The day before Valentine’s Day, social media created a bizarro-world version of me. I have seen strange ideas about me online before, but this doppelgänger was so far from resembling me that I told friends and loved ones I didn’t want to even try to rebut it. It was a leading question turned into a human form. The net created a person with my name and face, but with so little relationship to me, she could have been an invader from an alternate universe.
It is strange to see such a version of yourself invented and destroyed by networked rage. It made me sad and angry, but even more, I think, it inspired a horrified confusion in myself and those familiar with my work and my character. A digital effigy of me was built and burned.
It started when The New York Times hired me for its editorial board. In January, the Times sought me out because, editorial leaders told me, the Times as an institution is struggling with understanding how technology is shifting society and politics. We talked for a while. I discussed my work, my beliefs, and my background.
I’ve studied online communities since 1995. I know how many underlying technologies work, and how they might relate to their historical antecedents. I have spent time with individuals in various groups—including hanging out in their spaces, witnessing their operations—and written about it. I have worked with Anonymous and other internet communities that dwell far from the Overton window, which describes what sort of public discourse is tolerable. I identify politically as an anarchist pacifist.
I was hesitant with the Times. They were far out of my comfort zone, but I felt that the people I was talking to had a sincerity greater than their confusion. Nothing that has happened since then has dissuaded me from that impression. I think it seemed like it could be a good match for all of us. They were trying something new, and I had experience and understanding of the internet that was hard to get elsewhere. The net is making the world strange. People shouldn’t be overcritical of the Times. The world has changed so fast and so much in the last 20 years. It is too much to ask that an entity that has been flowing and changing at the pace of society since the 1850s be up to date on what is probably the fastest shift in human history that didn’t involve a volcano. But what happens next isn’t only up to the institutions we inherited from the 20th century and before.
If you’re reading this, especially on the internet, you are the teacher for those institutions at a local, national, and global level. I understand that you didn’t ask for this position. Neither did I. History doesn’t ask you if you want to be born in a time of upheaval, it just tells you when you are. When the backlash began, I got the call from the person who had sought me out and recruited me. The fear I heard in that shaky voice coming through my mobile phone was unmistakable. It was the fear of a mob, of the unknown, and of the idea that maybe they had gotten it wrong and done something terrible. I have felt all of those things. Many of us have. It’s not a place of strength, even when it seems to be coming from someone standing in a place of power. The Times didn’t know what the internet was doing—tearing down a new hire, exposing a fraud, threatening them—everything seemed to be in the mix.
I have a teenage daughter, and I have told her all her life that all the grown-ups are making it up as they go along. I have also waggled my eyebrows suggestively while saying it, to make it clear to her that I mean me, too. In that moment, The New York Times and I, we were all making it up as we went along. I didn’t want to harm them, because I believed—and still do—that the better institution they had talked about becoming was something that could help the world. I didn’t particularly want them to harm me, but I also knew that I was tough in a way they aren’t. I have been through this before, and I know who I am, an advantage I have over most of the institutions currently entrusted with the care of our society.
I think if I’d gotten to write for the Times as part of their editorial board, this might have been different. I might have been in a position to show how our media doppelgängers get invented, and how we can unwind them. It takes time and patience. It doesn’t come from denying the doppelgänger—there’s nothing there to deny. I was accused of homophobia because of the in-group language I used with anons when I worked with them. (“Anons” refers to people who identify as part of the activist collective Anonymous.) I was accused of racism for use of taboo language, mainly in a nine-year-old retweet in support of Obama. Intentions aside, it wasn’t a great tweet, and I was probably overemotional when I retweeted it.
I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can’t reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it’d be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I’ve cared for in my life. I don’t support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself. I had what I now see as the advantage of coming from a family of terrible people. This taught me that not everyone worthy of love is worthy of emulation. It also taught me that being given terrible ideas is not a destiny, and that intervention can change lives.
Not everyone believes loving engagement is the best way to fight evil beliefs, but it has a