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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

The tyranny of vicious online trolls

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There has been a lot of concern about internet harassment in recent years perpetrated by far-right trolls, particularly misogynist harassment toward feminist activists and journalists. But another type of online abuse, which comes from the left and is directed at people deemed guilty of challenging progressive orthodoxies, gets far less attention.

Case in point: The vicious attacks over the last three years on science journalist Jesse Singal, a contributor to New York magazine and other major publications. To get a sense of how unhinged the rhetoric has been, a tweet from young adult fiction author L.L. McKinney last month asserted that Singal — politically liberal and Jewish — belonged “in the same category as . . . the KKK neo-Nazis.”

Over-the-top invective on Twitter is nothing new. Baseless accusations of misconduct are another matter.

The main reason for these attacks is Singal’s coverage of transgender issues. While he fully supports civil rights for transgender people, several of his articles — notably, an Atlantic cover story last year — questioned the trend of encouraging children who are questioning their gender identity to transition and start hormone treatments at a young age.

Singal points out that, according to a number of studies, most such children later come to identify with their birth sex. (Often, they come out as gay or lesbian, suggesting their struggles are more about sexuality than gender.) Early transition, the medical effects of which are not yet fully understood, can have devastating outcomes for young people who later realize they made a mistake. It’s a debatable viewpoint. But much of the response has nothing to do with debate. Singal has been labeled not only a “transphobic” bigot, but a serial harasser.

Katelyn Burns, a transgender journalist, has charged on Twitter and in posts on the Medium blogging platform that Singal bullied her into giving him an interview, sent her overly personal and “borderline flirty” private messages on Twitter, and behaved inappropriately when they met for lunch. Singal’s records contradict those claims, and Burns (who did not respond to a request for comment) has not produced any evidence to support them. Burns’ current employer, Rewire News, has taken the position that her online conflicts before working for them are none of their business. It’s hard to imagine such a stance if a reporter had been accused of past racist or sexist harassment.

While Burns recently deleted her claims, they are still widely circulating — having been amplified, among others, by Slate writer Nicole Cliffe, who has more than 100,000 Twitter followers. After the publication of Singal’s Atlantic piece, Cliffe tweeted that he was “OBSESSED” (sic) with transgender women and had pestered “many” with unwanted emails, messages, and “invites to coffee/lunch.”

And that’s only a fraction of the attacks on Singal, which have also included accusations (refuted by available evidence) of outing a sexual abuse survivor and tweets cautioning potential sources not to talk to him.

While “classic” harassment — verbal abuse that sometimes escalates to threats — can be traumatic and scary, it does not have the reputation- and career-damaging potential of false accusations. “The point of these harassment and libel campaigns is to punish people for writing or talking about controversial subjects in anything but an extremely superficial, circumscribed way,” Singal told me. He added that he knows at least two people with large platforms who have largely abandoned discussion of certain topics “because the abuse got so unbearable.”

Far-right trolls and harassers are universally despised. How should we respond when professional journalists engage in or enable equally damaging behavior?

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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