What does it mean when someone gets fired for what they say on the Internet? Is it justice, or mob rule? Are online arguments debates, or harassment? To what extent do gender, class, and race matter when it comes to these issues?
This political season has seen its share of ugly behavior. For as long as Donald Trump has had his hat in the ring as a Republican primary contender–and now the presumptive nominee–that behavior has been front and center. Trump was vicious toward his opponents, and now that all have been felled, he’s turning his attention toward his likely general election opponent: Hillary Clinton.
But the Democratic primary is not yet over. Senator Bernie Sanders is still in the race, and while his chances of winning are virtually nonexistent at this point, his continued presence in the race lets him have a hand in shaping the party platform at the convention. There is, however, a downside: it drags out the increasingly bitter confrontations between movement progressives and establishment liberals. These battles may not be as publicized as Trump’s steamrolling of the GOP elite, but they are just as important to the future of the Democratic Party as Trump’s actions are to Republicans.
That brings me to last week’s events, in which progressive blogger and activist Matt Bruenig got into a Twitter war with a couple of prominent Democrats, namely columnist Joan Walsh of The Nation, and Neera Tanden, Clinton confidante and head of the Center for American Progress–a liberal think tank. Bruenig, for his part, worked part-time for progressive think tank Demos.
The crux of the conflict was Bruenig’s progressive outlook vs. feckless establishmentarianism. Or maybe it was a white man aggressively bullying two women on the Internet. Dozens of articles have been written about what went down, and it’s likely we’re only talking about it because of the ultimate consequences for Bruenig: Demos fired him. Usually, these verbal combats start up, tempers flare, nasty words are exchanged, and eventually one party or the other gets bored, moves on to something else, and the whole hubbub dies down. Of course, people who routinely get into Twitter fights have eternal memories, too. The players involved here are divided along roughly the same lines as Jacobingate from a couple years ago. A good and relatively even-handed rundown of what transpired in the course of what’s being called Bruenighazi can be found on Vox. (Hey, I don’t make up the ridiculous nicknames for these things.)
I’ll be honest: I like Bruenig. He’s very smart and thoughtful and his blog posts are almost always worth reading. I drop links to his blog once in a while. His wife, Elizabeth, is similarly qualified, though her approach and conduct are very different. She doesn’t go for online combat like her husband does, for instance. They both offer interesting, well-informed perspectives on politics. But as Matt is the bombastic one who’s always making a splash with his Twitter feuds, he gets most of the attention. Or, I should say, most of the positive attention.
When Bruenighazi went down, however, it was his wife who took the brunt of the online abuse. Where did it come from? How does a torrent of online harassment get started?
It first helps to know how Twitter gets used, in practice, by journalists and political commentators. Other kinds of Twitter users may operate it the same way–or they may not. It varies. But in the spheres in which guys like Bruenig operate, having a large following is key. Not only does it drive traffic to your site and whatever other links you wish to promote, it can also be used to manifest an angry mob, with the right prompting. Bruenig’s aggressive posture helps create such reactions: by saying a particular person is wrong (or calling them a liar, or otherwise impugning their character), Bruenig can send his hundreds of thousands of followers on the attack against that person. If even a tiny fraction of those people decide to take things too far and hurl death threats and other intimations of physical violence, it can easily feel like a flood of hatred to the target.
Naturally, Bruenig did not send his own followers after his wife, and you can’t have a war unless there are at least two armies (Wars on Terror notwithstanding), so who was on the other side? Sady Doyle made a point to mention the email she sent to Demos in an effort to get Bruenig fired, and she is certainly not alone. Doyle herself commands a significant Twitter following, as do others in the loose association of commentators one might call Twitter Team Hillary, just as Bruenig is fairly easy to slot into Twitter Team Bernie. But these are cheeky shorthands–the divisions go much deeper than two Democratic candidates.
The point is not that Doyle sent others to attack Elizabeth Bruenig, either. I’m not aware of any evidence she did that, though there is some pretty clear evidence she harassed blogger Nina Illingworth for being critical of her. Attacks on Elizabeth Bruenig are likely coming from assorted folks on Twitter Team Hillary, as well as malcontents from 4chan’s political forum, who just want to watch the world (or at least the Internet) burn:
Hardly anyone comes out of this looking good, save for Elizabeth Bruenig and others who’ve been made into collateral damage for no crime other than being progressive or liberal on the Internet. Matt Bruenig probably should have chilled out–the mere optics of a white man raging against women on Twitter should give one uncomfortable flashbacks to GamerGate. Righteous fury is understandable, even justified, but its public exercise must be done with caution and discretion. I don’t doubt that some establishment liberals can be difficult to interact with, even insufferable. And it’s easy to see calls for civility as tone policing, as efforts by powerful interests to control the parameters of discourse. This is a perfectly valid concern, too. But the line between discussion and harassment can be a fuzzy one. Twitter gives everyone not just a megaphone, but a potential army of attack dogs, ready to doxx, threaten, harass, intimidate, humiliate, bully, and ruin. And once the mob tastes blood, it is not satisfied–it only wants more. Reportedly, Doyle has contacted Matt Bruenig’s primary employer in an effort to cost him that job, as well, as if he has not yet paid a high enough price. Indeed, if the history of these tactics is any indication, the goal is to make Bruenig unemployable, the same way GamerGate goons have worked to make women like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Randi Harper unemployable. When searching for a person’s name in Google turns up stories full of lies, accounts of harassment, and memes about what a horrible person you are, it’s no surprise that employers would think twice about offering that individual a job.
In Matt Bruenig’s case, this concern is more hypothetical than anything. He accumulated almost $25,000 in a matter of hours from his supporters, and is respected enough in progressive circles that he will likely land another gig soon. But the overarching themes are very troubling given our fractured, vitriolic political discourse. Upsetting the wrong person, for any reason at all, can get your life ruined. This has always been true to some extent, but the Internet offers new, distributed tools for the purpose. It’s not necessary to go out of your way to destroy someone. If you have a significant following, all you need do is send your legions of anonymous followers after them–they’ll do all the dirty work. And once unleashed, it’s nearly impossible to get them under control again.
People like Matt Bruenig and Sady Doyle need to wield their influence more carefully. Neither is powerful in a conventional sense, but each has the capability to inflict untold suffering on virtually anyone they choose. Those engaging in debates online must also the identity dynamics involved: a man aggressively confronting a woman may not be intended to silence or bully her, but it can very easily look that way and spark reprisals in kind. The same applies to participants coming from different racial backgrounds, especially when those backgrounds inform the discussion at hand. It’s also not that hard to tell one’s followers, “Do not abuse, harass, or threaten anyone in my name or on my behalf. Don’t even do it on your behalf. Don’t do it at all. It’s wrong.”
Progressives and liberals don’t have to agree with each other. I certainly don’t agree with establishment liberals on much of anything. But cruelty and violence, whether verbal or physical, is always uncalled for. Use good judgment and determine whether the retweets you’ll get from that sick burn are really worth escalating a conflict. If the end goal is to utterly destroy your political enemies, be aware that the same weapons can just as easily be turned on you. And there will always be innocent people caught in the crossfire, attacked and harassed for the online equivalent of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. People who claim to care about social justice should care about–and protect–those bystanders, too.