The troll brigade berates laid off journalists

January 30, 2019

On last night’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the conservative commentator took a few minutes to weigh in on last week’s massive media layoffs. Not so much the layoffs themselves, but a move by Twitter on Sunday to crack down on anyone telling the recently fired journalists that they should “learn to code.”

Former employees of BuzzFeed in particular had complained to Twitter about being inundated with such messages, a reaction Carlson was enthusiastic to characterize as thin-skinned. People were just giving advice, he remarked, but “journalists didn’t see the humor in this at all!”

What he didn’t mention is that the “learn to code” suggestions were interspersed with memes of journalists being beheaded and hanged. Reporters who were Jewish, women, or people of color also received violently anti-Semitic, misogynist, and racist replies and messages. For some, the messages numbered in the hundreds and included death threats. Far from being mocking but ultimately innocuous advice, “learn to code” was part of a campaign originating on an anonymous message board to harass journalists widely disliked by the far right.

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“There’s this patina of plausible deniability where if people object to the harassment, you can call them a snowflake or say they’re overreacting to a simple suggestion,” Talia Lavin, the writer who first traced the campaign to its origin, tells CJR. “But it’s not that I’m ‘triggered’ by the simple phrase ‘learn to code,’ it’s that it’s coming from so many people, and alongside overt hate speech, which is clearly not a coincidence.” 

The pile-on began for Lavin and dozens of journalists within hours of the layoff announcements. Anytime someone posted that they had been let go at BuzzFeed or HuffPo, their mentions and DMs filled up with eerily similar comments.

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On Friday, NBC’s Ben Collins broke the story; Twitter’s response, which was limited to use of the phrase “as part of a targeted harassment campaign,” came two days later. Conservative commentators including Ben Shapiro, Donald Trump, Jr. and David Duke referenced the meme with one-off tweets, signaling to their followers to keep the pressure up, often adding that this was yet another example of a social media platform censoring conservatives.

All the while, ongoing coverage of the layoffs and fallout like BuzzFeed’s initial refusal to pay out vacation kept interest high, making it catnip for trolls. “In subcultural trolling circles, this is referred to as exploitability: there’s lots of attention and energy already on the story, so they are just taking advantage of that kindling,” Whitney Phillips, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, says.

Phillips has extensively studied brigading—the pile-on tactic at play in “learn to code”—and how it amplifies false or highly misleading narratives. This instance is in some ways reminiscent of the 2014 GamerGate conspiracy theory, in which participants used concerns over “ethics in video games journalism” to redirect media attention away from the campaign’s underlying misogynist harassment.

These situations are a minefield for reporters to cover, because giving attention to trolls signals that the approach works to get such bad-faith narratives into the media. And unless reporters are familiar with online mob tactics, they are likely to follow whatever narrative the trolls want, unwittingly amplifying the message they are trying to counter. “Light disinfects, but it also illuminates,” Phillips says.

That doesn’t mean outlets should skip coverage, because brigading can have serious influence. Pro-Trump trolls used the strategy extensively throughout the 2016 election, and the flood-the-lines approach has since helped to spread conspiracy theories like QAnon. Lavin, who often covers the far right, says that the key is to focus on the campaign and not its content. “Don’t take a ‘both-sides’ approach and ask whether journalists should learn to code,” she says, “but rather, look what techniques are used in order to be able to spot similar ones in the future.”

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Zoë Beery is a freelance writer, editor, and audio producer in New York.