The harassment of Felicia Sonmez, and the ‘fake news’ chorus

A brief word about Felicia Sonmez’s tweet about Kobe Bryant, about which a great deal has been written already:

At 3:50pm on Sunday, Sonmez tweeted out a link to a 2016 Daily Beast story about Bryant’s rape case, his semi-confession, and the gruesome forensic evidence of the act itself. Shortly after, Sonmez began to receive a flood of harassment. At 4:44pm, Donald Trump, Jr., quote-tweeted Sonmez, tagging her publication. “You @washingtonpost reporters really can’t help yourselves, can you?” the president’s son asked his 4 million followers. 

Shortly after the Trump quote-tweet, the Daily Caller News Foundation’s Chuck Ross and Breitbart’s Kyle Morris added their two cents, further activating the right-wing harassment engine that uses their articles and social feeds as its fuel. Twitter-news blog Twitchy, a notoriously effective director of far-right online energy, posted a sneering article about Sonmez’s tweet at 4:51pm. (In the days that followed, it would publish five more, including one that ultimately declared Sonmez an “entitled brat.”) A Gamergate subreddit—a smaller one, with only 12,500 subscribers—published a long post about Sonmez’s tweet at 5:51pm, alleging Sonmez had lied about her own experience dealing with sexual misconduct.

Within three hours, according to one screen grab, Sonmez’s tweet had in excess of 26,000 replies. Those included a response from the National Republican Congressional Committee’s communications director, Chris Pack. 

It is easy to believe that Sonmez feared for her life—as she said, and as the Washington Post’s responses would at least seem to acknowledge. Of the hundreds of misogynistic comments directed at Sonmez, some contained graphic images and suggestions of violence. “People know your home address now,” one user tweeted to Sonmez. 

Not every reaction to Sonmez’s tweet came from the far right, but it seems that the right-wing Twitter apparatus amplified and exacerbated responses to Sonmez, many of which became far more extreme and dangerous. This apparatus includes public officials who dislike the difficult work of Sonmez and the Washington Post on principle—not just when it involves exposing sexual misconduct at moments they consider inappropriate. 

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Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Matt Wolking, a representative for the president, had replied to Sonmez’s tweet about Kobe Bryant. Wolking replied to a different and unrelated tweet during the same period, and was not part of the harassment.

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Sam Thielman is the Tow editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.