Politics has the uncanny ability to bring out the ugly in people, and Americans are no exception. The stakes are high, so it's understandable that politics gets people fired up, on edge, clashing — and, at times, taking things to the extreme. The political battleground in the U.S. has long been framed as two opposing sides fighting for power, even if each side is not exactly unified. On the left, there are clear fractures and power struggles, which some blame for putting the Trump regime in power. With case studies like the treatment of Rep. Ilhan Omar by her colleagues after her criticisms of AIPAC and Israel and the scrutinization of the women speaking out about former Vice President Joe Biden's conduct, not only is it clear that the party lacks unity in several issue areas, but also that the people who get thrown under the bus are typically the ones who criticize or question power. What's more, even within leftist groups, we see harassment, trolling, doxxing and threats — behavior we have typically assigned to the far right.
During the 2016 primaries and election, a crop of left-wing harassers gained a nickname and nationwide attention: Bernie Bros, mostly white, male Bernie Sanders supporters who engaged in harassment and trolling online, often directed against women and, even more specifically, women of color. Prominent writers like Imani Gandy and Roxane Gay have publicly feuded with some of these bros on Twitter, landing in this group's crosshairs for speaking critically about the Vermont senator. Just yesterday came reports that Pose actress Angelica Ross left Twitter after facing a torrent of abuse by both self-proclaimed Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters. Other Black female Sanders critics have also fallen victim to online bullying and even death threats from these die-hard Sanders supporters, including journalist Aisha K. Staggers, who identifies politically as a progressive Democrat and reports on various topics including race relations and politics. "One of the things that was almost always threatened was rape and sodomy, in addition to assault and murder," Staggers says. "This is something that I have spoken about with a number of other Black female journalists, and the threats they get are similar." She adds that at first, she was shocked that this harassment was coming from fellow progressives. "With conservative bigotry, you know what you're going to get, you expect it. With Bernie Bros, you would think some wouldn't be so ugly toward other progressives," she says. Women have also reported experiencing trolling and harassment online for criticizing other Dem politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Biden.
"With conservative bigotry, you know what you're going to get, you expect it. With Bernie Bros, you would think some wouldn't be so ugly toward other progressives."
Staggers, like 92% of college-educated Black women, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. "The Bernie harassers were racializing their blame [targeting Black critics in particular], but then called themselves allies while demanding our loyalty to their candidate," she says. "It doesn't endear me to Bernie; it makes me avoid him at any cost." And while she remains firmly on the left, voting Democrat and still vocalizing her political beliefs online, Staggers does not feel safe online; her Instagram and Facebook profiles are private. She deletes, reports and blocks users who engage in abusive behavior. "I used to give my email address as a contact. I don't do that anymore."
Digital and physical "safe spaces" have long existed for the sake of women, people of color, queer and trans people, necessary due to the toxicity (and physical violence) targeted at these communities. The prevalence of harassment in political online forums, even in radical leftist ones, has created a demand for even safer spaces (events, collectives, groups, social media spaces that center certain marginalized identities and their issues), so more and more have been cropping up.
"I've been in many leftist or 'feminist' spaces, both digitally and IRL, that I've left or sought out new spaces, because they weren't intersectional," says Anne*, a 31-year-old community organizer based in Philadelphia. "I only organize directly with groups that are black- and brown- led and centered, because I've found the white-majority groups have been incredibly problematic."
Anne understands that many digital safe spaces have their issues — after all, admins and moderators are humans with biases and blind spots, too — but thinks they provide "reprieve from the emotional weight of the outside world." This, Anne says, is a path to long-term change, "because we have to give marginalized people room to be centered in order to have revolution."
A member of several online communities, Anne, who is biracial Indigenous Latinx, has experienced harassment and doxxing from "radical" white liberals after calling out some problematic posts (in one example, Anne says a Caucasian gay man in a community Facebook group derailed a conversation about Black reparations by suggesting that LGBTQ+ people should also be recipients). Identifying as a radical leftist herself, the pushback she's gotten has been "largely from folks who want to 'focus on class' rather than racial justice issues," Anne says. "In leftist spaces, there's also a huge issue with placing too much emphasis on class as opposed to understanding different intersections."
"In leftist spaces, there's also a huge issue with placing too much emphasis on class as opposed to understanding different intersections."
Though the left is the party of reproductive freedom, immigrants' rights, marriage equality and other social justice issues, many within will vocalize their disdain for those who focus on confronting racism, misogyny and other identity-related issues rather than widespread economic restructuring or pursuing rural white swing voters. Many of these same people blame "identity politics" for Trump's election and the Democratic Party's failures.
Even within racial justice spaces, misogynists can be among the most vocal participants. Within political #AsianTwitter, there are swaths of highly engaged Asian men's rights activists, who have been nicknamed "MRAsians" and organize around policing Asian women's dating choices. Cassandra Lam, 27, experienced targeted harassment and trolling after she co-founded and launched The Cosmos, a community that empowers Asian women creators and entrepreneurs. A prominent MRAsian Twitter user, who has since been banned from the platform, dug up two tweets directed at Asian men from Lam's Twitter history dating back to 2013 and posted them, demanding a response.
"I was 21 years old," Lam says. "The context was that I was at a nightclub on both occasions and shot them off recklessly in response to unwanted attention that made me uncomfortable. It is without question that the tweets should never have been sent." When she didn't respond on Twitter within the first few days after getting called out, she received an avalanche of hate mail across numerous channels. "[I received] Instagram photo comments, DMs, Facebook messages and email through The Cosmos website," Lam says. "I received messages filled with violence, misogyny, vitriol and death threats." They even began trolling Lam's friends and collaborators.
The accounts that attacked Lam and her associates looked like Asian activist profiles and often cluster around "safe havens" of their own (to trash Asian women and espouse theories on interracial dating) on the Reddit threads r/Aznidentity and r/hapa. "They care about combating anti-Asian racism, emasculation of Asian men, dismantling white supremacy and saviorism, and fighting Asian American apathy — all valid and important things," she says. However, one major throughline was their disdain for Asian women, who they believe to be complicit to Asian male oppression through their "white worship." Many prominent Asian American women, like writer Celeste Ng, have been targeted by this group.
Lam was only able to get the harassment and cyberbullying to die down once she scheduled a face-to-face video chat with her original accuser, in order to "humanize both sides," and had a three-hour conversation with him. "It was only after that the attacks waned and eventually trickled off, which I find deeply troubling," she says. "I was pretty traumatized and felt extremely alone throughout the process and even afterwards. My nervous system was in fight-or-flight mode nonstop for about a month."
"I was pretty traumatized and felt extremely alone throughout the process and even afterwards. My nervous system was in fight-or-flight mode nonstop for about a month."
Luckily, Lam says that "the Cosmos community saved me during this alienating and challenging period of my life. These women, despite [also] getting attacked on social media, rallied around me. In our private Slack group, they would check in on me and update me on whether the attacks on them were subsiding or intensifying. They would offer advice and empathy."
Julia DeCook, a scholar of digital culture who researches extremist groups online and online harassment, points out that men's rights activists are not exclusive to the right wing. Regarding MRAsians, DeCook says that "they're not particularly supportive of any one political candidate, but some are supportive of Andrew Yang. Overall, their political alignment waxes and wanes from libertarianism to liberalism." DeCook also said that among incels (involuntary celibates), some have "left-leaning and socialist views (think Bernie Bros)," though many of them range between center-right to alt-right.
While the majority of online harassment victims are women and the harassers skew male, according to 2000-2011 statistics provided by WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse), men are not the only ones bringing toxicity into liberal online spaces. Anne, who runs the Instagram page for the March to End Rape Culture, says that occasionally a post on the account will catch the ire of different groups like SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) or TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), who will swarm the comments with their opposition.
"Keep [the topic] on something white people can agree with and it's fine, but say anything about veganism or white people being racist and it is on," Anne says. "We block and delete a lot, but the comments get overwhelming."
If a political party is an ecosystem, and there are multitudes of species that exist within it, these trolls are similar to spotted hyenas that travel in packs and attack giraffes. Alone, the hyena would likely stick with scavenging, but as a pack the hyenas have a strength in numbers.
"The harassers tend to be real people," DeCook says. "Although there are a lot of issues online with people using bots to enact harassment campaigns, often what [MRAsians] do is create fake accounts. Within these groups, I would say it's a mix of fake accounts and real accounts, but what's scary about groups like r/Aznidentity is that they explicitly tell their members to make fake accounts and to even use fake pictures for the avatars."
Groups like the Bernie Bros that came after Staggers and the SWERFs that trolled Anne's Instagram posts go after those in their own ranks who aren't "on message" enough for their tastes. Women and people of color have grown to accept these kinds of attacks as an inevitable consequence for being visible and vocal online, and for having the gall to call out racism or misogyny. "I've always known that to play in the arena of politics or activism, especially when it involves challenging dominant power structures or paradigms, is to take on risk that can undermine your safety," Lam says. "Women, people of color, trans/GNC/queer folks have always known this, and history has proven it true time and time again."
These same issues exist in liberal spaces beyond the political realm. Several people spoke to PAPER on background about their experiences with harassment and microaggressions in other so-called "safe spaces": liberal arts colleges, social justice-oriented nonprofits, queer nightlife and arts spaces, and more. Across the board, there is also a resistance to "calling out" — or "calling in" — members of our own leftist communities, since many believe that everybody must unify to battle the common enemy — Trump and the Republicans.
But being forced to internalize that silence further diminishes certain groups and their issues. So as long as there are unapologetic women of color choosing dissent over the comfort and needs of white liberals, misogynists and troll communities will retaliate against them. Some suggest that when women and people of color call out racism or sexism, they are driving a wedge in the Democratic Party. Though couldn't it easily be argued that our supposed comrades who are harassing and trolling fellow progressives are the ones doing the dividing in the first place?
"If we cancel folks who do sincerely make an effort to learn, grow and change, simply because they didn't know something or made a mistake, that gets into an elitism of its own."
"I always say that I have all the time in the world for people who want to learn," Anne says, "but I'm not giving you that energy when I can see you ultimately just want to be coddled and hand-held and centered." She understands why people will feel at odds with "callout culture," in that it forces them to come to terms with their own questionable ethics. "They see racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, etc. as bad things, and therefore they see it as being told they're 'bad' people when [accusations of those behaviors are] addressed at them," Anne says, but she understands that people are more nuanced than that. She also stresses the importance of understanding someone's intentions and willingness to change their behavior — and differentiating those types of people from those with unapologetically bigoted beliefs — when deciding whether to "cancel" them online. "If we cancel folks who do sincerely make an effort to learn, grow and change, simply because they didn't know something or made a mistake, that gets into an elitism of its own."
Safe spaces, like the people who create them, are fallible, and one frequent criticism of them is that they can create an echo chamber. But people like Lam and Anne, who seek solace in their even safer spaces, are never completely isolated; they still exist within (and engage with) larger communities. "I'll always believe in the importance of surrounding yourself with people who think differently and are willing to disagree with you," Lam says. "I'll also always believe in speaking up in the face of injustice and sharing my perspective when it might make an impact." And Lam, along with Anne and Staggers, says she is still showing up, still voting Dem, still vocal, and, like anyone else, choosing who and what to engage with online.
*Her name has been changed to protect her safety