I’m Sarah Nyberg, and I Was A Teenage Edgelord.
I got out, and it’s not too late for you.
If you’ve interacted with or publicly shown your support for me on twitter within the past few weeks, you’ve likely been accosted by an army of frothing reactionaries insisting that I’m a terrible person; often this is accompanied by “proof” in the form of screenshots, conspiratorial Youtube rants, or links to Breitbart.
I’ve been a vocal critic of this reactionary hate mob for almost a year now; their harassment of me has gone on almost just as long. Most of the harassment initially was relatively fangless; not because it wasn’t malicious, but because they had nothing to go on. I was anonymous, for my own protection.
That protection was removed, intentionally, as a silencing tactic in late December of last year. I watched them, live, pore through reams of private information in an attempt to discover who I was. Being trans made me particularly vulnerable to having my private information used in a campaign to terrorize me. They found my deadname, eventually, but only by combing through the obituary of my mother.
Knowing who you are isn’t just an intimidation tactic, it’s used as a vector to dig up additional information to harass and terrorize you with. This digging and invasion of privacy is done in a way that dredges up deeply personal histories, past traumas, or lives someone has long since left behind. They dug up and distributed old, private photos of me before I transitioned, pictures of my family members that passed away, pictures of my friends and associates — the kind of stuff you’re not cognizant about if you don’t realize you’ll be targeted by a hate group ten years down the road. Many of my loved ones received threats as a result of this, sometimes involving their home addresses. They hacked into sites I own, emailed advertisers attempting to get them to pull out. Hundreds of them chanted my deadname — a source of professional and physical danger for trans people — and sent me and all my friends pre-transition pictures, telling us I’d “never be a woman.” They did everything they could to utilize the information they gleaned from my stalkers in an attempt to destroy my life.
That all would be traumatizing enough, but these campaigns are structured so the damage is permanent — all of that information is compiled on sites, wikis, defamatory tabloid style blogs, and Youtube videos. The message is clear: this is forever. It’s never going away. All of this is structured in a way to drum up additional support for their harassment campaigns, and sign up new recruits to join them in their attempt to terrorize you into silence.
Facts are omitted and considered irrelevant; disinformation campaigns are spun up to remove sympathy for the targets and dehumanize them. Often, accusations are fabricated out of whole cloth. It’s never about the truth, but instead what they can twist, distort and lie about in an attempt to destroy and silence us. With Zoe Quinn, it became accusations of sex for positive reviews that never even existed. With Dan Olson, his exhaustive exposé on 8chan’s rampant and systemic problem with hosting child abuse content turned into a transparent tu quoque; for his reporting, he was accused, loudly and regularly, of having actually distributed child pornography. For Ian Cheong, an ironic quip as a teenager turned into accusations of literal Nazism — like the previous case, the hypocritical accusations are absurdly transparent, as the movement shouting this has ties to actual Nazis and white supremacist movements. Every target of these defamatory mythologies is considered to be part of some shadowy social justice cabal, wealthy, or somehow worthy of these attempts at dehumanization and vilification. The goal, every time, is to get the mob to believe what it needs to believe to justify the continued abuse.
These defamatory mythologies always start with a morsel, an artifact, to be twisted, distorted and lied about. After half a year of stalking me, they finally found the one they think they can use to try to sink my life.
Chat logs from an IRC room I was in nearly a decade ago were leaked to gamergate. To say the contents of those logs were not flattering would be putting it lightly. They are, in some ways, much what you’d expect from an early-2000’s chatroom of 4chan expats trying too hard to outdo each other for shock value. Even with that context, much of what I said was gross and disturbing, and I have no interest in defending it. Since then, I’ve learned that intent isn’t magic, and a playground of the taboo isn’t particularly conducive to moral growth. That I’ve grown past the person I was back then is something I am deeply and forever thankful for.
Above all else, I am thankful for the friends and supporters I’ve made over the past year while speaking up for what’s right. Faced with an onslaught of angry reactionaries shouting at them and demanding they buy into their lies about who I am, everyone saw their transparent hysteria for exactly what it actually was: the decade-old account of a troubled young person raised on 4chan and internet edgelord culture trying to out-shock and out-troll the people around her. It probably didn’t much help their cases that the people dogpiling my supporters had account names like “EndJewLies” and “SirThundertwat” frontloaded with transphobic slurs, misgendering, and rants about cultural marxism. None of them apparently stopped to think about how ridiculous and transparent it is to organize these campaigns on a site with a child abuse problem so rampant they’ve been completely delisted from Google and kicked off numerous payment platforms for the same reason.
It was clear to almost everyone that what was happening to me was the result of a malicious, hypocritical harassment engine. Obvious farcical posturing was spun as damning confessions of federal crimes. Things I pasted into a chat to mock were taken to be things I actually said. Outlandish lies I told nearly ten years ago to get a rise out of people (like the straight-faced statement that my computer was “seized by police”) were taken at face value despite being obviously and entirely unsupported by reality — it never happened, and it’s easily verifiable that it never did. Such facts would be easily discoverable by real journalists, but as it turns out, Breitbart is more interested in the politically motivated destruction of lives than it is in anything resembling journalism.
If it puts anyone at ease, I retained a lawyer and proactively contacted the police. They saw right through the avalanche of bad faith reports, and under independent scrutiny, have stated they have no reason to believe any crime ever took place. All of this, no doubt, must come as dire news to the chorus of voices openly cheering for and pledging to organize my prison rape or murder. This was never about the law, and never about justice; if it was, I never would have had to worry. It has been, from the start, just another harassment campaign.
These campaigns of abuse aim to isolate you both mentally and socially; the hope is that under that duress you’ll make a dumb move, a single misstep, to give them more ammo to to fuel the continuation of the mob harassment. It’s why trans people, queer people, and those living with mental illness are so frequently targeted. When the target won’t break, they shift to those around them — their friends, their family, and their larger support networks. What infuriated this mob more than anything is the fact that no one is buying their lies, no one is abandoning me. There’s a reason what you see now is the furious blind rage and attempt to destroy people who had the audacity to stand up and support me.
The sad truth is that for every odious idealogue who has no excuse, I see many more people harass me I know can and eventually will grow out of this. Because in each of them, I see who I could easily have been had this all happened ten years prior.
On 4chan’s most popular board, a disclaimer reads: “The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.” I was in, and adjacent to, a good deal of communities strongly influenced by that ethos. The internet I belonged to was treated as an unreal place, where no one treated anything as connected to the outside world. In those communities, almost a decade ago, I found a place to fit in.
At the time, my life was dark in a way I cannot even begin to convey. Good people can end up in bad places when their demons come out to play; I lived in what was functionally a drug house, due to a combination of my own mental health issues and an urge to look after both my mom and my brother. My possessions and money (and in one case, my car) were routinely stolen. I endured years of emotional manipulation. My medications disappeared. The whole time, I was repeatedly told I must be crazy until I was convinced of it. I lost track of how many times people had overdosed in my house. Calling ambulances and police were regular occurrences.
Within five years, both my mom and my brother had passed away. Both times, I found their bodies.
My escape from the pain of that life was the internet; trolling, stoking outrage, and defending the indefensible in an attempt to cause drama. Being hated online was an escape, and an excuse to avoid the reality and pain of life. Where I felt anger at the world, at myself, at those around me, I could be the thing I thought was deserving of that hatred, with relative anonymity freeing me from the boundaries of societal expectation. I could be the bad guy, if not in fact, than in legend. The taboo became a suit of armor; each day, I would be more shocking, more edgy, than the last. Defense of racism, sexual deviancy, murder, and more, all vented between discussions of video games and websites, and thankfully — though not regrettably — contained to those virtual walls. Victimless, but only as far as we could tell in the moment; you can never be sure, when being ironically edgy, who may be legitimately goaded into horrible acts. It’s why we talk about punching up, not down; it’s why intent is not magic. It’s why I don’t tell rape jokes anymore. It is what I regret most from those days.
I make no claim that I navigated my pain perfectly, or even well. I made mistakes, as do we all, so young and full of anger and given a terrible place to put it. There are things I deeply regret. That ethos of the communities I was in — believing the internet is unreal — hasn’t disappeared. I see it in the people who get caught up in movements like this, manifest in many of the most extreme cases of coordinated stalking, harassment and intimidation and bigotry. There, but for the grace of time and the patience of good friends, go I.
That is, fundamentally, what this is all about: I’ve become fair game for destruction by virtue of speaking against a culture I was once a part of.
The irony is not lost on me; what I regret most is that so many of these people, nurtured by systems of social media that offer them unmitigated access to targets and rewards in the form of community for this malicious behavior, may deny them of the chances the rest of us have received to become better before it can really hurt anyone.
That I’ve committed no crime is treated as immaterial and irrelevant; the people going after me have elected themselves, as a mob, investigators, judges, juries and executioners. The people in question know full well that this torrent of abuse could easily result in my death. Many of them openly cheer for it, their timelines not rife with actual concern for the allegedly affected parties, but for a sick mob justice on ideological opponents. People who show support for me are harassed relentlessly, put on “lists”, some threatened with having their employers or family members notified. This is all happening while the most severe, horrific and extreme abuse I’ve ever received rolls in. They want me suffering, in pain, and terrified my life is forever over; they accomplish this by stripping away any support anyone dares to show me. This is a consistent tactic in abuse campaigns. I can see it, but they hope no one else will.
The sad truth is these are not all young people “trolling,” the way we used to, before the exercise came politicized and “trolling” became a cover for “systemic, malicious abuse,” unconscious as it may be. People have made careers and audiences pandering to this crowd I was once part of; the bored and socially undeveloped have been conscripted by the malicious, enlisting ground troops to act as passive carriers for sincerely-held but odious beliefs. Rape advocates were among the first to spread my dox. Swastika-tattooed white supremacists moralize at people for supporting me. The only outlet having a run at this story seems to be Breitbart, with the push spearheaded by a man who’s been harassing me for the past year, openly coordinating and encouraging the stalkers who’ve been posting pictures of my family’s homes. That he lead his article with a stolen, shirtless, pre-transition photo of myself as a 15 year old that I took for my girlfriend at the time should tell you all you need to know about the “ethics” involved in all of this.
I’m not a person in a position of power. I’m not a journalist. I’m not rich. I’m a random trans woman who saw abuse that disturbed her, and spoke up anonymously on twitter, and made for a vulnerable target. Now I find myself in the sights of the very same people I would have called my compatriots, many years ago, in a home as broken as the places I escaped to. Ironic? Probably. Justice?
I have to hope this is not what justice looks like, for all our sakes. For the sakes of those who may one day awake and appreciate the full scale of what they’ve perpetuated. For the good people who need a way out.
I am okay, for now, but would not be holding up were it not for the faith and support of unambiguously good people. I sincerely want those caught up in soldiering for this campaign get the same chances I got to escape that dark place. I don’t doubt that a good number of them are coming from a similar place, and I have compassion for people who are lashing out in pain. I hope to see them on the other side, someday, away from the place I used to be.
The place I would have still called home, but for grace.