How sexist, racist attacks on Kamala Harris have spread online — a case study

Sen. Kamala D. Harris, center, poses for a photo during an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority gala last year in Columbia, S.C. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg)

Former vice president Joe Biden’s history-making pick of a woman of color to share the Democratic ticket has been a popular decision. A Post-ABC News poll taken in the days after his selection of his former rival Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) found that a solid 54 percent of Americans approved, while only 29 percent had a negative opinion.

But in the fetid corners of the Internet, a different set of plotlines took hold. A racist trope questioned whether Harris, a daughter of immigrants who was born in the United States, is constitutionally eligible to be vice president. Another suggested her heritage, which is Jamaican and Indian, disqualifies her from claiming she is Black.

One pernicious line of attack on Harris is as old as misogyny itself. It claims that a woman who has served as San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and U.S. senator slept her way into those positions.

In the first week after Harris was named to the ticket, the sexualized hashtag #heelsupharris appeared 35,479 times in Twitter posts, according to an analysis by the media intelligence platform Zignal Labs. It also found that, immediately following the running-mate announcement, false claims about Harris were being shared at least 3,000 times an hour on Twitter.

Raw numbers, however, do not get to the roots of these lies. So we have looked into one example. In this case, what started as an offensive post on one man’s personal Facebook page was seized upon and expanded by malicious actors, then blasted across the Internet. Ultimately, it would be seen more than 630,000 times on Twitter alone, adding fuel to sexist attacks being made on Harris by leading right-wing figures and even the president of the United States.

A misogynistic Facebook post goes viral

The day after Biden announced his selection of Harris, a former California state assemblyman named Steve Baldwin wrote a post on his Facebook page that began: “I do remember Kamala Harris....” He recalled seeing her around Sacramento in the 1990s with Willie Brown, the assembly speaker, who was separated from his wife.

An excerpt from the Facebook post:
Willie launched her career because she was having sex with him. The idea that she is an ‘independent’ woman who worked her way up the political ladder because she worked hard is baloney. She slept her way into powerful jobs.
Steve Baldwin, former California State Assembly member, Aug. 12, 2020

That is false. Harris dated Brown, and he appointed her to two state boards, which may have been ethically questionable. But their relationship had been over for about eight years by the time Harris ran for her first elective office. During that campaign for district attorney in 2003, her past with Brown, who had by then become mayor of San Francisco, was used against her by her opponents. Harris described Brown as “an albatross hanging around my neck.”

As it turned out, the attacks against her backfired. Harris won in a runoff with 56 percent of the vote, beginning a political rise that would see her elected three times statewide in the most populous state in the country.

Baldwin, who sometimes writes for conservative websites, did not expect anyone beyond his Facebook friends to read his post. It got a modest 185 “likes.” But then something strange began happening.

The post took on a life of its own, as Baldwin explains below:

What Baldwin wrote underwent a transformation as it spread like a brushfire across the dry tinder of the digital ecosystem. It began carrying the headline “Steve Baldwin exposes Kamala Harris,” and identifying him as a former congressman, which he is not. Odd Web links were added. In some instances, so was a cartoon that depicted Harris engaged in oral sex. It was rewritten to include new opening paragraphs that accused Harris, who got married in 2014, of being an “opportunistic liar” when she spoke of her affection for the stepchildren who call her Momala. You can see some of these changes on the post below:

The altered post showed up on dozens of right-wing blogs, on Facebook group pages and in comments sections. It also found its way to non-political sites that cater to people with such varied interests as day trading, biblical prophecy, firearms and the medical transcription field. A few examples below:

Facebook, which appears to be the primary platform on which it spread, doesn’t make its analytics data transparent. But from the information that is available, there are signs that the metastasis of Baldwin’s post was not random.

Mentions on disparate websites spiked over a short period during the first week of September, which was nearly a month after Baldwin wrote his original version. They were being generated from accounts with names such as “Here4money” on a stock-trading forum and “Big Boy” on a biker blog. “To see a cluster of identical posts on everything from a motorcycle forum to a pornographic Tumblr account suggests a behind-the-scenes coordinated effort by these pseudo-anonymous actors,” said Tim Chambers, the head of Dewey Digital, the digital and social media arm of the public affairs firm Dewey Square Group.

Mainstream conservatives fuel the fire

The digital smear campaign reinforced a narrative about Harris that was already being pushed by prominent mainstream conservative commentators. Here are two examples:

Willie Brown, the former speaker of California Assembly, former mayor of San Francisco ... has been very open about the fact that the affair they had is what boosted her up.
Radio host Rush Limbaugh, Aug. 18, 2020
Kamala Harris moved up in California politics because she was dating Willie Brown.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Sept. 21, 2020

All of this presented a dilemma for the women’s groups that had promised to have Harris’s back. “We were holding fire for a while, because we didn’t want to give it lift,” says Tina Tchen, who was chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama and who currently heads TIME’S UP Now, an advocacy organization born of the #MeToo movement.

But then, during a campaign rally in New Hampshire, President Trump addressed the possibility that a 2020 Democratic victory might put Harris in position to become the first female president.

I don’t want to see a woman president get in to that position the way she’d do it, and she is not competent.
President Trump, Aug. 28, 2020

Tchen explains how Trump’s declaration changed the calculation:

How to stop a fake, misogynistic narrative?

A few weeks ago, members of the Democratic Women’s Caucus on Capitol Hill confronted top Facebook executives with evidence of what was being spread about Harris on their platform.

Here, Rep. Jackie Speier, who counts many Facebook employees among her Northern California constituents, describes the contentious session:

Facebook and other social media companies have taken no action, Speier said. “We’ve seen it over and over again, but it’s been particularly harmful, I think, to our vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic side and speaks volumes of how women are going to be treated moving forward on these various social platforms.”

As for Baldwin, his experience has altered his own understanding of how false information is trafficked through social media and other digital channels.

“It makes me think I probably need to be more careful in how I phrase things, and does make me more skeptical of other posts that I see,” Baldwin said.

All of this, of course, comes too late. What Baldwin wrote on Facebook, casually and carelessly, lives on and continues to spread. His story is just a small part of the picture, but one that is being repeated countlessly, feeding a climate of toxicity that confronts Harris and every other woman who dares to rise.

Additional production by Joy Sharon Yi and Danielle Kunitz.

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