Leslie Jones of “Saturday Night Live” and “Ghostbusters” fame has been under attack. For the crime of being in a movie reboot, the actress was called ugly names, sent racist images and relentlessly attacked for hours by dozens of accounts on Twitter. “I feel like I’m in a personal hell,” Jones tweeted to her 189,000 followers. “It’s just too much. It shouldn’t be like this.”
While what’s happened to her is awful, it isn’t remotely new or unusual, especially for women. Every few months, a story breaks about harassment online, and each time responses assume that it is an isolated incident — that the bad behavior is the work of “trolls,” as though the fingers typing the hateful messages don’t belong to real people who live next door, work in the same offices, go to the same schools as everyone else.
In 2012, when Adele and her new baby were attacked online, it was referred to as trolling and dismissed. When Robin Williams’s daughter was driven off Twitter by harassment after her father’s death, Twitter promised to review its policies, but the perpetrators were again dismissed as trolls, and nothing substantive happened. Articles about ignoring trolls and getting on with your life assert that victims of trolling (which include 76 percent of young women, according to one study) could solve the problem by not responding.
Twitter’s response to this latest incident is to once again ban Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart tech editor and instigator of many harassment incidents. Like Chuck Johnson and Azealia Banks, Yiannopoulos is on the very shortlist of people Twitter has banned from using the site permanently. This time, in theory, he will not be allowed to return. His fans, and others who are very confused about what the First Amendment guarantee of free speech means to a private entity like Twitter, insist that he has a right to a platform for his malicious attacks.
Banning Yiannopoulos is unlikely to change anything. (For starters, harassers can and do create new accounts faster than Twitter can.) The real problem is cultural messaging that normalized hateful speech on public platforms and lets Jones’s harassers think nothing of tweeting vitriol under their real names. It’s disingenuous to be shocked that Yiannopoulos has such an ardent following of racist, sexist minions, when one takes Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric into consideration. Trump is the Republican nominee for president, and he didn’t get into that position because no one voted for him.
Trump’s abrasive language garnered him the same kind of supporters as Yiannopoulos, and while it might be easy to dismiss the abuses happening on Twitter, the sad fact is that we have a sitting member of the House of Representatives on television claiming that no other group has made as many contributions to civilization as white people. School textbooks have become a battleground between historical facts and racist rewrites of history. As we see a return to xenophobia poorly disguised as anti-terrorist strategy, we should be asking why as a society we are choosing to go backward instead of forward.
In 2016, some 50 years after the end of Jim Crow, America should be striving toward equality. Instead, the KKK is announcing a comeback, millennials are turning out to be just as racist as their parents’ generation, and hate once again is a viable platform for a candidate for public office. Perhaps that’s why black women are the most worried about the possibility of a Trump presidency, according to a recent poll, more so than even Hispanic men, whom the candidate has openly vilified.
This is not just a matter of speech, despite the persistent notion that online harassment is easy to escape because in theory you can close the tab or turn off the computer. Online harassment spilled offline years ago. Harassers may imitate a deceased parent, contact employers in an attempt get a target fired or track someone down and drive them from their home. The last is often accomplished via SWATting, a tactic where a harasser files phony reports alleging a hostage situation or something similar so that police will in theory send the SWAT team into their target’s home.
Can we really claim that the trolls are outside the norm when the norm dismisses their behavior or even supports it on flimsy free speech grounds? After all, the people behind those keyboards sending hateful messages and imagery can vote. They can work on political campaigns; they can run for election. Ignoring bigots in our midst and failing to take them seriously can have a negative impact on everyone.
People like Yiannopoulos and his supporters are the symptom, but the real disease is the way that bigotry is being normalized as something harmless. It’s not. Some of the world’s darkest moments have happened because hate of “the other” spread like wildfire and stripped people of empathy, reason or basic human decency.
The harassment of Leslie Jones made news because she’s famous. But Jones is far from alone, and that says something horrible about what our society considers normal speech. Online harassment isn’t a separate problem from offline bigotry, it’s just a window into a mindset we like to pretend is rare instead of distressingly common.