On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times editorial board announced that it had hired journalist and essayist Quinn Norton as its lead opinion writer on the “power, culture and consequences of technology.”
In the hours that followed, Norton indeed confronted some powerful consequences of technology.
Across Twitter, people began pointing out a slew of Norton’s tweets from years ago in which she used gay and racial slurs. Critics also lambasted Norton for referring to Andrew Auernheimer, who helps run the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, as her friend.
By evening, the New York Times had announced that it was parting ways with Norton.
“Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us,” James Bennet, the Times’s editorial page editor, said in a statement. “Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.”
Much of the Twitter controversy centered on Norton’s apparent friendships with some neo-Nazis. In October, she tweeted that Auernheimer, commonly known as “weev,” is “a terrible person, & an old friend of mine. I’ve been very clear on this.” Some of her friends, she said, “are terrible people, & also my friends.”
Auernheimer, a notorious troll and computer hacker, said on a podcast in December that Jewish children “deserve to die.” The website he helps run, the Daily Stormer, is known for attacking Jews, women, immigrants and people of color.
In several Twitter exchanges, mostly in 2013 and 2014, Norton referred to other Twitter users with a gay slur. On multiple occasions she also tweeted the n-word.
“At this point, as far as I’m concerned no one is a terrorist, in exactly the same way no human being is a n‑‑‑‑‑,” she tweeted in October 2013.
In 2009, she retweeted essayist John Perry Barlow, saying, “If God had meant a n‑‑‑‑‑ to talk to our schoolchildren, He would have would have made him president. Oh, but wait. Um.”
In a lengthy Twitter thread on Tuesday, Norton attempted to provide context to some of these tweets. She said she does not support Auernheimer: “that’s not given in how I define friendship. I believe white folks should engage with the racists in their life.”
She described herself as a “queer activist” and she said she uses “their language” when she speaks to communities. She said she used the phrases “occasionally when amongst gay friends in our community.”
She said she retweeted Barlow’s sarcastic tweet that was meant to “slap back at racists” after Barack Obama was first elected president. She also said she used a “variation of offensive language to talk about questions of tone.”
“I was trying to make a point, but something else would have made that point better,” she acknowledged.
“As I said so many times to the @nytimes, no harm no foul,” she tweeted. “I’m sorry I can’t do the work I wanted to do with them. I wish there had been a way, but ultimately, they need to feel safe with how the net will react to their opinion writers.”
Norton, a freelance writer, is best known for her work in Wired, covering hacker culture, Anonymous and the Occupy movement.
She has also written about her years-long romantic relationship with the Internet activist Aaron Swartz, a pioneering software developer who played a role in building the social news site Reddit. He took his own life in 2013. At the time of his death, he was facing federal fraud charges for gaining access to JSTOR, a subscription-only digital library of academic journals, and downloading 4.8 million documents.
In a lengthy first-person essay in the Atlantic, Norton wrote about how and why she agreed to meet with prosecutors during the investigation. She tipped off the prosecutors to a document written by Swartz called the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, thinking the authorities already knew about it. It appears that they didn’t, and reports later indicated that prosecution used the manifesto to show that Swartz intended to widely share the documents he downloaded. Swartz was never convicted of illegal activity.
On Tuesday, before the New York Times said it was parting ways with Norton, she explained in a blog post how she arrived at the job. She said she initially turned down the idea, as she was living in Luxembourg and had an upcoming surgery.
“Also, I tried to imply, strongly, I’m kind of weird,” she said. The editors she met with, Norton said, “made it clear that they weren’t going to get put off by a little weird.”
“As for how weird, well that’s for them to discover,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, I talked candidly about my background, my philosophy, and my approach to the topic. I caveated everything with: if this is at all uncomfortable, not what you were looking for, no harm no foul, thanks for the ask. But they kept talking to me.”
Later Tuesday evening, Norton wrote another post on her blog.
“Well that was fun,” she wrote. “Disregard last post. I’m going to bed.”
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