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The “controversy” over journalist Sarah Jeong joining the New York Times, explained

In standing by its decision to hire the well-known tech journalist, the Times shut down a major bullying tactic of the alt-right. 

Sarah Jeong
Sarah Jeong in a photo from a tweet in July 2015.
Twitter: sarahjeong
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.

The New York Times announced this week that tech journalist Sarah Jeong will join its editorial board — and the ensuing outcry from right-wing Twitter was both swift and familiar.

Jeong is a venerated tech culture journalist with a broad range of expertise, known for everything from authoring a book on systemic online harassment to reporting on major internet case law. (She’s currently a senior writer at Vox’s sister site The Verge, which she’ll be departing for the Times.)

She’s also an outspoken progressive and feminist, making her an obvious target for the right-wing internet mobs that have been especially active of late, launching organized smear campaigns against left-leaning celebrities by weaponizing their old jokes and tweets.

The most high-profile recent example of this is Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who was fired by Disney after a concerted push to dredge up and circulate several of Gunn’s old tweets. Many of the tweets contained jokes about topics like rape and pedophilia — but they were also several years old, purposely taken out of context, and pointedly curated and misrepresented to paint a very specific picture of Gunn with the express goal of getting him fired.

A similar thing happened to Jeong, and the resulting fray became something of a test for the New York Times, as well as a test of the power of alt-right internet mobs. In this case, the mob lost — which might be a sign that one of the alt-right’s signature trolling tactics is losing its effectiveness. But it’s also a cautionary tale that in this new era of social media deep-diving, no one’s past is safe from scrutiny.

After the New York Times announced Jeong’s hiring, the alt-right used her old tweets to accuse her of being racist against white people

Once Jeong’s hiring was announced, her detractors immediately started digging through her internet history to see what they could find. A survey of Jeong’s past commentary on Twitter reveals several mainly sarcastic tweets dating back to 2013, which were largely discussing and responding to the oppressive mentality of white culture:

In tweets like the one embedded above, Jeong appeared to be commenting on the idea that white people often believe they are being discriminated against when they aren’t. To equate “being mean to white people” with the actual systemic oppression and marginalization of minority groups is a false equivalency.

But Jeong’s detractors removed this type of context, and began to circulate her old tweets in curated roundups that quickly went viral:

The screencapped tweets painted a picture of Jeong sarcastically engaging in the same hyperbolic ranting rhetoric employed by alt-right internet groups like Gamergate. As members of those movements have done countless times before, Jeong’s detractors organized to deploy a system of performative outrage, using the screencaps as “evidence” that Jeong was racist and launching a torrent of violent, racist, and misogynistic speech at both Jeong and the New York Times to voice its displeasure. The screencapped tweets also circulated among fringe alt-right sites like the Daily Caller and Gateway Pundit.

The cries of racism against Jeong then drew supporters in the mainstream — including writer Andrew Sullivan, who published a widely derided opinion piece that characterized Jeong’s comments as promoting “eliminationist rhetoric” and portraying white people as “subhuman.”

On Thursday morning, Jeong issued a statement. As a female journalist on the internet as well as a woman of color, she is no stranger to harassment — as she herself noted before explaining that in the tweets being circulated as proof of her supposed “racism,” she had been engaging “in what I thought of at the time as counter-trolling.”

Jeong wrote:

While it was intended as satire, I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers. These comments were not aimed at a general audience, because general audiences do not engage in harassment campaigns. I can understand how hurtful these posts are out of context, and would not do it again.

(It’s also worth noting that since the Times announcement of her hiring, she has been staving off an onslaught of racist and misogynistic comments.)

Amid the backlash, the Times came to Jeong’s defense and stood by its decision to hire her. In a statement issued Thursday, it acknowledged having “candid conversations” and reviewing Jeong’s social media history as part of a “thorough vetting process.” While the Times explicitly stated that it “does not condone” Jeong’s past tweets, it also made clear that it understood the context in which they were made.

Editors at the Verge followed with a scathing condemnation of the bullying tactics being used by Jeong’s detractors. And many of Jeong’s fellow journalists spent the day defending her on Twitter.

The Times statement might seem like a surprising show of support from a media outlet that’s occasionally been perceived as willing to entertain “both sides” rhetoric around these kinds of issues. But the New York Times has also been around this block before — quite recently, in fact.

Many people have compared Jeong’s old tweets to those of Quinn Norton, who was let go from the Times’s editorial board in part because her old tweets were resurfaced

In February, the New York Times briefly attempted to hire another tech writer, Quinn Norton, as a member of its editorial board. Norton, a journalist known for being deeply embedded within online hacker culture, seemed like as good a fit as any for the paper — until it was discovered 1) that she had openly supported the notorious neo-Nazi weev, a famous hacker whose outright anti-Semitism ultimately led to his becoming a staff member of one of the internet’s most notorious white supremacist websites; and 2) that her Twitter history contained several instances where she used gay and racial slurs.

As recently as last fall, Norton had defended her friendship with weev, asserting that “having racist friends and family” is “an inevitable part of whiteness” and that the real problem is that the act of shunning them “enables and perpetuates their racism and the harm it does in the world.”

So when the Times announced its hiring of Norton, it kicked off a debate over whether her friendship with weev amounted to a tacit sanctioning of his beliefs. Adding fuel to the fire were older tweets in which she used the kind of offensive language frequent within hacker culture. Motivated Twitter sleuths quickly unearthed several instances, ceasing after 2014, in which Norton posted tweets containing gay slurs and in at least two instances dropped the n-word. Norton would later acknowledge that they “weren’t my best tweets,” claiming she’d been trying to fit in with the hacker culture she wrote about.

Less than 24 hours after announcing Norton’s hiring, the Times’s opinion editor, James Bennet, issued a statement declaring that Norton would not be working with the Times after all:

(The “new information” was presumably the revelation of Norton’s social media history and friendship with weev.)

Meanwhile, Norton claimed “no harm, no foul” and stated that the backlash against her hiring was an example of “context collapse,” or a moment when two sides approach the same conversation with totally different mindsets. From her perspective, the intense focus on her friendship with weev and on her old tweets led to the larger context of her socially progressive past work and writing being dismissed.

But in retrospect, Norton’s un-hiring was the opposite of context collapse — in that the debate over her hiring, and the Times’s subsequent response, did very thoroughly consider the context surrounding both her friendship with weev and her old offensive tweets. That in itself makes Norton’s situation strikingly different from those of Gunn and Jeong, in which the alt-right’s mechanism of staging outrage over old tweets specifically relied on weaponizing them by removing and obscuring as much context as possible.

The alt-right has codified a method of rapid-fire dirt-digging and outrage deployment — but it may be losing its effectiveness

As I recently discussed on Vox’s daily podcast Today, Explained, the alt-right has codified a systemic method of deep-diving into perceived enemies’ past and decontextualizing their online interactions, with the goal of demonizing them through sustained campaigns of harassment and very loud virtual yelling.

It’s a simultaneously diabolical and simple strategy: greatly exaggerate and feign outrage over your so-called foe’s behavior while removing, distorting, or ignoring the context surrounding it.

This approach, which is rooted in the earliest days of the Gamergate movement, has since successfully been used to target everyone from members of the media to actual gaming employees who’ve lost their jobs after Gamergaters brought their out-of-context tweets to their employers’ attentions and demanded they be punished.

It was this method that ultimately led to Disney firing Gunn after his detractors dredged up a litany of tweets, some of them a decade old, in which he made jokes about child sexual abuse. They began circulating screenshots of the tweets curated to look as if Gunn wrote about little else; then they feigned uproar over the fact that anyone so terrible could be allowed to keep his job, and called for his termination.

To the average reasonable person viewing the situation with context, it’s easy to understand that Gunn is not a pedophile, and that the jokes were just jokes — not particularly funny ones, but jokes nonetheless. And for his part, Gunn has been open about his growth away from that kind of shock humor, stating that “I am very, very different than I was a few years ago; today I try to root my work in love and connection and less in anger. My days saying something just because it’s shocking and trying to get a reaction are over.” Yet the outrage centered on his old tweets rested on an assumption that Gunn and his jokes were immoral.

The glimmer of hope in this story is that the alt-right’s success in targeting Gunn, who stood at the helm of a multibillion-dollar franchise with Guardians of the Galaxy, might have ultimately backfired. Gunn’s firing, the factors surrounding it, and the Guardians cast’s striking statement of support asking Disney to rehire him have all drawn international media attention. The result is that the increased visibility about what the alt-right is doing, and how disingenuous its motivations are, has made its methods more widely known and transparent than ever.

Thus, the effectiveness of targeting someone online by snowing their employer with incessant claims of outrageous past behavior and staging an outcry may already be greatly diminished.

In the short period since Gunn got the ax, we’ve seen attempts to go after a number of celebrities with the “promoting pedophilia” attack, each time with no success. Those targeted with dredged-up “evidence” from years past include comedians Michael Ian Black, Sarah Silverman, and Community creator Dan Harmon — but in each case, the trolling went nowhere. Harmon did apologize and delete his Twitter account after an old shock humor skit from 2009 resurfaced on 4chan as part of the trolling effort. But Adult Swim, the home of Harmon’s series Rick and Morty, simply issued a statement noting that Harmon had already removed the offensive material from the internet years ago, and it would not be taking action in response.

And in the case of Sarah Jeong and the New York Times, a clear-eyed refusal to be baited has emerged.

The Times’s previous un-hiring of Quinn Norton has led many of Jeong’s harassers to call for an equivalent reactionary response to their complaints. But there’s a clear distinction between Norton’s old tweets and Jeong’s. Norton’s old tweets were an attempt to fit in with a toxic community, and used actually harmful, homophobic, ableist, and racist slurs that could have made others around her uncomfortable — especially given that her defense of her friendship with a neo-Nazi was both recent and ongoing.

By contrast, Jeong’s tweets were, at best, mean to some white people, and were written in a context reasonably understood to be a sarcastic response to people who were perpetually harassing her on the basis of her gender and race. The alt-right often works very hard to obfuscate these distinctions, but the Times’s decision to stand by Jeong — and to drop Norton once her use of harmful slurs came to light — shows that they still matter.

More importantly, the Times seems to have realized, as The Verge editor Nilay Patel put it on Twitter, that “digging for old, out-of-context tweets in bad faith to drum up outrage is bad for the news and society at large.” Patel and his fellow Verge editors expanded on this statement in their statement:

This is not a good-faith conversation, it’s intimidation. So we’re not going to fall for these disingenuous tactics. And it’s time other newsrooms learn to spot these hateful campaigns for what they are: attempts to discredit and undo the vital work of journalists who report on the most toxic communities on the internet.

This distinction between “good-faith conversation” and “intimidation” is an extremely important one — both because it indicates an increasing awareness and understanding of the tactics that troll mobs like these use to target their enemies, and because it signals that the only way to win against such tactics is to see them for what they are, and ignore them accordingly.

There’s an important lesson here for anyone who spends any time online — but we’re only just starting to figure it out

All of this — the search for and unearthing of past comments and old jokes that can be twisted and weaponized, and the subsequent performative backlash — has occurred too frequently to be anything other than a kind of grim new internet normal. Just as it’s possible to abruptly become a public figure overnight, without your consent, it’s also possible for your life to be interrogated, for your problematic past behavior to be analyzed and even meme-ified, and for history to come back to haunt you in new and unforeseen ways.

With the alt-right driving more of this disruptive online culture than ever, the unknown variables of our internet life are now also more unpredictable than ever. It’s arguable that the only way to ward off this approach to internet warfare is to delete the troll mob’s potential ammo before they ever have a chance to collect it and use it against you.

At the Washington Post, columnist Megan McArdle recently argued that Gunn’s firing showed we need a cultural statute of limitations on old tweets. “These sorts of conversations are becoming necessary as social media develops into a sort of freelance surveillance state,” she wrote. “Before Twitter is hopelessly fouled by all the rotting corpses of once-glittering careers, maybe everyone on the platform who has ever tweeted something they regret should confess now and get it out of the way. And then see if we can’t agree on some sort of statute of limitations for offensive Internettery.”

That’s easier suggested than executed, of course. But it’s the start of an important conversation to have — one that focuses on how any of us can and should deal with the ill-advised detritus that we may have left all over the web.

Should we all delete our old tweets? Should social media platforms universally offer an auto-privacy function that would allow people to hide their feeds on command? Should all employers develop policies about how to deal with a person’s ancient internet history?

These questions aren’t going away anytime soon.

So it’s probably best to buckle down, interrogate your own past internet sins, and be ready — because from here on out, you could be one rash tweet away from a very bad day.

This story has been updated to more accurately characterize the harassment Jeong has experienced.

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