How Online Harassment Is Setting The Tone For The 2016 Election

The Establishment
May 26, 2016 · 11 min read

The 2016 primary has been an exhausting affair.

This malaise has many sources: the extremism and childishness of the GOP lineup, the uninspiring vision of a general election matchup between Clinton and Trump, the seeming triumph of prejudice and the politics of wealth. But the connecting factor has been especially draining: the utter vileness of the candidates’ fans online. Through them, the toxicity once confined to debate stages and convention halls has seeped into our daily lives, via Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines. It’s like a tense family Thanksgiving dinner all day every day until November.

Elections have always been nasty, but ordinary people can now encounter that nastiness in an unprecedented number of ways. The ubiquity of social media, which remains an echo chamber of endless screaming, has made an already poisonous election inescapable.

But it’s not just ease of access that makes this election especially bad. It’s also the influence of an unusually toxic online culture, exemplified in targeted harassment campaigns like Gamergate and troll forums like 4chan. This year, that brand of online aggression, once the province of relatively esoteric online cliques, has become a campaign tool. From aggressive Sanders supporters (the so-called “Bernie Bros”), to the numerous 4chan and 8chan posters who’ve risen up to support Trump, to a pro-Clinton PAC reportedly tweeting at critics to “correct” them, online harassment has been stitched into the 2016 campaign like none before it.

And there’s reason to believe this is only a preview for what future campaigns may become.

Trump’s 4chan Trolls

Donald Trump’s supporters offer the most direct political corollary to 4chan and GamerGate culture. Many supporters are explicitly members of 4chan or 8chan, and vice versa. Others use familiar images and tactics, or echo GamerGate’s tendency to incite or condone real-life violence.

The “Le Happy Merchant” meme, an anti-Semitic image beloved of 4chan trolls and GamerGaters, has made many appearances on Trump’s behalf, attacking his ideological opponents as part of a Jewish conspiracy; versions attacking Bernie Sanders for his heritage are quite common as well. 8chan, a message board for those who feel 4chan is too “politically correct,” has even run pro-Trump ads on its site. Trump himself retweeted a 4chan meme version of himself as the green frog Pepe, a popular mascot on the site. Little wonder some have regarded Trump as 4chan’s candidate.

In an echo of “doxing” tactics, former actor Roger Stone pledged to “disclose the hotels and room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal” of Trump’s nomination at the GOP convention. Stone said he did not condone violence, but wanted to find a way to channel the justified anger of the people at party elites. This theme of plausible deniability — of doxing with ethics, if you like — is commonplace among harassers with political goals in mind.

Trump supporters have, meanwhile, distinguished themselves in other ways, such as by harassing Ted Cruz’s delegates and using anti-Semitic agitprop against journalist Julia Ioffe for her less-than-glowing GQ profile of Melania Trump, and against New York Times deputy editor Jonathan Weisman for criticizing the bigoted outrage.

What is happening here is an ugly convergence between chan culture and the forces of the far right. This merge began with GamerGate, a concerted effort to scour feminism and other diversity and justice concerns from gaming. Though most participants in that movement self-reported their politics as liberal or libertarian, this reactionary unifying cause caused GamerGate to pick up strange bedfellows like white supremacist hub Stormfront. It was also championed by conservatives like American Enterprise Institute fellow Christina Hoff Sommers, neo-Confederate blogger Robert Stacy McCain, and Breitbart writer and ”alt-right”/white supremacy defender Milo Yiannopoulos.

These various forces — right wing, white right, alt right, neo-reactionary, and chan troll — have been merging ever since. The brigades of Nazi Trump trolls on Twitter are just the newest spawn of that union.

Harassment flourishes in environments of playful unseriousness, and chan culture is entirely predicated on insincerity as a way of life. Since the early 2000s, 4chan users’ stock in trade was being too cool to care; “trolling,” in the classical sense, was a way of using others’ earnestness against them in the name of lewd humor. “Trolling,” however, has now moved beyond disaffected mockery and into real-world harassment and attempted physical harm. A March thread from 4chan’s /pol/ board — a hub of alt-right activity — details a plan to disseminate to Sanders supporters what it claimed were instructions on how to make “Feel the Bern” glowsticks. The recipe actually creates a chlorine bomb.

Today, trolling has become indistinguishable in both function and impact from the beliefs it allegedly parodies. The performance of anti-Semitism has, in essence, become the new anti-Semitism; channer sexism and racism, meanwhile, whether honest or not, still have the same impact as “sincere” bigotry. It’s not a coincidence that as white supremacist groups openly turn out for Trump and far right writers like Yiannopoulos have cheerleaded anti-Semitic trolls into mainstream electoral activism, that sites like Breitbart began openly dog-whistling to Nazis.

In September 2014, less than a month after GamerGate began, I wrote that the movement had set a pattern that would evolve and repeat itself elsewhere. Now it has, becoming the template for Donald Trump’s online fans and the nascent alt-right — which, thanks to people like Yiannopoulos, is taking neo-Nazism and white nationalism mainstream.

But trollish political machinations aren’t restricted to the alt-right, 4chan users, or Trump supporters. Though less organized and less openly encouraged, the so-called “BernieBros” follow a similar pattern of crowdsourcing abuse in the name of clear political goals.

Bernie Sanders’ Twitter Troops

Though Sanders supporters respond to the idea with embittered mockery, the much-discussed “BernieBro” phenomenon is quite real. It’s not new; it actually dates back to mid-2015. Nor is it under the radar. Prominent black writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who ultimately cast his ballot for Sanders), Imani Gandy, and Jamil Smith have been targeted by particularly aggressive Sanders supporters, who upbraided them in racist terms for failing to support the Vermont senator vocally enough.

If these unbecoming theatrics were confined to a few isolated incidents, it would be easy to chalk the phenomenon up to garden-variety Twitter nastiness. In fact, though, it’s infected much of the debate as a whole. And Sanders, publicly at least, seems unwilling to fully reckon with his supporters’ behavior.

This February I praised Sanders for publicly repudiating the harassers acting in his name, but he and his staff have been stonily silent since, apart from a recent statement that verges on victim-blaming. It is hard not to wonder if the campaign has calculated that it benefits from the energy and passion of these committed harassers more than it loses.

This is, after all, a key dynamic in ad-hoc social movements, like GamerGate, that make online harassment central to their praxis; while not all involved harass, the movement as a whole benefits from the cowing and silencing of its targets, and thus fails to act in a concerted way to condemn or control the aggressors. Most Sanders supporters don’t harass Clinton voters online, but even those who don’t often react with disdain when they hear that people are afraid to support Clinton publicly for fear of abuse. This suggests that the same dynamic is at work. Sanders supporters may try to silence their opponents by harassing or by dismissing that harassment, but either way silence is the goal.

Like GamerGate, the pro-Sanders harassers were only loosely organized, united by passion and conviction more than any external force. But when a churning swarm is presented with a target, it can focus its ire in a semblance of organized action. Activist Spencer Thayer’s Superdelegate Hit List, complete with names, addresses, and phone numbers of every superdelegate pledged to Secretary Clinton, provided this kind of target. “BernieBros” used the list to make all manner of abusive calls, some tinged with racist and sexist language. Akilah Ross Ensley of the Young Democrats of America, a Clinton-pledged superdelegate and a Black woman, found herself on the receiving end of abuse referencing both her race and her sex. An Arizona superdelegate, Luis Heredia, told Reuters, “The majority of [calls I got] are more angry, and the tone is more demanding,” while an Indiana delegate said one caller threatened “we will make you pay.”

Thayer’s only response was to change the name of his site to the “Superdelegate List” and tweak the logo.

Thayer is not affiliated with the Sanders campaign, but Sanders has hammered on the idea that superdelegates are an impediment to his run, a complaint that likely gave shape to Thayer’s actions. Had his strategy worked, the campaign would have materially benefited from this grassroots harassment.

The rage amongst a sect of Sanders’ supporters has become so virulent and palpable that it, at last, boiled over into a physical fracas at the Nevada State Democratic convention. Since that day, Nevada Dem chairwoman Roberta Lange has been deluged with misogynistic threats sent by Sanders supporters, had her office vandalized, and been assigned a security detail. After one caller said she should be “hung in public execution,” Lange confessed to the New York Times that she’s “scared for my kids.” As is often the case with online harassment, its distributed nature and diffuse accountability culminated in something that bled over into the physical world, throwing Lange’s life into a chaos familiar to the many victims of anti-feminist harassment online.

But what could all this look like if it had the backing, and the funding, of traditional campaign infrastructure?

Hillary Clinton’s Harassing PAC

Into this virtual charnel house enters the justly-mocked “Barrier Breakers” initiative of the pro-Clinton PAC Correct the Record (CTR).

In response to the actual problem of Hillary Clinton supporters, especially women and people of color, facing online harassment, CTR has created an unsettlingly opaque, well-funded initiative that promises to “engage in online messaging both for Secretary Clinton and to push back against attackers on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Instagram.” It’s difficult to know what, exactly, this plan consists of. I spoke to several Clinton supporters and operatives for this article and none could say with any certainty, while others refused to speak on the record.

“The task force currently combats online political harassment, having already addressed more than 5,000 individuals who have personally attacked Secretary Clinton on Twitter,” reads the press release. There are no examples or details provided, although the plan seems to hinge on several Twitter accounts — each with the handle “CTR_” followed by initials, for instance @CTR_DZ and @CTR_SM, which push #ImWithHer hashtags and smiling, positive Hillary memes at anyone who tweets critical or sexist language about Clinton.

Correct the Record’s communications director Elizabeth Shappell told me that “currently, Barrier Breakers is pushing out only positive content.” But such mindless behavior is not much different from that of Sanders supporters who reply to critics of their candidate with memes, quotes, and hashtags. It is at best ineffectual, a little pathetic, and something that could be automated with little difference in content or impact. But there have been implications of less-harmless activity as well. On Reddit, one Sanders supporter said his inbox on the site had suddenly “turned to cancer.” He also did not provide details on what the messages were like, but both unsolicited campaign propaganda and outright abuse would qualify as harassment.

We have reached a point where one million dollars of PAC money has now been used to coordinate a campaign to engage in anti-social behavior online, seeking out political opponents and pushing unwanted campaign messages onto them. Many of the accounts that the CTR twitterers reply to are posting — however noxiously — to their own timelines, not arguing with or attacking Clinton directly. What the BernieBros accomplished in a loosely-coordinated, semi-anarchic fashion, by deliberately seeking out political opponents and haranguing them, CTR is trying to fund and mechanize for Clinton’s purposes.

CTR’s legacy is to make things more difficult, not less, for anyone critical of Sanders. It lends credence to the once-conspiratorial idea that Clinton’s PACs were paying for people to post anti-Sanders ideas on social media. Now everyone who criticizes Sanders, regardless of who they support, is suspect. Online harassment thrives on uncertainty, and Correct the Record has unlocked an entirely new dimension of doubt. Even at its most benign, it’s impossible to imagine how people being paid to post fluffy #ImWithHer image macros could conceivably help anyone actually being harassed online.

Not only does such an initiative fail to address the toxicity of Clinton’s supporters online, it also seems to inspire (or at least does not discourage) chan-style false reporting operations to terrorize online groups. One screencap, taken by comedian Peter Coffin, shows a Clinton supporter and fan of CTR and Barrier Breakers proudly celebrating getting a pro-Sanders Facebook group suspended by abusing the reporting function. This mirrors the way that GamerGate and 4chan routinely try to get Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube videos taken down by abusing the “report for terrorism” function on the site.

It is likely that the Barrier Breakers initiative will quietly peter out into richly-deserved political ignominy. But by the next presidential election we can expect all campaigns to have better-organized, better-funded Barrier Breaker-style programs that are designed to both harass and counter-harass, fuelling the problem they will invariably claim to be solving.

Amid the grotesqueries that will rank as this election’s legacy, the weaponization of harassment by campaigns may prove to be one of the ugliest and most enduring.

Our New Political Reality

If there’s some bright spot of hope, it is to be found in the fact that folks like Carmen Rios, an editor at lesbian culture site AutoStraddle and Clinton supporter, have tried to respond to the nastiness by building something rather than contributing to the virtual trench warfare. “I received private messages, emails, and texts, from folks telling me they were glad to see me publicly supporting Hillary, and that it made them feel less alone — but that the toxic climate surrounding the election, even on the left, had led them to feel too scared to post that kind of stuff to their own pages,” Rios told me. For her, this was a clear indication that a new kind of space was needed. “I started a secret group on Facebook for Hillary — and it ballooned in membership over only a few weeks. Now, it’s a thriving community of folks from around the country — and the world — who, often, can’t find solace anywhere else as Hillary supporters,” she said. Rios spoke with disdain about Sanders’ “overwhelmingly white and male” online revolution and pointed out that many of the people she’s given shelter to online were “women, or people of color, or trans people, or queer people, or poor people.”

But while there are clearly gendered and racialized dimensions of this new trend of harassment campaigning, Clinton supporters are hardly its only targets. This has been, after all, an election where Jane Sanders and Susan Sarandon were both barraged with misogynist hate online for making remarks that rankled some Clinton fans.

Further, each campaign’s supporters have shown that they can tweak harassment tactics to suit their specific needs, in the process expressing something of the character of each candidate. Pro-Sanders harassers are passionate grassroots activists, Trump’s are in many cases chan trolls and neo-Nazis, and some of Clinton’s are products of a PAC. All in some way wear the colors of their campaign, loosely organized ideological mobs that serve as the heirs of yesteryear’s extremist street gangs and paramilitaries. This may be an improvement over street battles, but given the physical violence it undergirds, especially in the case of Trump, we should not rush to call this progress.

Harassment electioneering will outlive every campaign happening this year and in all probability become a favored tool across the spectrum of electoral politics. Such behavior has become central, pervasive, organized, and — in the case of CTR — funded.

We are now living in 4chan’s political universe.


Lead image: Pixabay

The Establishment

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