The emails began as a trickle but soon flooded my inbox.
They varied in tone, but most relayed the same message: I had incited violence against Donald Trump supporters with my work as a Washington Post journalist.
“Stop fanning the flames of racial dissonance,” one read. “You are incorrect in your assessment of Trump supporters. You either know this and are lying, or you are deluded. You should be ashamed. You should apologize for your hate-filled and divisive words.”
Another, sporting the subject line “Saw your article promoting violence against Republican voters,” read “Pretty disappointed by it. Convinced my father in law to drop your paper after it, and I took your site off the adblock shortlist. You earned your company less money. Take care loser.”
Another, though this one was slightly confusing: “Hello, your words caused violence in Clinton campaign supporters. I’m on the fence and i really don’t want any part that allows dehumanizing comments to occur.”
“See?” said another. “That gets your curiosity you worthless f–––ing scum. You call Trump supporters violent yet the leftist cucks are the ones attacking people. Make sure you’re preparing for your jail sentence, scum like you won’t last in public once our party takes power.”
I was mystified. They didn’t mention a specific article. Making it odder still was the fact that I have never, in my career, written specifically about Trump supporters, either for this newspaper or on social media. On Twitter, I’m more apt to argue about the best Warren Zevon album than the election.
Still, they poured in, each one leaving me more mystified.
“Your editorial board and constant bias in text has lead the easily-manipulated into attacking Trump supporters — physically,” yet another read. “You are a danger to the public and nothing short of crime-enforcement.”
The accusations were sharp, angry and confident. Most confusing of all was the fact that none of the emails listed a specific article.
I knew I hadn’t incited violence and that I have never been “lying” in my work (and sure hoped I wasn’t a “loser,” “scum” or a “danger to the public”). Furthermore, I knew I had never called Trump supporters violent, even though several readers made that suggestion.
What was happening? Should I be worried for my own safety?
Something was rotten in . . . well, as it turned out, Reddit, the social media forum that calls itself “The Front Page of the Internet” and is often associated with Internet mischief, and worse.
In the midst of this, I received an email from my colleague Abby Ohlheiser, who covers Web culture for the Post’s Intersect blog, informing me that I might be receiving strange emails because an extremely pointed message was posted in r/The_Donald — a subreddit or a page on the massive social message board Reddit — encouraging its readers do just that.
It’s a subreddit that The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser wrote is “the unofficial headquarters of Donald Trump on Reddit.” She wrote:
The Trump subreddit has no official affiliation with the Trump campaign. It’s simply one point in a nexus of the right-leaning Internet literate who have thrown their memes behind Trump’s presidential run.
As it turned out, the supporters were angry, in part, because I had written an article reporting that the Anti-Defamation League declared popular Internet meme, Pepe the Frog, which is sometimes associated with Trump, a hate symbol.
That’s right — a cartoon frog caused all this.
The frog was born as a character in Matt Furie’s comic book series “Boy’s Club,” became Internet shorthand for having a good time and was eventually depicted with swastika tattoos and their ilk. He also was sometimes depicted as Donald Trump, which I believe is what caused the ire.
The Reddit post linked that article with the alleged attack of a Trump supporter at the protests in El Cajon, Calif., after police fatally shot a black man who raised a vape smoking device from his pocket and assumed a shooting stance. The shooting and subsequent protests happened the day my piece was published.
The Reddit post, which can be found here, read in part:
The media get their briefs from the Clinton campaign and it must end.
We will also demand that the accused media corporations — whose livelihoods depend on exactly these rights of speech and expression — respond to their irresponsible and dangerous dehumanization of Trump supporters and our culture.
Dehumanizing language leads to violence.
Painting a loved and harmless cartoon frog a ‘hate symbol’ is no different than Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines egging on the Rwandan genocide by referring to Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’. They were later sentenced by an international tribunal to 30-35 years in prison for their crimes. The goal is the same here: dehumanize the enemy to make them pests that must be literally exterminated.
They want you exterminated.
Don’t let the media tell you they were reporting on a story created by the ADL. The evidence is clear to anyone who looks, this was a kooky conspiracy theory started by the Hillary Clinton that her goons spread throughout the media. Basic research would have shown that Pepe is a fun meme. They ran with this to dehumanize you. To justify violence toward you.
Along with the statement “Ask those responsible for the violence to apologize. End this. NOW,” the post included my name and email address. Finally, it closed with:
We are a peaceful movement. Our political ideas are just as valid — if not more — than those of the Clinton campaign. We do not deserve to be dehumanized.
We are the people. And we have had enough.
Here’s the post:
Did writing a story about an organization naming Pepe the Frog a hate symbol cause someone else to attack a person?
I sure didn’t think so, but I contacted Viking83, one of the subreddit’s “mods” or organizers, to ask why this particular story, one about a cartoon frog, supposedly incited a reaction so strong I was called “scum” and told to “prepare for my jail sentence.”
This person was very polite and conscientious but refused an interview. For the sake of transparency, here was his reply:
I’m very serious about you carrying a responsibility for the horrible attack last night. While you are busying yourself with symbols and identity politics, you are legitimizing violence against peaceful Americans of a peaceful political persuasion.
How about I interview you instead and publish to the sub? You’ll be given approval rights and publishing rights to WaPo afterwards (for reciprocal approval rights). We work in related fields, let’s put it like that.
I think this might actually mend some wounds and lead us down a path where we battle on political ideas, not on violence. And it’ll be good content for you guys as well, especially in your digital edition.
In a second exchange, this person said much the same.
Did it matter? Probably not, but I wondered what power such a hive mind might have. Spreading misinformation is easy. As Lisa Fazio, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, explained, there’s a psychological concept called the illusory truth effect.
“The illusory truth effect,” Fazio told me, “is the concept that when you hear or read a statement repeatedly you believe it’s more true than if you’ve read it once.”
Researchers believe the reason is that the brain, in an attempt to avoid expending unnecessary energy, relies on “fluency.” The more the brain receives information, even if it’s false, the more it believes that information to be true.
“People tend to first rely on this fluency signal before they decide to do the more difficult search of their memory to decide if something is true or not,” Fazio said.
In other words, an organized mob can make people believe things — even if they know those things to be untrue. In one study, participants were told repeatedly that the Scottish dress men wear was called a “sari.” Though the participants knew the correct word was “kilt” and that a sari was traditional Indian garb for women, they would begin doubting themselves.
It’s difficult not to see the potential power an organized mob, particularly one that follows nonsensical instructions on an anonymous Internet post, might have.
This time, nothing bad truly happened. Journalists, after all, are accustomed to emails from readers who disagree with what they’ve written. Some are ugly and mean.
Of course, those emails are not generally organized by an anonymous group.
Being targeted by a subreddit is admittedly a strange experience. In the end, I probably only received about 30 to 40 emails — which is light in comparison to what many of my colleagues experience on a daily basis.
But it was a taste of what being targeted by an anonymous corner of the Internet feels like, and the taste is not a sweet one.
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