While picking through the surrounding tweets, Levine’s editor flagged a cryptic line from Barr. It mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood and “planet of the apes” and the letters “vj.” Levine traced the full 2:45 a.m. exchange between Barr and others until the context became clear: She was essentially comparing Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, to an ape.
Levine was aghast, and stunned to realize that hardly anyone else had noticed it yet. “It had, I believe, one retweet and maybe like five or six likes,” he recalls. “It was very, very early.”
It was a valuable and volatile discovery, panned like gold from the muddy river of Twitter, and soon to be offered up to the world as squabble fodder that would dominate the news cycle for nearly two days. The culture wars used to be waged through campaigns, elections and movements, over the course of years, decades and mini-epochs. Now they’re fought in cycles that last days or hours, and they are less like distinct battles and more like rote reenactments: Everyone dons the musty uniforms of partisanship and dry-fires at one another for a short while, before heading back to camp to reload and await the next charge — which, in this case, involved TV host Samantha Bee.
“Every time I think we’ve reached the sum of possible outrage, we exceed that sum,” Levine says. As for his role in the process? Levine thinks the public should take a look at its own social media behavior. “I am only a messenger,” he says.
Levine tweeted his story — “Roseanne Attacks Ex-Obama Aide Valerie Jarrett” — at 9:07 a.m. last Tuesday. He was quickly retweeted dozens of times. And then the first phase of the outrage cycle kicked in: public shaming. Activist and writer Shaun King, who has nearly a million followers, was on it by 9:23 a.m.
“This is the gross normalization of bigotry in America,” King tweeted, tagging both ABC, which aired Barr’s new sitcom, and its parent company, Disney. King was retweeted thousands of times, and his followers tagged Wanda Sykes, a writer-producer on the “Roseanne” reboot, and other artists and companies associated with the show. By 10:24 a.m., BuzzFeed was up with its follow-up story: “Roseanne Barr Compared Obama Adviser Valerie Jarrett To An Ape.”
Barr felt the heat. “I apologize,” she tweeted minutes after BuzzFeed’s story went up. “I am now leaving Twitter.” (She did not leave Twitter, and she later deleted the tweet saying she was.)
At 11:04 a.m., MSNBC host Joe Scarborough joined in: “Even in the Age of Trump, there are red lines that can never be crossed,” he tweeted to his 2.5 million followers.
At 11:47 a.m., Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson (1 million followers) tweeted “Cancel Roseanne.”
The pile-on led to the next step in the cycle: corporate triage and opportunism. By 10 a.m., ABC executives were huddling about their problem, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter. Sykes publicly quit “Roseanne” at 12:04 p.m. And at 1:48 p.m., ABC announced that it was canceling the show — a huge ratings hit torpedoed by a celebrity’s middle-of-the-night tweet to a random follower.
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values,” said Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment.
One company’s crisis was another’s chance for publicity. While sharing one of the news stories, Dictionary.com cheekily tweeted a link to the definition of “racist.” After Barr seemed to blame her thoughtlessness on Ambien, the sleep drug’s manufacturer tweeted that “racism is not a known side effect” — and suddenly, millions more people were aware of a company called Sanofi US. Around 68,000 people retweeted the company’s’s message that “people of all races, religions and nationalities work at Sanofi every day to improve the lives of people around the world.”
Next came the backlash and double-down. Conservatives, in a whirl of whataboutism, trotted out transgressions of liberals: old profanity from Keith Olbermann, old provocations from Joy Reid and Joy Behar, and a Bill Maher segment in which he paired a photo of President Trump with a photo of an ape (specifically, an orangutan).
“When I was called a human pinkie ring and a goombah while in the @Whitehouse that was deemed acceptable comedy,” tweeted Anthony Scaramucci, who was the president’s communications director for 10 days. “Double standard.”
By Wednesday, Barr had moved from contrition to combat. She retweeted defenders, hit back at harassers and claimed that she thought Jarrett was white and/or Saudi — meaning her tweet couldn’t be racist.
She still had fight in her, and it’s possible this particular cycle could have continued into another day. But that night, there was suddenly a new outrage — this time provided by the left.
On her show “Full Frontal,” Samantha Bee decried the White House’s aggressive actions toward families of undocumented immigrants and then lobbed a vulgar plea at Ivanka Trump: “Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless [unprintably bad word]!”
Daily Beast entertainment reporter Matt Wilstein published a story on the invective at 10:15 p.m., after the show posted the segment on Facebook and just before it aired on TBS.
“I didn’t know quite how much outrage it would cause because it didn’t seem that outside the realm of her normal commentary,” Wilstein says. Bee “uses pretty strong language all the time.”
But the public shaming ballooned Thursday morning after conservative websites picked up the story. Next, the corporations performed their part. Dictionary.com tweeted about the “c-word” at 9:39 a.m. Thursday; at 10:59, it announced that searches for “feckless” were skyrocketing on its site. At 1:16 p.m. Autotrader.com tweeted that it had “suspended our sponsorship” of Bee’s show.
And so on, in the familiar choreography: Liberals noted that women have accused the president himself of using the c-word. Conservatives noted that Maher called Sarah Palin a c-word during a stand-up set. The White House issued a statement calling Bee’s language “vile and vicious,” adding that “the collective silence by the left and its media allies is appalling.”
Shortly after, Bee apologized: “I crossed a line,” she tweeted at 2:16 p.m., “and I deeply regret it.”
In less than three days, both sides had an opportunity to cry foul, to play victim, to go through the motions of outrage and grievance.
“I wonder, had Roseanne not happened, whether [Bee] would’ve even become a story,” says the Daily Beast’s Wilstein. “People were saying, ‘If you’re going to fire Roseanne then you have to fire Sam Bee, too.’ . . . The outrage was driven in response to the Rosanne thing. If [Bee] was an isolated incident, maybe Breitbart would’ve written about it, and that’s it.”
The cycle may have been complete, but at 7:15 a.m. Friday the president was back on the front lines, asking why Bee hadn’t been fired and mocking her “low ratings.”
“This existed on Twitter long before Trump, this intense desire to pile on, and to seek retribution against people you don’t even know,” says the Wrap’s Levine. “That’s probably part of the reason Trump is president. He recognized this facet of our behavior.”