When publications cave to bad-faith pressure and abandon their writers to Twitter mobs, they make a bad situation worse.
By Luke Ottenhof
There is a form of social media virality with which progressive writers and journalists have grown well acquainted in recent years. It activates in the wake of a particular take: a tweet of support for a controversial figure, maybe, or an op-ed that leans a touch too far left. Following the post, swarms of online attackers overwhelm their target like killer bees. Then they turn on the publication, intimidating editors and publishers into abandoning their writers, who are left to twist and suffer in the social media crossfire.
In the last two years, the media landscape has been strewn with stories of journalists being deserted while under the assault of hivemind backlash campaigns. In April of 2017, the Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely circulated newspaper, dropped regular columnist and activist Desmond Cole for his use of civil disobedience in advocating for Toronto’s Black communities. In October of the same year, ESPN suspended commentator Jemele Hill after she called Donald Trump a white supremacist and voiced support for NFL players’ anthem protests. Then, in December, MSNBC hurriedly cut ties with Sam Seder in the wake of a smear campaign before rehiring him after the original context had been established. On other occasions, the publications have joined the pile-on. In March of 2017, The New York Times’ public editor wrote a column chastising staff member Sopan Deb for a satirical anti-Trump tweet.
Each of these cases has involved a coordinated attack against the writer originating in far-right online communities. The basic strategy and tactics are well-documented: flood the author with hatred and violent threats on Twitter, write their employer (or employers, if they are freelance), and enlist a host of allied media outlets in fomenting outrage beyond the closed world of social media. The effectiveness of these tactics vary, depending on the severity and length of the campaign. At best, they cause anxiety and stress; at worst, they leave writers jobless and shaken. One writer contacted for this story declined to comment on their experience, saying that talking about it would retraumatize them.
The tradition of threatening journalists is not new. Last year, Columbia Journalism Review published a special issue dedicated to the history of violent threats — and actual violence — experienced by American journalists. But the internet allows anti-press hate campaigns to spread more quickly and operate with frightening efficiency. When respected media organizations allow themselves to be pressured into denouncing their writers, it makes a horrible experience not only more emotionally punishing, but possibly more dangerous as well.
Nora Loreto is a freelance media worker and activist based in Quebec City. She became the target of brutal online attacks after drawing attention to the ways that gender, race, and nationalism influence responses to tragedy in Canada. After a bus crash killed 16 student athletes, Loreto pointed out that a fundraising campaign after the tragedy met its target — raising over $15 million — much faster than a similar campaign set up for survivors of the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting. She clarified, “I don’t want less for the families and survivors of this tragedy. I want justice and more for so many other grieving parents and communities.”
Then came the onslaught. On Twitter, Loreto’s comments were falsely described as hateful, racist, and divisive by posters, thousands of whom also threatened her with violence and reported her to child services. Next, Sarah Palin tweeted a link to an article criticizing her. This digital mob soon began to target Maclean’s, the Canadian magazine for which Loreto had written a single article. At no point had Loreto been employed by Maclean’s. But the magazine succumbed to the campaign, releasing a note that read in part, “Nora Loreto has never been an employee of Maclean’s. She is a freelance writer who published one article on our website a few months ago. We had nothing to do with her extraordinarily inappropriate tweet regarding the Humboldt tragedy.” The Globe and Mail, the prestigious Canadian daily for which Loreto had also written, did not comment.
“When [Maclean’s] posted that, it felt like a punch to the stomach,” says Loreto.
According to Loreto, the paper’s public comment boosted the level, severity, and seeming legitimacy of her attackers. “I know that it worked, and I know that it had an impact,” she continues, “because people referenced Maclean’s’ comments about me in messages, saying, ‘Haha, it worked, you’ll never work again in Canada.’ They know that we’re vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.” Loreto, who also writes for the Washington Post, says that since the incident, other publications owned by Maclean’s’ publisher, Rogers Communications, have refused to work with her.
This concern over public perception, Loreto says, means that media companies, however unintentionally, are “not only cutting someone off when they don’t like what they’ve written, but [are] literally throwing them to a pack of wolves that are trying to rip them apart and get them to commit suicide. That’s what Maclean’s did.”
Along with terrorizing the writer, the goal of the digital hate-and-harassment process is to force publications to condemn their writers and content. The far-right critics know that by capitulating to them, the publications are also legitimizing them and their views.
Consider the case of Luke O’Neil, a freelance writer and former columnist for the Boston Globe. In one of his Globe columns, he encouraged service industry workers to confront and harass officials in the Trump administration. O’Neil was soon inundated with invective. Then the Globe editors — under pressure from their publisher, John Henry, retracted his column and severed ties with him.
An editor’s note posted to the Globe’s Opinion page stated that the paper “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards” before clarifying that “O’Neil is not on staff.”
His attackers rejoiced.
O’Neil knew this cycle well. In 2014, he tweeted about the events surrounding Gamergate, in which women in the gaming world were doxxed and threatened for highlighting sexism and misogyny in the industry. In a bizarre turn of events, his comments were framed by Occupy Wall Street’s Twitter account as “anti-geek hate speech,” in a tweet that included the names of publications he worked for — including the Globe. Right-wing trolls called and emailed the Globe saying they were cancelling their subscription, and the paper reprimanded O’Neil in response. “None of the people who [claimed to be] outraged about it actually gave a shit,” he says. “They were just using it as an opportunity to ‘own the libs.’ The Globe still doesn’t understand how to handle a phony outrage mob online.”
When mainstream publications succumb to these tactics, it only serves to fuel the attacks. “Once [the trolls] saw the Globe took the piece down, that they got a scalp, it breathed all sorts of new life into the cycle,” he said. Freelancers in particular are vulnerable to this system, he added. “That’s one of the benefits to [publications] of using such a large freelance labor pool, is being able to say, ‘This person doesn’t work for us, he’s just some fucking freelancer. It’s not our problem.’”
O’Neil notes that it’s symptomatic of an aging class of media owners who are unable or unwilling to parse the nuances of these right-wing mob attacks. “There’s people at the top of [legacy media] publications who have no idea what’s going on online,” he says. “They still don’t understand what they’re up against when it comes to misinformation on the right and coordinated troll attacks. The lesson is to not say anything that disturbs power too much. A lot of people might [see the Globe response] and reasonably [think], ‘Well, I’m not going to risk my career saying things that are too radical.’”
When writer and New York University adjunct professor Talia Lavin incorrectly identified an ICE agent’s tattoo as a Nazi symbol on Twitter last year, she immediately deleted her tweet and apologized. But it was too late. She was already in the crosshairs of the troll machinery. Fox News signal-boosted the controversy. ICE — the agency known for arresting immigrant parents after they drop their kids off at school — called out Lavin by name. Right-wing pundits and troll farms flooded social media with threats. The events caused Lavin to resign from her job with New Yorker, who declined to comment on her resignation. An earlier statement from the publication emphasized that they “in no way share the viewpoint” Lavin expressed. Lavin told The Cut that powerful organizations “using their platform to single out private citizens is not acceptable… It’s chilling behavior. It’s censorship and it’s repression.”
Loreto sees these swarm attacks as part of a larger trend toward policing progressive speech, which leaves writers with fewer options as publications grow to fear publishing them and progressive content more generally. “There are so few writers in Canada who are white and who will write about systemic inequality and systemic racism and oppression, and that’s by design,” said Loreto. “It’s because it’s difficult. They come after anyone they think they can silence, or hurt their employment to some extent. [This] sends a message to anyone who’s thinking about trying to write critically. It has a major impact on discourse.”
This concerns free speech advocates like Hamish McKenzie, co-founder of independent writing platform Substack. In a public statement titled, “Stand up for Luke O’Neil and against the owner of the Boston Globe,” Substack wrote, “This might all seem like a minor kerfuffle over a foul-mouthed freelancer, but it’s really a story about how media power and influence is increasingly being consolidated in a fringe wealth class, to the detriment of the public interest.”
This “fringe wealth class,” of course, is susceptible — and often, it seems, obedient — to pressure from far-right communities when their profits are threatened. “We know that when the bottom line is the most important thing, these organizations have no loyalty to anybody that they publish,” observes Loreto.
But there are curious exceptions. In April, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens contributed to the bad-faith controversy surrounding Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments about anti-Muslim hatred following 9/11. Much like Loreto’s and O’Neil’s own remarks that sparked outrage and hatred on an international scale, Omar’s words were taken out of context and spun into a fake controversy. The difference is that hers were repurposed for use in an anti-Muslim hate campaign that included the participation of the President of the United States. In his column, Stephens obfuscated all of this by comparing Omar to a president that “has repeatedly made his ethnic prejudices plain.” But Omar is a vehement anti-racist, one who works in Congress to address social and economic inequality. Because of this, Bret Stephens never really had to worry about the Times throwing him to the wolves.
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Find him on Twitter at @lukeottenhof.
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Last edited: June 9, 2019
Author: Luke Ottenhof
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Stock Free Images