Russell Steinberg was bored at work when he arguably started it all.
“I remember it pretty clearly,” he says of 7 February 2013, the day he sent the tweet that would change his life. “I followed Donald Trump at the time and he was going on just a rant about President Obama and it was annoying me. I wanted to tweet something at him that would illicit a response – that was my goal, just purely for my own entertainment – I knew even at the time how thin-skinned he was.”
Looking for a reaction from a man who was, at the time, simply a TV personality, Steinberg wrote: “If you hate America so much, you should run for President and fix things.” It didn’t take long for The Apprentice host to reply. “Be careful!” he wrote back, exclamation mark and all.
Steinberg thought this was hilarious, promptly showed all of his friends the exchange and then, within a week, forgot all about it. By 8 November 2016, however, everything changed.
“I was getting a lot of death threats, a lot of anti-Semitic comments because of my last name,” he says. “The hate in my mentions erupted.”
How did a 26-year-old community manager from New York’s tweet inspire so much vitriol?
Steinberg’s tweet was initially brought to popular attention in March 2016, when the digital news company Now This found and retweeted his message. The company then made a video with Steinberg, and he describes the reaction to his tweet – and the video – as “very good natured”.
“I just thought it was funny, something that would be kind of entertaining through the summer until [Trump] fizzled out,” he says. “Of course that didn’t happen.”
By October, Steinberg had hit the headlines. “Meet The Man Who May Have Created The Trump Monster” said MSN, “The man responsible for Donald Trump running for president” said Indy100, “People are blaming this man for Donald Trump’s presidency bid,” said Metro. Steinberg says meme aggregators began posting screenshots of his tweet across the internet, particularly Instagram, meaning a younger audience discovered his profile.
@Russ_Steinberg hey fuck you asshole this is your fault
— misha (@mikeboob) February 3, 2017
“There’s actually one exchange in particular that I do remember,” says Steinberg. He had reported a death threat on Twitter and forgot about it. The account belonged to a girl who was in high school. “Her friend tweeted at me and said: ‘Hey, you know you’ve got my friend’s account suspended, f*ck you’ and all of this,” Steinberg recalled. He replied that the girl should not have tweeted death threats. She argued that it was just a joke, and he countered that it didn’t feel like a joke when hundreds of people were saying the same thing.
“And she said: ‘Well you know if everyone’s tweeting death threats at you, then maybe you deserve it.’”
It is clear that the majority of people tweeting Steinberg messages such as “It’s all your fault” are being flippant, and don’t seriously believe that one tweet caused Trump to run for President. Nonetheless, Steinberg has encountered people who sincerely blame him, which makes it troubling when multiple people send him messages such as “kys” (kill yourself).
I had to look up what kys meant after hundreds of people started tweeting it at me. Twitter has the nicest people. https://t.co/7wjF3WqDYS
— Russell Steinberg (@Russ_Steinberg) October 20, 2016
“All you need is for one person to actually be serious about if for there to be an actual problem,” he says, explaining that by mid-October he was getting a death threat every hour. “I get it, I get what they’re saying that it’s just a joke – but when you’re getting it hundreds and hundreds of times it’s hard for it to not have an impact on you.
“They don’t know me; they don’t know what my mental state is, for all they know I’m completely over the edge. They don’t know if that could actually cause me to do something, you have to actually think about that before you tweet at somebody who you’ve never met before.”
— gab.ai/GavinM (@GMillarrrrrrrrr) November 10, 2016
Thankfully, Steinberg says the tweets didn’t have too much of an impact on his mental state. He says it is “lucky” that at the same time his Twitter started erupting, he was off sick with pneumonia. “I was sitting on my couch, just sick as hell and not even concerned with Twitter, just wanting to not exist anymore… Looking back on it thank God I was sick and not at work with Twitter open all day because I probably would’ve just gone crazy.”
“That was a really rough day, not gonna lie.”
Steinberg is referring to 8 November, the day Trump confounded pollsters and won the United States Presidential Election. At the beginning of the day he felt hopeful that his tweet would be forgotten after Hillary Clinton won. Yet as the night went on and it became clear Trump was in the lead, the hateful tweets came pouring in.
“I had Tweetdeck [a dashboard for managing Twitter accounts] open and I was getting so many notifications that Tweetdeck just wouldn’t function for me,” he says. It was then, at last, that Steinberg decided to delete his tweet. “I was inundated with notifications and I wanted to cut down on it at least a little bit.”
I deleted the tweet. Mostly because I was tired of being called bad words.
— Russell Steinberg (@Russ_Steinberg) November 9, 2016
It didn’t work, as screenshots of Trump and Steinberg’s exchange are still all over the internet. Nowadays, Steinberg says he gets a handful of comments about the tweet every day. A few hours after we speak, he contacts me again to show me a tweet he has just received. “You’re the reason Trump is President. You’re a monster,” it reads.
@Russ_Steinberg you’re the reason trump is president. You’re a monster.
— mak’s #1 fan (@Larkinsomnia) March 3, 2017
Steinberg now freely mutes and blocks people, and is enthusiastic when I suggest using Twitter’s brand new word-blocking tool to filter out the words “It’s all your fault” – the tweet he gets the most.
Does Steinberg regret ever sending the tweet? “I’d be lying if I didn’t say to you I didn’t at least like the attention for a little bit and I think anybody would whether they would admit it or not,” he says.
“On the other hand, God my life would’ve been a lot easier if it never happened.”
The irony of the whole affair is that Steinberg was a Clinton supporter during the election, and donated and volunteered for her campaign. Because of this, he feels the hatred directed towards him is especially misplaced. I ask what he would say to people who are tempted to send him a threatening or hurtful message.
“I would say: take whatever anger, frustration you have with me and channel it into something that will actually make a difference in your community and in your local politics,” he says. “That’s what I’d say you should channel your energy into, rather than just tweeting at me.”