Sarah Jeong @Sarah Jeong
I’ve had a really good time on here. I’ve also had a really bad time on here lol
The first tweet was already unsettling. It was a composite image of things I’d said — largely dug up from five years earlier — screencaps of posts with tiny archive links appended to each one. Out of context, some of my old posts looked bad. The bulk were obviously jokes. Most of them were about white people.
Then came another tweet. And another. It became a flood of tweets, nearly all with the same composite image being tweeted and retweeted. It was a coordinated online harassment campaign, the kind that Twitter was uniquely good at powering.
I was fair game because The New York Times had just announced that I was being hired as a writer on the paper’s editorial board. Within a day or two, the story had been picked up by the right-wing media pipeline, passing through the human centipede composed of The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News. I was being called a cunt, a dog-eating bitch, a chink-eyed gook, and — you kind of have to laugh — a racist.
I hadn’t even started my job, and I was going to get fired. Up until that point, I think I was excited-nervous about going to the Times. It seems like that’s how I would have felt. It’s hard to remember.
My memories of this period are hazy. There are a handful of things I recall with clarity: walking down a sidewalk, ordering takeout, taking a snapshot of a glass of water and tweeting it because I thought it would be funny to inflame my haters with the most anodyne content possible. I told my friends that I was doing fine, all things considered. I made light of the fact that I — briefly — developed a severe allergy to my cat of eight years, which turns out can happen when your immune system is under strain. I did not tell them at all about having a panic attack in the middle of a crosswalk.
But what happened before that? What did I do? Where did I go? What was I actually doing in those most frenzied moments, when I thought my life was crashing down? What did it look like while I was composing the public apology that the Times asked me to write? If I try to move outside my body, if I try to construct a scene of where I was and what I was doing, all I can see is a girl glued to her computer in the dark.
Getting my life blown up on Twitter is probably the most momentous thing that has ever happened to me. Five years later, barely anyone remembers it.
For a good long stretch of time, it felt like my name and face were ubiquitous. I got blasted on several Fox News segments. Breitbart had a field day. Pundits from Ann Coulter to Andrew Sullivan weighed in. Centrist and liberal outlets — The Washington Post, BBC, Slate, ThinkProgress — were also publishing thousands of words about me at breakneck speed, newsroom editors everywhere scrambling to find stock photos of me that I didn’t even know existed. The defenses of me were nearly as humiliating as the attacks.
Donald Trump, Jr. did an entire interview about me. Even the president managed to take a breather from his diligent and even-handed governance of the nation in order to call me “disgusting.”
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Some members of the media are very Angry at the Fake Story in the New York Times. They actually called to complain and apologize – a big step forward. From the day I announced, the Times has been Fake News, and with their disgusting new Board Member, it will only get worse!
At least he didn’t refer to me by name — which, incidentally, was trending on Twitter. My brother, who lives in South Korea, woke up one morning, opened up Reddit, and found my professional headshot staring at him with the word “RACIST” in all caps. (This had been posted to r/the_donald, a subreddit he was not subscribed to).
It’s hard for me to admit that this was a terrifying time in my life because the situation was also extremely stupid. At one point, CNN aired a gif from one of my tweets. I had clipped a scene from the animated classic Pom Poko, where the raccoon dog protagonists use their mythic testicles to fight riot cops; I had tweeted the scene with the caption “fuck the police.” This apparently made the gif newsworthy enough for CNN to air a looping clip of anime cops getting clocked in the face with tanuki scrotums at 9 in the morning.
For the first couple of years, I told my story through the eyes of third parties. I cited the police report that the Times had made after someone called and threatened to firebomb the newspaper’s headquarters. I described the extremely graphic threats tweeted at me by Cesar Sayoc, also known as the MAGA bomber. (He sent me photos of dead bodies in the Everglades and told me, “Remember to hug your loved ones real close everytime you leave your home. See you soon.”)
To share my internal experience of this time was too vulnerable, and the whole thing was so weird, so free-floating in the vaporous and vapid space of Online that I sought to ground it in reality: my real employer had called the real cops because they were worried about what an actual person wanted to do to the real office.
At the time, it felt like my reputation was sealed. No one would know me for anything else. I was now the reverse racist lady, the Asian who hates white people. But these days, when I introduce myself to people — even journalists who’ve previously written about me and my bad tweets — they will, at most, squint and look a little puzzled. “I’ve seen your byline somewhere,” they say sometimes.
Twitter is great for and great at blowing up people’s lives. It even incentivizes it.
Being “good” at Twitter isn’t about engaging with your community or contributing useful information to the pool of public knowledge. It means getting a lot of likes and retweets. And the fastest, easiest way to incite engagement is to piggyback off someone else. It’s hard to report and write an article; it’s easy to screencap a paragraph and post it on Twitter. It’s hard to film and edit a TikTok; it’s easy to screen-record it and cross-post on Twitter. But easiest of all is the dunk, facilitated by the platform’s quote tweet feature. Go forth and find someone saying something absolutely bone-headed. Quote it with something sarcastic and feel those little dopamine hits come in as the likes rack up.
The person you’ve quoted, in the meantime, starts receiving replies of a certain strain. Some of them are merely mean, many are rather uncharitable, and a disappointing number are intentionally misreading the original post. If you, the quote-tweeter, are lucky, you hit a viral threshold, much to the detriment of the person you’ve quoted. When you get a thousand people yelling at you, one or two of them — at least — are going to take it to an extreme place. If you’re a woman or a minority or both, that place is very familiar.
Most of this isn’t unique to Twitter. Every big social platform motivates users with the loop of rewarding posts with the high of engagement metrics, encouraging people to post even more. But there are a thousand little quirks of digital architecture that made Twitter somehow more contentious, earning monikers like “the hell site.”
Twitter is a huge, wide-open space where anyone can tweet at anyone else. And if you’re using it from an earnest place — as part of a marginalized group, or a Disney adult, or a furry — you have the most to lose. In order to find other people in your community, you might use a hashtag or reply to a larger node in the network you want to be a part of. But these same actions are what make you visible to the people outside your community — a full spectrum encompassing bemused bystanders, mere anti-fans, and aspiring domestic terrorists. And those people can swoop in from anywhere and swarm what feels like a communal space, because that sense of belonging is pretty much just in your head.
A conflict between communities or a brigade attack by trolls can of course happen anywhere. But elsewhere on the internet, the effects are dampened by architecture. A subreddit can go private in order to weather a brigade attack. A Facebook group can vet new community members before adding them to the group. Some people, when faced with a shitstorm on Twitter, will delete their account — but even the nuclear option has maybe half the effect that a much less extreme measure on any other social media site would have.
Twitter offers two tools to theoretically protect yourself. You can “block” people, which prevents them from seeing your posts or replying to your tweets. This removes them from your notifications and prevents them from showing up in your replies in the future. Since the platform indicates when you’ve been blocked by a user, the Times asked me not to do it to anyone. Besides, the most motivated of my haters would make new accounts anyway. Large, influential accounts could drum up fresh troops to send forth into my replies. A softer mechanic, called “muting,” hides an account from your feed but does little to prevent them from continuing their behavior. I wasn’t sure what was more unsettling: getting a death threat and seeing it, or not seeing it.
But the matter was much worse for my followers. Harassment, too, has network effects. When I mute a user, others can still see and interact with those posts, and so my followers end up becoming a witness to the abuse I receive. If they reply to my tweets — now, or even in the past — they open themselves up to abuse as well. Asian female and nonbinary friends who had previously interacted with me received a good deal of this. I later read in a news article that an acquaintance with a Jewish-sounding name had received antisemitic abuse simply for being in my mentions. Countless people were caught in the crossfire, and there was nothing I could do for them.
On other social networks, an account holder or group of moderators can remove content from within a localized realm — their comments section or their subreddit or their group is their own fiefdom. In the world of social media giants, Twitter gives the least number of options to its communities. In order to get rid of another person’s content on Twitter, you must appeal to Twitter itself.
Consider my predicament on August 2nd, 2018, as my mentions turned into a smoking crater of 4chan memes. My notifications were all jokes about eating dogs and pictures of women pulling the corners of their eyes back to look “chinky,” with death and rape threats sprinkled throughout.
There were a lot of earnest people whose outrage was in good faith — these were people who simply didn’t understand my tweets and had become the victims of the context collapse to which Twitter is particularly prone. But even if these confused souls weren’t actually outnumbered, they were definitely getting out-tweeted by guys with folders full of Nazi memes.
I could of course report all these people to Twitter’s centralized content moderation team, but I was a little busy — locking down my other accounts, changing my phone number, hiding my address from my state’s public voter registry, and so on.
Meanwhile my own tweets were getting mass-reported. Twitter locked me out of my account until I agreed to delete tweets they determined were too “hateful” to remain on the platform. This included tweets like “speak for yourself, i literally want to kill all the men literally” and “#killallmen is kind of Swiftian.”
I made my Twitter account in June 2009, as a 20-year-old college student who was riveted by scenes from Tehran. Microblogging was yet an unproven form, and the Green Revolution felt like the turning point, the ultimate use case. Photos and videos of protests — seemingly live — had brought the revolution right in front of me, despite a massive state crackdown in a country without a free media.
The reluctance of the US media to cover it felt conspiratorial, and the idea of calling out journalistic incompetence made me feel smart and sophisticated. I was, in short, exactly the kind of tweeter that would plague my mentions a decade later.
More perceptive observers at Foreign Policy (later quoted by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker) pointed out that the bulk of tweets about the Green Revolution were in English and were not Iranian activists reaching out to other Iranian activists.
Gladwell would, in 2010, take this as evidence that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” In the years that followed, the United States alone would see Occupy Wall Street, the Ferguson uprisings, and George Floyd protests, all documented extensively on Twitter.
Many of the things that make Twitter so toxic are the same things that make protest Twitter incredibly effective. Anyone can post on Twitter, making themselves and their narrative heard with nary a loudspeaker or a newspaper column. And anyone — anywhere in the world — can see and promote those tweets.
Tweets are not fenced in by geography or by preexisting in-groups. The barrier to entry is close to nonexistent. Even a protest itself, bounded by the limits of space and time, is more exclusive than Twitter is.
Like-minded influencers boost content “from the streets.” Protesters find other protesters; others sift through footage, photographs, and perspectives to put together a big picture, one that can be either illuminating or misleading. Adding to the firehose of information is easy, and turning off the spigot — even if you’re under an authoritarian regime — is hard.
These things put together create ripe conditions for mass dissent. Arab Spring, #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter all took advantage of Twitter’s velocity. Yet speed and low friction are also what make online harassment thrive.
There’s a difference between urging your followers to call the DC office of your sitting US senator and urging them to dial the home phone number of a woman posting unpopular opinions about video games on the internet. But the same emotional impulses are at play, and the same technological interfaces and interactions are being leveraged. The passionate hatred of a crowd can be made both noble and sordid.
By the late aughts, coverage of radical movements was changing, and I was changing, too. Twitter is not a Silicon Valley giant. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are tremendously attractive to the average person; Twitter never was and never will be. But it loomed large in the lives of journalists and was over-represented in activist circles as well. Images, videos, and stories about unrest, protests, riots, and police crackdowns reached the media and propagated into the mainstream faster than ever before.
When I first made my Twitter account, I would have more or less classified myself as a “free thinker.” I was a college kid who’d only just left behind the conservative evangelical Christian enclave I’d grown up in; rejecting Chuck Colson as an intellectual was a hoot and a thrill. I read a lot of economics blogs and Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, and I thought this made me smart. (For what it’s worth, The Daily Dish was also where I first encountered the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates.)
A few short years later, I had taken a hard left turn. Did social media change me, or did a tonal shift on social media merely represent the cumulative political shifts of hundreds of thousands of Sarah Jeongs? Did Occupy Wall Street radicalize me, or was it merely made up of other millennials also living through the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis?
I don’t know. I do know that my reading habits changed. By the time Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, I thought to myself, Yes, this makes sense. And when the Ferguson uprising exploded a few months later — on the streets and on social media — I was entranced at my laptop, hitting retweet over and over again.
Most of the tweets I got in trouble for come from this period in time. Background context that my audience and my community understood in that moment — whether in the news or in the discourse happening on Twitter that second — was easily lost, especially five years after the fact. Tweets about “kill all men” were posted in a brief window in time when “kill all men” was a meme. A tweet about “dumbass fucking white people” came the week after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police, and countless numbers of said white people came out of the woodwork to justify the killing by pointing out that the child was holding a toy gun. And a tweet comparing white people to “groveling goblins” hiding from the sun’s cancer-causing rays was issued forth shortly after I had expressed distaste for Andrew Sullivan’s ongoing defense of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve. I, and probably hundreds of other people, were watching Sullivan and Coates scrap on Twitter about it. Rather than pile onto the main event, I only had side commentary for my much smaller audience.
My groveling goblins tweet is the positing of a scientific “fact” — white people are more susceptible to skin cancer — in a dehumanizing way, with inhumane recommendations being derived as a result. It’s a take on race science that I wish I didn’t have to explain, because if I’m going to be honest, I still think it’s a pretty good joke.
Some years later, when I was hired by the Times, Andrew Sullivan would weigh in on my white people tweets. He would, unfortunately, completely miss that I was parodying him and go on to decry the goblins tweet for “describ[ing] an entire race as subhuman” — the most recursive self-roast I’ve ever seen.
But that’s Twitter for you, isn’t it? In 2014, Sullivan was the main event and I was a bystander, just some random asshole shooting forth my unsolicited opinion. Each tweet — isolated, oblique, targeted at a tiny audience — went forth into the void and hung there, distributed information stripped of context and background. By 2018, the roles had reversed and poor Andrew Sullivan was left adrift and unsupervised to accidentally call himself a racist.
But let’s return to Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in 2010 arguing that social media will never be the impetus for real social change. He compared Twitter unfavorably to the civil rights movement. The Woolworth’s lunch counter protesters had strong social ties with each other; social media, on the other hand, breeds weak ties. Meaningful change comes from strong ties, very little is achieved through weak ones.
History has not been kind to Gladwell’s hot take — which is weird, because there’s nothing actually wrong with his reasoning. Sure, his comparisons to the civil rights movement start looking short-sighted after the marches, protests, political awakenings, and backlashes of Black Lives Matter. And his fundamental belief in the disconnect between Twitter and reality no longer resonates after the extremely online presidency of Donald Trump, arguably the greatest tweeter we’ve ever witnessed, having posted his way into the Oval Office.
But there is one thing in Gladwell’s piece that sticks out today. In the article, he retells a story from technology optimist Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, where a man named Evan who works on Wall Street takes it upon himself to recover his friend Ivanna’s lost cellphone. The phone, left behind in a taxi, is now in the hands of a Queens teenager named Sasha, who tells him his “white-ass” doesn’t deserve to have it returned. Evan appeals to the internet: the internet responds by finding Sasha’s boyfriend’s MySpace, finding her physical address, taking a video of Sasha’s home, and eventually pressuring the NYPD to arrest this teen from Queens.
Gladwell is obviously uneasy with this story, which had been presented by Shirky as an example of the power of online activism. It is in every way the opposite of the story of the lunch counter protests. Context clues suggest that the races are reversed — the “activist” has a “white ass,” the “villain” is from Queens. It is also an extremely petty story, even without comparing it to the history made at Woolworth’s. “A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución,” Gladwell closes, sarcastically. Gladwell is not a writer prone to stunning insights, but here he sees things with perfect clarity: the cancellation of Sasha is the prototype of the coming age.
A few months after my life blew up, I was on my way to the airport for a reporting trip. I was still employed by The New York Times, after the paper and I co-wrote a weird apology that satisfied no one. I opened up Twitter and saw the news headlines. Suspected bombs had been mailed to George Soros and now Hilary Clinton.
“Hey,” I texted my partner. “There’s been a bunch of bombs this morning mailed to left wing figures. I’m pretty low on any priority list but like… please be careful with packages that don’t have a clear sender?”
How self-absorbed! I had become a recurring villain for the right-wing, but I was hardly in the same ballpark as Clinton or Soros. I was embarrassed writing out the text message; my partner replied with an impassive “Will do” with no additional commentary, for which I was grateful.
The rest of the trip was uneventful: fog at SFO made me late to the conference; my Uber got lost on the way to Menlo Park; Facebook comms stonewalled me as per usual about misinformation and content moderation. My plane home, a rinky-dink commuter aircraft, didn’t have Wi-Fi. When it landed on the tarmac, I turned off airplane mode and saw an ominous five text messages from my boss.
“Hey Sarah, the man who was arrested for sending the pipe bombs — Cesar Sayoc — apparently tweeted death threats at you,” she wrote, linking me to a Daily Beast article.
The next 48 hours passed in a shaky blur. My partner wanted to call the police. I insisted they wouldn’t care. (He won the argument and called; they did not, in fact, care.)
The news articles about Sayoc were trickling out, one by one. He had been arrested, his home had been searched, additional materials and a list of people — presumably future recipients — had been found. The list included “a Times editor,” said one article. I was a writer at the time — an editorial board writer to be exact, a job title that has frequently confused people, even those working for the Times.
I called my boss to ask. Was Sayoc’s “Times editor” supposed to be me?
She wasn’t sure. She said she’d look into it and call back. A little while later she texted me — it wasn’t me, it was someone else.
My relief came mixed with embarrassment. Paranoia, after all, is a kind of narcissism. In the cold light of day, I couldn’t help but see my bodily reactions, my emotions, my very mental state as self-indulgence; the repressed evangelical in me saw my fear as a sin.
Tweets are just tweets, after all. Tweets are easy, tweets are quick, tweets mean nothing. Sayoc was never going to throw my dismembered body into the Everglades when he couldn’t even remember to put me on his to-do list. Tweeting at me was a distraction, his threats were mere froth on the waves of reality.
This is the sort of thing I told myself, constantly, in the wake of 2018. The emails, threats, unsolicited Instagram DMs, Facebook memes with the fake quotes attributed to me — they weren’t real.
I needed to believe this in order to stay sane; maybe part of it was that I needed to absolve myself of hurting people’s feelings from being mean on social media. But mostly, all the rape threats were kind of getting to me. And if I let things get to me, if words did have weight in the real world, then the trolls would win.
This kind of protective self-delusion worked on some level, in that I only had a partial meltdown instead of a total meltdown. But it was extremely unhelpful for me as a professional writer who had just been hired to have a point of view. What’s the point of an opinion columnist who is suddenly having second thoughts about the inherent value of voicing an opinion? (My inability to resolve this dissonance was part of why I quit the Times a year later.)
As Twitter degrades, I think back on my decade-plus on this garbage fire of a platform. It’s pretty well-known that Twitter’s influence on society is overstated by journalists — it’s a big deal for people in the media, but the general population of normal-brained people aren’t really all that into it. Beyond that, every time Twitter seems to have disrupted the world, the pendulum swings hard in the other direction. The backlash to #MeToo — best exemplified by the ugly frenzy around the Depp-Heard trial — is still going strong; the tide of public opinion has turned against Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump, the god-emperor of tweeting, has fallen, and though his political aspirations remain puzzlingly alive, he has yet to return to Twitter.
After all this time, I wonder if Gladwell may have had a point. The last decade of protest — firmly ensconced within the height of Twitter’s influence — has been all smoke and little fire, massive gatherings with scarcely any policy impact to show for it. Did the sticky virality of social media end up undermining social change? (But perhaps this is, yet again, giving Twitter far too much weight in the realm of cause and effect.)
Twitter changed me, in that I now have a case of PTSD that is deeply embarrassing to explain. But can I say for certain that Twitter has ever changed my mind? What did I get from Twitter that I wouldn’t have gotten from a newspaper or a book or from my friends? In an alternate universe where Twitter had not been acquired by Elon Musk, where Twitter is not crumbling, do I think and feel differently? Do I have different opinions, do I support different causes? Is it at all possible that the firehose of the thousands and thousands of cheap and easy words changed my mind, altered the very arrangement of atoms in this world, solid mass on solid mass?
I really don’t know. I do know that people — all kinds of random people, who seem reasonably sane — have told me over the years that they love my tweets, that my tweets meant something to them, that I changed the way they think about things. Maybe the vast majority of these reactions are just flattering bullshit, but I don’t think they all are. There are at least a handful of people out there who genuinely believe that I tweeted something that meant literally anything to them and their lives. I believe this, because there are people and tweets for whom I can say the same thing. When you add that up — across hundreds of millions of users on that platform, all spewing whatever bullshit comes into their heads, their ideas and sentiments rippling across their followers and their followers’ followers and so on — the picture is staggering.
It’s hard to get a grip on exactly how much Twitter mattered — but it did matter. And Twitter’s specific features, its emergent properties, its emotional and social incentives are all a part of that story. The interface invited us to be both good and bad, stupid and insightful, reactive and inspiring. I tweeted what I tweeted because Twitter existed in the form that it did; I was canceled for my tweets for all the same reasons. All our stupidest, pettiest jokes are somehow inextricable from the grand ebbs and flows of history. Whether or not Twitter itself changed the world, its decline and imminent death will, at the very least, change our experience of how the world changes.
Yet much of Twitter’s impact will live only in our memories. This part I can speak to, from personal experience. Five years after I thought I had been saddled with a very stupid and very permanent legacy, it’s now a blip in time that lingers mostly in my head.
Articles and videos about me get archived and taken offline. People forget; the internet forgets, too. I now go entire weeks without getting hate mail. I book hair appointments under my real name. As Twitter fades — as a platform, and from cultural relevance — the worst and weirdest time of my life disappears into the backscroll.
Written by Sarah Jeong
This news first appeared on https://www.theverge.com/c/features/23997516/harassment-twitter-sarah-jeong-canceled-social-change under the title “Goodbye to all that harassment”. Bolchha Nepal is not responsible or affiliated towards the opinion expressed in this news article.