What to say to your writer friend who’s getting death threats on Twitter

Donna Zuckerberg

Content Warning: Anti-Semitism

Last week, I was granted admission to a club I never wanted to be part of: the society of writers being assailed with death threats on Twitter and by email. I wish I could take the abuse with as much humor as Emma Tessler did, and that I could say that I hadn’t really lived until I was sent a picture of my face on a lampshade with the message “FILTHY JUDENSAU KIKESS TASTE THE ZYKLON!”, but the truth is that it’s taken a toll. I suspected I’d get this response after I wrote an article about the alt-right’s sexism, but that doesn’t make the virulence of it any less disturbing.

As the first wave of tweets came in, I decided to take screenshots and share them on social media. I didn’t share them because I was interested in performing any type of victimhood — I did it to make people aware. Only a few weeks ago, when I shared the comments on another piece I’d written, several people responded that they hadn’t heard of (((echoes))) before. I wanted my virtual network to see just how bad it could get.

I am genuinely grateful for every single sympathetic message and comment I got after I posted those screenshots. But as the hatred and the support continued to roll in, in almost equal measure, I realized that just as some hateful messages hurt and others didn’t, some supportive messages were more helpful than others.

Unfortunately, it’s obvious that awful men feel empowered by the election of Donald Trump. Our club is only going to get bigger. If you know a writer — especially one who is female, trans, or gender-nonconforming and/or either Jewish or a person of color — they will probably eventually get death threats too, if they haven’t already.

Based on my own experience, these are the responses that are helpful, less helpful, and completely unhelpful:


HELPFUL:

These are the responses that genuinely made me feel better.

“You’re doing great work.” — The writer probably needs to hear this most of all: that their work is not just hated, but also valued and appreciated. The point of this kind of abuse is to frighten the writer into silence, and your support will help them remember why writing matters.

“I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” — This response is excellent because it focuses on the feelings of the threatened individual rather than on the abuse itself. It also tacitly acknowledges that the writer did nothing to “deserve” this kind of abuse.

“I know we haven’t spoken in a while, but I saw what was going on…” — Even if you haven’t spoken to the writer in a long time, they’ll probably be happy to have your support. A few friends from college and even high school wrote to me, and I was really happy to hear from them. It helped.

“❤” — I was a little surprised by how good I felt when people sent me emoji hearts. It’s a simple iconographic expression of sympathy, care, and solidarity that was really heart-warming. Or maybe I’m over-reading them, but that’s the great thing about emoji — the person who receives them can read into them whatever they want.

“Can I tell people about what’s happening to you? People need to know.” — Signal boosting is a practical way to show the writer that you care, that you support them, and that you’re on their side — but do ask if that’s what they want.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” — The writer is probably feeling a little bit emotionally exhausted right now. If you’re a coworker or close friend, you may be able to help them in some kind of practical way so they can focus on desperately needed self-care.

LESS HELPFUL:

These responses are not inherently wrong, but they also probably won’t mean much to the person receiving the abuse. If you want to use one of them, consider combining with one of the helpful responses listed above.

“That’s horrible.” — Although affirmation is always appreciated, the person getting the abuse knows that receiving a cartoon of a person loading a rifle is awful. Stating the obvious probably won’t make them feel much better.

“I reported the account on Twitter.” — Most of the abuse I got was from burner accounts that had been created for the purpose of sending me anti-Semitic memes. Reporting those accounts doesn’t accomplish anything, because the people behind them will just create new accounts with new email addresses. Also, Twitter has given its users little reason to believe that they really care about stopping abuse.

“What has this country come to?” — Discourse in our country is in a bad place right now, but that’s nothing new. This response marks you as somebody who had the privilege to not know about the abuse that’s been spread on social media for years now.

“Hopefully it will stop soon.” — Even if/when it does stop, the writer will probably be on high alert for days or weeks after, wondering if it’s going to start again. And it doesn’t exactly feel like a relief to know that the hateful trolls have just moved on to a different target.

UNHELPFUL:

Do not say any of these to the person receiving the abuse. In fact, you probably shouldn’t say them at all.

Do not suggest that they should consider not writing about topics that draw this kind of hatred. This response is terrible for many reasons, but I’ll limit myself to two here: 1) Don’t blame the victim. Ever. Nobody is ever “asking” for anti-Semitic death threats, unless they literally tweet “please send me anti-Semitic memes for research purposes!” 2) A tiny voice in the writer’s head is almost certainly saying this exact thing, and that voice doesn’t need to be amplified.

Do not assume you know how the writer feels. “You must be curled up in the fetal position right now!” may seem like a sympathetic thing to say, but death threats can provoke a wide range of emotional responses. Instead of assuming, ask, “How are you holding up?”

Do not ask “What did you expect?” The writer probably expected this. That doesn’t make it less awful.

Do not say anything that will make the writer feel like they should apologize for subjecting you to their graphic death threats. They’re already dealing with enough; they don’t need the burden of helping you figure out your feelings, too. Comfort in, dump out.


These suggestions are based on my experience, so others may feel differently. You can always reach out to the writer and ask what they need. (I, for example, appreciated sarcastic responses, but I’m sure some people would find them flippant and trivializing.) And I know that some people will disagree with me — but do so respectfully, please. I’ve gotten enough death threats this week.

Donna Zuckerberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Eidolon. Her book Not All Dead White Men, a study of the reception of Classics in Red Pill communities, is under contract with Harvard University Press.

Donna Zuckerberg

Written by

Silicon Valley-based Classics scholar. Editor of Eidolon.

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