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The Leslie Jones hack is the flashpoint of the alt-right's escalating culture war

SNL 40th Anniversary Celebration Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

On Wednesday morning, the website and personal accounts of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones were hacked. Nude photos stolen from her iCloud account were posted on the website, and the hackers leaked her address, telephone number, and other personal information. They also made references to Harambe the gorilla, continuing a racist internet meme that has followed Jones since the July release of her controversial film.

Public outcry immediately ensued, Jones’s defenders took up the hashtag #IStandWithLeslie, and Homeland Security announced that it was investigating the crime.

On Thursday, the ongoing story of the online harassment campaign against Jones became even more overtly political than it already was, with this tweet to Jones by Hillary Clinton:

Clinton’s choice to publicly lend support to Jones wasn’t a simple gesture of solidarity. The tweet came just hours after Clinton gave a campaign speech that called out the internet’s growing alt-right movement — the primarily online community of conservatives and right-wing extremists that has spent weeks harassing Jones.

Before her speech, Clinton had spent the week doubling down on her criticism that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has chosen to align himself with conservative extremists, nationalists, and white supremacists — whose ideas may be becoming less and less "fringe" due to the alt-right’s push into the mainstream.

Clinton’s post-speech tweet to Jones was a tacit acknowledgment that Jones — a woman whose greatest offense was being one of four female leads in an action comedy — has landed in the middle of a complex ideological divide and a culture war that seems to have no end in sight.

The harassment campaign against Jones started months ago

Many have compared the hacking of Jones’s website to the 2014 hacking of a number of actors, including Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and Kaley Cuoco. The hackers responsible publicly leaked the women’s private nude photos, just as the hackers responsible for this attack did to Jones.

But there’s one crucial difference between that incident and this one: The hacking of Jones’s website was overtly political, and widely perceived as retaliation against Jones for the events that led to the Twitter ban of alt-right champion Milo Yiannopoulos.

Yiannopoulos is an extremely popular conservative icon who previously had a large Twitter following. He spent the weekend before his ban from the social media platform tacitly encouraging his followers to harass Jones following the US premiere of Ghostbusters. Yiannopoulos himself had directed subtly misogynistic and racist insults toward Jones prior to the film’s release.

But on July 18, when Jones published a tweet describing the types of harassment she received, Yiannopoulos accused her of being unable to handle criticism, and his followers saw this as a cue to unleash their worst harassment yet upon Jones. After more than five hours of sustained abuse, Jones declared she was taking a break from Twitter. The next day, Twitter finally permanently banned Yiannopoulos. The site had previously attempted to ban him twice earlier in 2016, but in both cases his followers successfully lobbied for his reinstatement.

After the banning, Yiannopoulos told Vox he didn’t need Twitter to reach his most loyal supporters. It would seem Jones’s hacking proves him right.

Yiannopoulos is far from being just a "troll"

Media pundits like to label Yiannopoulos a "troll," though this seems an inadequate descriptor for a man able to command hundreds of thousands of followers to go after his chosen targets. Jones’s website hackers didn’t explicitly claim association with Yiannopoulos or his followers, but they referenced Yiannopoulos’s Twitter ban on Jones’s webpage. And hacking, doxxing, and using private photos to shame their targets are all tactics of the alt-right movement.

But Yiannopoulos is far more than just an internet instigator; he’s the most well-known writer for the conservative media blog Breitbart, which catapulted into prominence earlier this month when Donald Trump named its CEO, Steve Bannon, as his new campaign manager. As the "face" of Breitbart, everything Yiannopoulos does is overtly political, particularly now that a presidential candidate has aligned himself with Yiannopoulos’s website.

After the hacking, Yiannopoulos distanced himself from Jones’s hackers, stating to the Hollywood Reporter, "I'm distressed to hear that Leslie Jones has been hacked and naked pictures of her have been posted online. I know we had our differences after my review of Ghostbusters but I wish her all the best at what must be a deeply upsetting time."

However, on Yiannopoulos’s Snapchat account, where he moved after his Twitter ban, he was less circumspect, noting "karma’s a bitch" by way of implying that Jones had somehow gotten what she deserved.

It’s this outlook among Yiannopoulos and his followers — that Jones somehow earned this treatment and has brought her sustained harassment upon herself — that has raised alarm among not just Jones’s supporters but also progressives and the political left at large.

As the alt-right movement has grown, its "trolling" tactics have grown more insidious

Since Gamergate, the first major battle of the emerging subculture war, the alt-right movement has continually targeted progressive communities. Its ideology is loosely built on a sense of male disenfranchisement, a conservative political viewpoint, a hatred of feminism, and a resistance to attempts to diversify spaces that have traditionally been dominated by white men.

The alt-right encompasses large swaths of internet culture and male-dominated online communities. It overlaps with sections of 4chan and Reddit, the men's rights movement, pickup artist culture, the online atheist and libertarian movements, and more.

And as the alt-right has expanded, it has gotten more and more vicious — prone to harassing anyone perceived as existing in opposition to its creed. In Jones’s case, she came under fire for being a black woman, and for being the Ghostbusters cast member with the biggest online presence. (Among Jones’s Ghostbusters co-stars, Melissa McCarthy is much less active on Twitter, while Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon eschew social media entirely.)

Clinton’s tweet to Jones underscores just how insidiously the alt-right has pushed its message and tactics into the mainstream of internet culture. Among its burgeoning champions is WikiLeaks, which openly aligned itself with Yiannopoulos in the wake of Twitter’s decision to ban him.

This move came during a startling month in which WikiLeaks leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee — which probably resulted from the site’s collusion with Russian state hackers — doxxed the personal and financial info of many Democratic donors, doxxed millions of Turkish women during the week of a government coup, and tweeted and then deleted a notably anti-Semitic tweet. The whole package caused Wired to declare that WikiLeaks had "lost the moral high ground" it once had, and that it’s become little more than "an alt-right subreddit."

When Jones was hacked, the hackers placed an exchange between WikiLeaks and Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey over Yiannopoulos at the top of her website:

The hackers’ use of WikiLeaks’ tweet affirmed their hack as a political statement. It also underscores just how potentially powerful the internet’s alt-right factions can be. At this point, calling any of Yiannopoulos’s followers "trolls" instead of racist right-wing extremists who potentially have an army of hackers at their disposal is not only disingenuous but dangerous.

Outcry over the Jones hack underscores the public’s growing resistance to the alt-right’s bullying tactics and hate speech

After the hack of Jones’s website, Katy Perry tweeted that the hacking and sharing of Jones’s photos was "racist, hate-filled misogynoir." The word "misogynoir" identifies the way that black women specifically experience violence and dehumanization as a result of their race and gender identities. Black women like Jones are more likely to get harassed on Twitter and other social media websites, and the specific kind of harassment they get is more likely to be explicitly racist, demeaning, sexualized, and threatening than that faced by other user groups.

Twitter has long been criticized for its failure to protect the women and people of color who are most likely to receive this kind of abuse. And after weeks of Jones fending off bullying and threats from the alt-right, the hack has proven that Jones and her supporters were right to have raised the alarm with Twitter: There was serious substance to the abuse Yiannopoulos’s followers were leveling against her.

Unfortunately, Twitter’s policies have yet to undergo serious overhaul in the wake of the first round of Jones’s harassment by Yiannopoulos and his followers — though on Friday, Bloomberg reported that the site was working on a keyword-based filter. (Twitter also expanded its filtering abilities and posted a progress report of its attempts to combat site violations.) And while Jones was persuaded to come back after that initial wave of misogynoir, she has yet to speak publicly, on Twitter or elsewhere, since the hacking.

Of course, Twitter taking more serious action against Jones’s abusers couldn’t have affected their hacking of a totally different website. But the conversation about Twitter’s response is indicative of the public’s desire for a change in the nature of the discussion over what happened to Jones.

Public pushback against referring to what Yiannopoulos and the alt-right movement do online as "trolling" has already begun. In a heated conversation on Reddit’s r/movies subreddit Wednesday, multiple people spoke about the need to stop referring to racist and right-wing supremacist hate speech in this manner, because the idea of a "troll" is dismissive and minimizing, implying that the troll’s object should just learn to deal with the harassment.

"The problem seems to be that racism and harassment is brushed-off as mere trolling that someone should simply get over," explained one user. "This is actually a very dangerous idea, because it communicates to people who are the victims of harassment that they're in the wrong for feeling attacked, or worse, having their sense of safety violated."

Increasingly, racist and sexist harassment online is seen as an outgrowth of the very real, very dangerous ideologies that underlie the extreme right wing’s political objectives. This idea formed the core of Clinton’s no-holds-barred speech against Trump’s extremist alignments. After all, Trump, who has notably refused to condemn the hate speech of his followers, has also tacitly encouraged them to shoot his opponent, in what some experts have labeled a form of terrorism through violent language.

In her speech, Clinton indirectly tied Trump’s own use of violent language to that used against Jones, when she specifically attacked his appointment of Bannon and characterized Breitbart itself as a disreputable news organization.

"The de facto merger between Breitbart and the Trump campaign represents a landmark achievement for the ‘alt-right,’" she said. "A fringe element has effectively taken over the Republican Party."

This "fringe element" has also successfully hijacked online political discourse through its violent speech and harassment tactics. It could be easy to read the Jones hack as a petty vendetta against a single, unfortunate target by one man’s rabid fans. But the bullying, threats, hacking, doxxing, and hate speech used against Jones represent a microcosm of a much larger system of politicized violence.

Jones’s harassment has direct ties to both WikiLeaks and Breitbart, both of which aligned themselves with the Republican presidential candidate at nearly the exact moment of her harassment. The timing is indicative of the alt-right’s increasing coalescence as a movement, and its increasing willingness to adopt the language and deploy the measures of extremism.

The act of hacking Jones’s website is an example of those extremes. But in the internet’s ongoing culture war, this may be simply a stepping stone on the road to a larger battle — and next time, its targets could be even less protected than Jones.

Watch: Clinton comments on Trump and the alt-right