Most of the tweets said “learn to code” or a variation on the theme, a phrase that, like plenty of once-innocent terms of art, has come to carry a sinister second-order significance. (See also: snowflake.) And some of the tweets were death threats.
The tweets started flooding Laura Bassett’s replies as soon as she tweeted about impending layoffs at HuffPost, where she’d been a reporter for eight years. When she announced that she was one of the employees HuffPost was letting go in a week that would see 1,000 journalists lose their jobs nationwide as layoffs coursed through HuffPost, BuzzFeed, and Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, the “learn to code” replies poured in at an ever-greater volume. In a twist that will surprise no one who spends a decent amount of time online, laced throughout the “learn to code” messages were far-right flavored death threats. “The day of the rope is coming,” read one. And another: “The rope is waiting for you.”
“It tremendously added to the pain of suddenly losing my job,” Bassett said.
“Learn to code” is a linguistic dog whistle. To the uninitiated, it makes absolutely no sense; to the target, it registers with perfect and cruel specificity; and, to the harasser, it comes with built-in plausible deniability. Its origins are in an overblown and willfully misremembered spate of news stories about a man named Rusty Justice (yes, his real name) teaching web development to out-of-work coal miners in Kentucky.
Though coverage of this story is recalled, now, as the condescending and elitist counsel that liberal snobs supposedly doled out to newly-unemployed coal miners, the truth is just the opposite. In fact, at the time, journalists were among those mocking the idea that learning to code was a magical skill that could, once acquired, instantly render any person more employable. Among those lampooning this very idea was, of all outlets, BuzzFeed, which published a satirical quiz “Should You Learn To Code?” in 2014.
But that history of “learn to code” has been bent to fit a narrative arc of the trolls’ choosing, and armed primarily with this one photo collage which shows that the Guardian, Bloomberg, NPR, and CBS News covered that one program by Justice, the far right has latched onto “learn to code” as a mantra for taunting the media. Its current usage, as formally documented by Know Your Meme, is as “an expression used to mock journalists who were laid off from their jobs, encouraging them to learn software development as an alternate career path.”
Bassett was inundated with “learn to code” messages, which it would soon become clear were not the scattered efforts of unoriginal harassers but were evidence of a coordinated attack against reporters online. Those sending hate toward the just-ousted reporters were egged on by the likes of Tucker Carlson, Erick Erickson, Donald Trump Jr., and President Donald Trump, who tweeted gleefully about the media layoffs. Though one would think a president would not want to draw attention to the fact that, under his eye, one thousand Americans lost their jobs in the span of seven days, Trump did just that, blaming these cuts on “Fake news and bad journalism” and predicting “many others will follow.”
Bassett finds this “misdirected anger and frustration” especially enraging, considering she was hired by HuffPost in 2009 to cover the recession. “I was calling people across the country who were losing their jobs, having to hawk their wedding rings, making really difficult choices. I wrote about what happened when they ran out of unemployment insurance, how hard it was to get hired with holes in their resumes… To have this whole campaign where they’re being really cruel and mean and taunting us, trying to make us feel extra-bad in this already vulnerable time, it’s surprising and infuriating and really sad.”
When Talia Lavin, a freelance writer who, with these layoffs, lost her weekly HuffPost opinion column, started seeing the “learn to code” messages, she immediately sensed their source.
“It smelled like 4Chan to me,” Lavin said. “And it smelled like something coordinated.”
She searched 4Chan for posts about the media layoffs, and there it was: “‘Let’s tell these fuckers to learn to code.’ Someone specially said, ‘The goal here is to make them become an hero, which means to commit suicide.”
How does something like “learn to code” leap from the back alleys of the internet to its so-called public squares, like Twitter and Facebook?
“It’s a pretty interesting example of a far-right brigading campaign,” Lavin said.
Brigading is an online harassment tactic, a means of rallying troops that typically begins in some of the far-right friendly internet forums. Examples here include the website 4Chan’s /pol/ (short for politically incorrect) board; Gab, a supposed “free speech” alternative to Facebook and Twitter which serves as a de-facto haven for far-right posters who’ve been exiled from the dominant social media sites; or various sections of Reddit, the internet’s self-proclaimed “front page.”
There, would-be harassers are armed with the meme, hashtag, or language of the attack, which they then direct toward a target on Twitter or Facebook. “The goal is, essentially, to drive [the victim] off the internet or make their life miserable,” said Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer at The Atlantic covering internet culture. “To make it harder for them to do their job, to be on the internet. And to change the narrative around specific things.”
Lavin broke down the “anatomy” of the learn to code campaign. “Learn to code” is, itself, a code. It masquerades as an inoffensive suggestion, so anyone who is offended can easily be shut down: “Why are you getting so triggered over useful career advice?”
Even the death threats are coded. Take those “day of the rope” messages, which Bassett and her fellow former HuffPost colleague Nick Wing received. It’s a reference to the The Turner Diaries, a dystopian novel from the 1970s by the leader of a neo-Nazi group. The book imagines a white nationalist revolution that (spoiler alert!) ends in global genocide. “It’s the ur-text of the far right,” Lavin said.
And that — the reference to a reference inside a reference, like Russian nesting dolls — is part of what makes a brigading campaign like this one so effective. “It’s sort of sophisticated,” Lavin said. “You’re talking about meta-narratives.”
To try to explain it to someone who doesn’t spend much time on the internet could easily make you sound like a conspiracy theorist, a hazard “that is completely deliberate,” Lavin said. Of course you will sound ridiculous if you say, with zero context, “learn to code” is hate speech. When, in a very out-of-character move, Twitter actually took this campaign seriously, some jumped at the opportunity to accuse Twitter of overreacting to the use of an ordinary phrase.
“Specifically, these are in-groups signaling of meaning,” said Lavin. “Anything that requires nuance or complexity or understanding subtext is something that is easily subverted by propagandistic tactics.”
The way these memes hide their malicious intent behind a smokescreen of earnestness has long been part of the far-right’s information war tactics. As the Huffington Post’s Ashley Feinberg reported in December of 2017, this methodology is fully enshrined within the style guide of neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. As its founder Andrew Anglin writes:
The tone of the site should be light. Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred.
The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor — I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously.
This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.
Anglin gets that most of the gatekeepers watching over these social media platforms can’t, or won’t, discern the bad-faith nature of hostility cloaked in irony — a lesson his fellow extremists have learned well.
And amid the ostensibly-benign “learn to code” messages is “absolutely vile harassment,” Lavin said.
The hate speech that accompanies these types of attacks is usually of the grimiest sort: lynching imagery for black journalists, Holocaust references for the Jews, rape threats for women. Lavin’s mentions were laced with misogynistic and anti-Semitic threats. And while journalists are public figures of a kind who need to withstand criticism from the public, “I write op-eds and essays about soup,” Lavin said. “I don’t think it’s normal to be told to jump in an oven.”
HuffPost reporter Jesselyn Cook is intimately familiar with these types of attacks; last year, she was the target of what she described as “a very large mob harassment campaign on Facebook [that] also spilled onto Twitter,” which was started by a pro-Trump Facebook group. With this new campaign against her former colleagues, “Quite often we’re seeing threats of violence and intimidation passed off as career advice,” she said. “So ‘learn to code’ is paired with images of bricks, nooses, or guns… They’re trying to make journalists look soft, [like we’re] ‘liberal snowflakes.’ They’re really downplaying what’s going on here.”
“I think it was brilliant, in a way,” said Bassett. “They’re able to do something that’s really cruel and ugly, alongside these threats. But on its face, this ‘learn to code’ thing looks innocuous and makes journalists look soft. But something much scarier is bubbling underneath.”
It is easy — or, at least, it should be easy — to see rape and death threats for what they are. But the future of online harassment is less overt. It disguises itself in a who, me? cover, like Richard Spencer wearing a suit and tie instead of a white robe.
“This is harassment’s new frontier,” Lorenz said. “I think people are sophisticated enough to know that you can’t just send death threats — although they still do! By the thousands! I just got one over LinkedIn. But those people are actually rare.” Relatively stealthy harassment is the strategy of the future, and it has its origins in the recent past: Gamergate.
Gamergate was the 2014 harassment campaign aimed at female video game developers and media critics who, in their reporting, analyzed sexist tropes in the games. For their trouble, they faced overwhelming online vitriol and death threats. Game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian were the two most high-profile victims of what, in hindsight, was the beginning of a particularly chilling era of internet-enabled misogynistic violence. Quinn was doxxed (her address and phone number were publicized) and her Wikipedia page was edited to include a date of death, the day she was slated to speak at a conference.
Like “learn to code” harassers, Gamergaters organized on 4Chan, Reddit, and Twitter. As with this campaign against journalists, Gamergate had its own cover narrative: “Actually, it’s about ethics in gaming journalism.”
“Gamergate showed how ill-prepared media and tech companies are to deal with these kinds of campaigns,” said Lorenz. “And the trolls have since exploited that.”
Though attacks like the “learn to code” campaign have long been against Twitter’s Terms of Service, “Twitter is notoriously uneven about when and how they enforce” those rules, Lorenz said. She was shocked that the platform “really, actually, used their critical thinking skills to enforce the policies” this time around.
Still, “I wouldn’t give Twitter so much credit today that this is the beginning of a new era,” Lorenz added, pointing to Jack Dorsey’s recent interviews in which the Twitter co-founder and CEO did not seem to know exactly what he’d do if, for instance, Trump tweeted out a call to murder a specific journalist by name.
“Twitter has spectacularly failed to deal with harassment on its platform, to an insane extent,” said Lorenz. “It’s shocking, to be honest, how little they seem to care about their own users.”
Media companies make the same mistake that Twitter does, Lorenz said: They respond to these coded threats as if these harassers are “making good faith arguments or appeals. That is not smart. That is not a very sophisticated way to understand the internet. It just shows that you’re ill-equipped to deal with this modern media and tech environment, [where] understanding these nuances is critical.”
Lavin agreed. “People need to be more aware that these campaigns can be purposefully deceptive. They are designed to gaslight. The stated goal of people involved in this campaign is to drive people to suicide.”
Also hamstringing Twitter’s ability to address harassment in a meaningful way is the fact that “they’re so worried about angering conservatives for no reason,” Lorenz said. “[That’s why] they’ve been slow to take action against people like Alex Jones.”
You may remember Jones as the man who insists the Sandy Hook school shooting — at which 20 six- and seven-year-old children were murdered — is a “false flag” and that the parents of these dead children are “crisis actors.” Jones is being sued by the parents of Noah Pozner, who was six years old when he was killed in his classroom, because Jones’ relentless campaign against them has incited death threats, forcing the surviving Pozners to move seven times. They currently live in hiding. Twitter didn’t ban Jones until September 2018 and didn’t start its mass suspensions of white supremacists’ accounts until late 2017.
“I hope Twitter will start to realize that these people will misrepresent anything, and perpetuate falsehoods to further their own narrative,” Lorenz said. “We’ve seen that time and again. All of these platforms need to stop catering to these extremist groups and recognize that their arguments are not made in good faith. These are not users that you need to address earnestly.”
“Part of the reason that these tech and media companies don’t recognize this behavior for what it is is that they don’t have enough diversity within their company who actually recognize this for what it is, and that is to their detriment,” Lorenz went on. “If you just have nine white men in a room being like, ‘this doesn’t look like harassment,’ it’s going to be a bad experience for all the oppressed users who use the platform every day. Diversity within these companies, and in leadership, plays a huge role. Which none of them have. It’s all white men, which is kind of crazy! It’s crazy how non-diverse these Silicon Valley companies are. I’m shocked by it every day.”
If Twitter is such a toxic cesspool, why not sign off for good?
“We’ve been saying we have to walk away from Twitter and Facebook, but then how do you get your stories out? How do you get news? I don’t know what the alternative is,” said Bassett. “I would love for there to be an alternative Twitter, but I don’t know what it is.”
Lorenz has a different view. If Twitter can’t give its users what they need — an experience free from hate speech and death threats — eventually, it won’t have users anymore. “These people think they’re masters of the universe,” she said. “But you can rise and fall in an instant.”
Nick Wing knows you’re not supposed to engage with trolls. But when he tweeted about his layoff from HuffPost and the replies started coming in, “I decided, because I wasn’t employed anymore, I could tell them to fuck off.”
Predictably, this only drew more replies Wing’s way, and he watched as the memes piled up, from alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog to what might be the first right-wing meme of 2019: Nick Sandmann of Covington Catholic.
While attending the anti-abortion rally March for Life, Sandmann and his male, mostly white, “Make America Great Again”-hat wearing classmates, surrounded and chanted at Native American elder Nathan Phillips, who was in D.C. for the Indigenous Peoples March. A video of the encounter — Sandmann smirking as Phillips beats a hand drum and sings — went viral. Though Covington Catholic High School and the Catholic Diocese of Covington speedily apologized for the behavior of the boys, promising to investigate and “take appropriate action, up to and including expulsion,” Sandmann, with the help of a swiftly-retained crisis-management PR firm, embarked on a Benefit Of The Doubt Tour which culminated in an interview on Today.
For those who saw in Sandmann’s sneer an obvious act of aggression for which he failed to show remorse or take responsibility, the generous treatment Sandmann received from the press proved, yet again, that white boys enjoy a presumption of innocence that black boys are still denied. (Sandmann is seventeen, which many pointed out is the same age Trayvon Martin was when he was shot and killed for wearing a hoodie while eating Skittles.) But for those eager to defend anyone wearing a MAGA hat, not to mention those looking for an excuse to say the liberal media is biased against conservatives, Sandmann’s smirk was the smile of a shining new poster boy.
Bringing it all full circle — and piling yet more references on top of one another — is a new meme circulating of Sandmann’s grinning face above the words STAND YOUR GROUND, the Florida law that entered the national lexicon when George Zimmerman was tried for fatally shooting Martin.
“The Covington kid[‘s] smirk has really been weaponized to stand for exactly the kind of disrespect that many members of media attacked us for saying was present,” Wing said. Sandmann’s supporters were outraged at those who would “dare take a smile and make it malicious… [Now], those same people… are taking that face and weaponizing it. So clearly they understand there was something inherent to the way that face looked, and now they’re rubbing it back in our faces. They’re playing both sides of it.”
With the coverage of Sandmann fresh on readers’ minds, the layoffs presented an opportunity for harassers to connect these two unrelated events, weaving the Covington Catholic story into “the cover narrative” of the learn to code campaign, Lavin said: “You guys will ruin a high school kid’s life but you can’t handle when we tell you to learn to code.”
Bassett had tweeted about the Sandmann/Martin double standard, “And that seemed to infuriate these people that were intent on ruining my life after I lost my job,” she said. “Like, ‘You were so quick to ruin his life. Why shouldn’t we ruin yours?’”
President Trump swore an oath to protect our nation against enemies foreign and domestic, and while a reasonable person might suggest he focus his energies on white supremacists and far-right extremists who, since 9/11, have killed significantly more people than any other category of domestic extremist, the current Commander-in-Chief has loudly and repeatedly declared that it is journalists who are “the enemy of the people.”
Bassett has found “a lot of Trump’s rhetoric in the things trolls tell me in my mentions and DMs. Some will literally tell me, ‘You’re the enemy of the people.” Since Trump took office, “There’s been this massive escalation of hateful rhetoric against journalists.”
“Definitely, there’s more outspoken anger right now toward journalists than there has been in the past,” said Wing. That anger “is more coordinated now, and it’s definitely reinforced by the idea that this sort of criticism is coming down from the president, being fed to these networks, and being amplified.”
In August, experts at the United Nations condemned Trump’s attacks on the media, warning that “these attacks increase the risk of journalists being targeted with violence.” Four months later, Reporters Without Borders released its annual report on journalists in peril, which found that more journalists were killed, imprisoned, held hostage, or went missing in 2018 than ever before. For the first time, the United States ranked among the top-five deadliest countries for journalists.
Along with the data, the Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders released a statement decrying political leaders who incite rage against the press. “The hatred of journalists that is voiced, and sometimes very openly proclaimed, by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground. Amplified by social networks, which bear heavy responsibility in this regard, these expressions of hatred legitimize violence, thereby undermining journalism, and democracy itself.”
Meanwhile, Bassett said she is “still getting hundreds and hundreds of ‘learn to code’ tweets.” Not long before she lost her job, she and her parents were doxxed. Bassett’s address and phone number were made public, as was her parents’ home address and number in Louisiana.
“I know these threats aren’t empty,” she said. There’s literally too much harassment for her to weed through it all, but “I’m scared I’m missing something I really need to report to Twitter, a threat on my life or a real doxxing… The internet is truly a horrifying place for a journalist right now.”