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3 August 2018updated 01 Jul 2021 5:36am

The attack on Sarah Jeong reveals less about her tweets than the hostility of the internet

The idea that the left is obsessed with “political correctness” is actually one of the right’s most lasting achievements in semantic obscurantism.

By Nicky Woolf

Are you sitting comfortably? Because this is a complicated one.

Sarah Jeong, a technology writer, has been hired by the New York Times to join their editorial board. But wait! There’s a backlash, because of course there is. Right-wing trolls started digging through Jeong’s extensive Twitter history – and as a freelance technology journalist, she has tweeted a lot. As a technology journalist and, this is key, also an Asian woman, Jeong has in the past been the victim of some truly vicious trolling campaigns, and some of her responses were unearthed and paraded as evidence, in a mind-bendingly paradoxical exercise in hypocrisy, that Jeong herself is a racist.

The tweets that they dug up included one which used the hashtag “#CancelWhitePeople”. Another read: “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins”. Another: “white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.”

Leaving aside the question of whether racism carries the same sting when applied by a minority against the hegemonic majority – which is an incredibly complicated question involving structural power dynamics – some of those tweets are indeed maybe a little bit cringeworthy, though actually, the one about dogs and fire hydrants is actually pretty funny. But come on. Twitter is a febrile and often unpleasant place, and in some instances Jeong punched back at her attackers.

It was those tweets that were then dug up by those wanting to undermine both Jeong, as a minority, as a journalist, and as a woman, and the Times as a liberal institution. “NYTimes’ Newest Hire Sent Tons Of Anti-White Racist Tweets” blared the far-right Daily Caller. “Wow! NYT Hires Sarah Jeong to Editorial Board — Who Has Twitter Page Littered with Racist Filth”, the equally right-wing GatewayPundit screamed. 

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The same thing has actually happened before. In February, the New York Times announced the appointment of a writer called Quinn Norton as their lead editorial writer on technology. Swiftly, trolls began digging up old tweets and positions of Norton’s. In the same way, many who jumped aboard that bandwagon did so not out of a sense of genuine outrage but gleefully, happy to use any stick with which to beat the media and especially to cut down a high-profile female writer.

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Norton was not a perfect candidate for the New York Times; she had maintained a connection with a source, an internet troll known as “weev”, real name Andrew Aurnheimer, who was a white supremacist, and among her thousands of tweets there were a few which could fuel the outrage-machine. Like Jeong, Norton’s language was policed in fine detail, and found wanting. The New York Times withdrew her appointment from the editorial board. In a later essay on the experience for The Atlantic, Norton wrote that “social media created a bizarro-world version of me.”

The New York Times is America’s most august journalistic institution, and along with that comes a certain stuffy sensibility. But as the stories of these two journalists illustrate, it is discovering is that this approach may be not be entirely compatible with the internet age.

It is no coincidence that these two exercises in outrage-trolling both happened with appointments which came from the world of technology. Both Norton and Jeong were prominent figures during the Gamergate movement, a shameful episode in internet history during which misogynist trolls attacked women involved in the video game industry under the dishonest guise of media “ethics” (of course, it was all bullshit). For many figures who went on to more mainstream political success in the age of Trump, including Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos, Gamergate was a formative experience. 

But there are other factors involved too. Online, language and its use is much more fluid than it is in the ossified world of the New York Times. On anonymous message-board sites like 4chan and its darker splinter-cousin 8chan, and in the febrile Reddit communities where so-called “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) overlap with white supremacists, libertarians, cypherpunks, digital freedom-fighters, Anime fans and any number of other organic digital subcultures, language that would make most people’s hair stand on end is the norm.

More, in communities based around anonymity, peppering language with the most offensive of racial slurs is a shibboleth to keep outsiders out. Journalists covering these communities, as Jeong is, often come to mirror the language they are hearing. It is a near-impossible tightrope to walk.

It is the unpleasant fact that this is the lingua franca of the internet’s underbelly. In Jeong’s case, when she was targeted by these trolls, she responded in a way that mirrored their language in order to de-fang their attacks on her. They were meant to be provocative responses, because that is the only way to respond to trolls like this. But to imply any moral equivalence between what Jeong tweeted and what was tweeted at her is incorrect, and either devastatingly wrongheaded or knowingly hypocritical.

The idea that the left is obsessed with “political correctness” is actually one of the right’s most lasting achievements in semantic obscurantism. In actual fact, it has become more of an obsession on the right than the left to police language. Despite their sneering at “trigger warnings” and their claim to be the guardians of free speech, it is the right-wing commentariat who most often throw up their hands in faux-horror at jokes such as those Jeong made in response to abuse.

It is only when called out for actual statements of misogyny or racism that figures on the right run to the “it was only a joke” defence. The difference is this: they are lying. Anyone who saw Jeong’s tweet at the time would have understood the obvious satirical meaning of such a joke was to highlight the danger she was facing from the true racist abuse she was receiving.

The New York Times is learning. To its credit, it has not caved this time to the faux-outrage and withdrawn Jeong’s appointment, which is good, because there are few better than she at what she does. In a statement responding to the backlash against Jeong’s appointment, though, it says it does “not condone” Jeong’s statement, it accurately points out that “her journalism and the fact that she is a young Asian woman have made her the subject of frequent online harassment” and that “she responded to that harassment by imitating the rhetoric of her harassers.”

Other publications have missed the point more widely. The BBC, for example, headlined its story on the furore “NY Times stands by ‘racist tweets’ reporter”, a dangerously misleading framing of the situation. Many other publications did the same.

In an insightful Twitter thread, Julia Carrie Wong, a reporter for the Guardian US, ably pointed out the disconnect between the distaste among the journalistic establishment for Jeong’s old tweets and the realities of internet life, especially internet life for aspiring journalists, and especially especially internet life for aspiring journalists of minority backgrounds. “We all know how Twitter works,” she wrote. “You don’t build a brand as a freelancer or law student by tweeting your links and keeping it safe. You do it by being provocative and funny and pushing boundaries. And the gatekeepers ate it up. Usually for $150 an article.”

The response she got from one troll was especially illuminating: