Eventually, I was able to break down the replies I was receiving into three categories: Asians are displacing white people in schools/jobs; “minorities” should be grateful to white people; that all Asians are gay. Every time I checked my phone, I was notified about dozens of new tweets like these directed at me. The nicer ones called me a hypocrite; the vicious ones called me a “racist chink.”
The harassment, most of which took place on Twitter, started at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving and continued for nearly a week. The aggressors had been going after a friend of mine — a female sports writer — for criticizing the name of Washington’s professional football team. When she stopped engaging with them, the harassers moved onto anyone that she had replied to that day.
When the early trolls came, I handled them the same way I did for every one-off asshole I’d ever experienced on Twitter. I made a joke and I blocked the account. But this time they kept coming. I made another joke about white privilege, my friend replied to it, and suddenly there were hundreds of tweets showing up in our mentions, saying an assortment of hateful things. They didn’t stop over the course of that weekend. I stopped blocking people because there were too many people to block.
The harasser then began to tweet at my work and the publications I write for. They tweeted at my boss. Racist tweets grew from the hundreds to the thousands. The same happened for my friend, only more so. For every tweet I got, she received three more, all managing to somehow be more vitriolic, more furious. Compared with the kinds of threats I received, hers were far more horrifying. And of course they were: She is a woman and a person of color.
A friend reminded me of a quote from Louis C.K.: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” I looked up this quote later. Louis C.K. never said it. Margaret Atwood did.
Throughout the weekend, I kept trying to empathize with my aggressors. It seemed like the adult way to think about it, but there was also something self-serving about it. I wanted to believe that people couldn’t hate me irrationally, that they must be motivated by something greater.
I took a sample of my harassers, and unsurprisingly, most of the abuse came from white men. It’s difficult to determine much other than that, since many of them didn’t have a web presence. (Most of them had fewer than 10 followers, which leads me to suspect a majority of the tweets were coming from dummy accounts. Or perhaps sadder: men with fewer than 10 friends in the world.) You can also tell by whom they choose to harass: mostly women, and men only in the cases when they aren’t white.
Of the people who listed locations, they were predominantly from the Midwest, some from the South. The Twitter bios largely declared some kind of political affiliation, such as #Libertarian, #Conservative, #TeaParty (what is with these people and hashtags?). Many were #Gamers; some were even bold enough to declare themselves members of the Klan. In a twisted way, I understood where the white supremacists were coming from. Of course they don’t want to hear a person of color talk about white privilege. They don’t want to hear people of color talk about anything. What the hell else is everyone else so angry about?
Then there were the dick tweets. So many of them. These harassers were obsessed with my penis, evoking a stereotype that Asian men have shorter penises than white men. It is a silly thing to be preoccupied about, but the more I thought about it, the sadder I felt for my harassers. It revealed a deep insecurity about their masculinity, a reactionary version of what it means to be “a man” in the U.S.
Some of them are just teen boys who are naive and impressionable in the way boys can be. More insidious, and more dangerous, are the older men who feel disenfranchised and threatened by a world that is becoming more accepting of equality for women and people of color. These are men who are angry because they feel powerless. Anonymous harassment is the only way they can feel some semblance of it.
Harassment has always been an issue with Twitter, even from its foundation. But over the past year, we’ve seen the ability for this kind of angry coercion to organize with a new determination and speed. Gamergate is the prime example of just how far it can go, and it appears that harassers of different sorts and motivations have learned how to target and mobilize attacks on individuals on subreddits and message boards.
Earlier this week, Twitter announced it was working on tools to prevent harassment. A story on The Verge dug a little deeper and asked what that really meant. Not much, it turns out. Here’s a new feature: “If 100 users all flag the same tweet, it could receive an expedited response.” Apparently it takes 100 people to agree that something is harassment, and only then will Twitter maybe look into the situation more quickly, if they look into it at all.
These aren’t tools to prevent harassment. They are features to help you deal with being harassed. On one hand, Twitter is acknowledging that its platform has a harassment problem; on the other, it concedes that there’s nothing they can do about it.
A friend created a tool that allows you to block someone and all of their followers. In theory, this is effective when more prominent harassers mobilize their followers against someone. In practice, it’s just as effective as it sounds. On the third day of harassment, I ran the Python script on one user, blocking a total of 6,000 people. The number of racist replies I received dropped from 20+ every hour to barely one every few.
Twitter would never release anything like this. The truth is that it is antithetical to Twitter’s business motives to even allow blocking or prevent harassment in the first place. The more you tweet, the better. The more people you follow, the better. Anything that walls off portions of Twitter — even to create safer spaces — goes against the company’s ability to monetize advertising.
Choire Sicha put it best: “Twitter as a product and as a human experience is broken, pointless and unsalvageable.”
The spring of my senior year in high school, I received a weekly prank call to my cell phone. The prankster had some software or device that masked his voice, making it sound squeal-y and high-pitched. He would talk about personal things from my life — specific enough that it was clearly someone I knew, but non-specific enough that it could really be anyone from my high school class. He told me that I was a “sexless faggot” who “couldn’t have sex with a woman” because of my “tiny Asian dick” and that the only way I’d lose my virginity is if I was “raped in the ass.”
I always let these messages go straight to voicemail. I never told anyone about them because what was the point? There was no way to catch this person, and plus, I had no evidence. I deleted the voicemails after I listened to them. I felt compelled to listen to them, and yet couldn’t bring myself to save them to my phone.
Eventually the calls stopped coming. I imagined the harasser wanted a response, a reaction, anything. I wasn’t going to give him that pleasure. That, in a way, was its own quiet victory. I can’t help thinking this is why harassment keeps happening. At a certain point, as an individual, you get fed up with it. You ignore the attacks, and the harasser gets bored.
Then he moves onto someone else.
Photo source: Frans Lanting (AP)