrible life choices, you disgusting slut. YouTube commenters have told me to do the world a favor and kill myself. Bloggers have written lengthy posts about how my liberal education contributed to my downfall of virtue. Strangers on Twitter have called me every derogatory term you can imagine. But that’s just an average day as a woman on the Internet. That’s nothing compared to the targeted harassment campaigns that are the fun and games of the Alt-Right.

Over the last two years, I’ve become something of an Alt-right meme. “Free speech activist” Mike Cernovich has tweeted about me at least three times to his 91,000 Twitter followers, each mention resulting in a wave of sickening, abusive tweets sent directly to my cell phone. Even if Mike’s tweets weren’t all that upsetting (a five-year-old could come up with something better than “Ugly and has herpes”), the ones his followers sent me were pretty scarring. Let’s just say that they’re fond of the c-word.

When I created an STD Awareness Month campaign called #ShoutYourStatus with some of my friends earlier this year, it caught the eye of the editor at large of InfoWars, Paul Joseph Watson. He recorded a five-minute YouTube video screaming about how vile we were. “I don’t think we should be that surprised that feminists are bragging about their STDs,” Watson concludes. “After all, they’re so fat and ugly, the mere fact that they’re having any kind of sex at all is a massive achievement.”

This video has been viewed 271,923 times. His fans have sent me hundreds of messages on Twitter, Facebook and my website to tell me that I’m a, well, insert the sexist slur of your choice here.

It may be hard to understand what receiving this level of harassment is like for someone who has never experienced it. Imagine getting 200 text messages in ten minutes telling you that you are worthless in the most inventive, lurid way possible. Now make that 48 hours. Now add the possibility that they might hack your email, distribute personal photos, call your employer, and release personal information like your address, phone number, social security number, the names of your family members, and so on. As an example, feminist writer Jessica Valenti quit social media this year because her five-year-old daughter received a rape and death threat.

Yeah, we’re not playing around here.

I hit Peak Harassment when Milo Yiannopoulos himself retweeted a screenshot of one of my #ShoutYourStatus tweets. The darling of Breitbart, Yiannopoulos has been responsible for too many targeted harassment campaigns to count. The most recent was against Leslie Jones, one of the stars of Ghostbusters. What happened went like this: Yiannopoulos wrote a nasty review of the movie, delighting in his own inventive cruelty, and Breitbart readers then bombarded Jones on Twitter with hatred until she left the site temporarily. The harassment campaign resulted in Yiannopoulos finally — FINALLY — being banned from Twitter permanently. But the horror doesn’t end there: Jones’s website was recently hacked, and her personal photos and information were posted publicly. What did Jones do to deserve this? She starred in a movie, and she is a black woman. That’s about it.

Visiting Breitbart’s website is like staring into the looking glass: it reflects an angry worldview with its own distorted version of reality. When I finally wound up on Breitbart myself, I got off easy. A short piece was written about the #ShoutYourStatus campaign titled “FEMINISTS: IT’S A ‘PRIVILEGE’ TO HAVE A SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE,” but my name was not mentioned and no tweets of mine were included. At that point I had already received so much harassment from Paul Joseph Watson’s YouTube video that I had locked my Twitter account, effectively preventing Breitbart’s writers from embedding them in the post. Breitbart did include Watson’s video, a link to an interview I’d done with Salon, and the tweets of my friends. The short article poured gasoline on the flames of the harassment campaign already in full swing. I was absolutely petrified.

In the midst of this viral torment, I was scheduled to give a TEDx talk on herpes stigma. I spent most of that week hiding under my bed on strong anxiety medication, and I came very close to canceling. I was only able to push through my panic because I knew that the only thing these men wanted was for me to cave. They hated me for having a voice and for striving to create a better world that didn’t fit their bigoted utopia. The only way to win was to keep going.

I gave the talk, but the damage had been done. I had what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown in slow motion. I was exhausted, angry, terrified and cynical. Few people could empathize with how the daily assault of abusive tweets, emails and comments had worn on my nerves like sandpaper. Even the best-intentioned friends told me to just stop caring about what some random, pathetic fringe of wackos said about me on the Internet.

I took a long break from herpes activism and turned my attention to the election. Imagine my surprise when the harassment I’d been struggling to endure began to bubble up into the political mainstream. Donald Trump clinched the nomination, with Milo Yiannopoulos throwing a rowdy party at the RNC to celebrate. Fringe conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton spilled over from Breitbart and InfoWars onto mainstream media. And then in a bizarre not-quite pivot, Donald Trump hired Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, to be his campaign CEO.

Breitbart and Trump are a match made in heaven. Trump’s racist comments about Mexicans during his announcement speech were absurd to political commentators at the time, but no activist who spends five minutes on Twitter was surprised. He echoes years of anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist and racist Internet commentary.

Donald Trump emboldens the Alt-Right as he borrows their language and hires their leaders. The tone on the Internet has gotten worse, not better, since he declared his candidacy last year. Even if he loses the election, Trump has done lasting damage by empowering hate groups that conflate voicing their prejudiced views with “protecting free speech.”

The Alt-Right claims to be a trendy new generation of conservatism, pushing boundaries and buttons in response to political correctness and liberal oversensitivity. Really, it’s a hipster rebranding of white supremacy, misogyny and bigotry for the digital era. We may want to believe it’s just the Internet, just the usual harmless roar of haters and pre-teen boys blowing off steam online. But that ignores the massive chilling effect the Alt-Right has on women, people of color, non-binary and LGBTQ folks who have been intimidated into going quiet. There is a war happening online every single day, and most are unaware it exists.

I’ve been a Hillary Clinton supporter for years now, but the importance of her campaign for President didn’t hit home with me until I watched her speech last week in Reno. I know so many writers who are terrified to even mention Breitbart by name online because we so often pay for it. There Hillary was, literally reading Breitbart headlines from the podium as the audience gasped. She was unafraid of the Alt-Right’s vulgar, distorted conspiracy theories, their character assassinations, their sexist photoshopped memes. And despite her fearlessness, she was able to recognize their danger without validating their ideology.

I have never seen a politician understand the danger of the Alt-Right. It made me sad that a fringe hate community has become so central to American politics that a presidential candidate has to make a speech about them. But it also filled me with genuine, raw hope for the first time since I became an activist. Finally, someone took the threat of the Alt-Right seriously. And it could only be Hillary, who has experienced their loathing for decades, long before Twitter even existed. She reminds me of myself, or of the woman I hope to become: resilient in the face of opposition, unbroken by decades of sexist attacks and restrictive stereotypes. Her candidacy is proof that the Alt-Right will ultimately fail. There is no amount of screaming and threatening that can halt progress.

If I could say anything to Hillary Clinton, it would be thank you. Thank you for making me feel less alone in this daily battle against hatred online. Thank you for never wavering in your pursuit of the full equality of women. Thank you for speaking, no matter how much talking heads criticize your tone of voice. Thank you for pushing this country forward, and thank you for taking us with you. I’m with you.

The Alt-Right’s time is over. It’s our turn now.

Feminism, sexuality, technology. https://elladawson.com/

Feminism, sexuality, technology. https://elladawson.com/