WASHINGTON — Not an hour had passed since Senator Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of color to land on a major party’s presidential ticket when political strategist Adrianne Shropshire was already bracing herself for what was sure to come next.
“I am trying to hold on to the joy,” she said, taking in the weight of the moment.
But the racist and sexist attacks on Harris’s gender, identity, and appearance were already rolling in online. False information about her record and criticism of her running mate, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, was circulating, including the erroneous assertion that she is ineligible to serve as president because her parents were immigrants.
For women of color in politics, and specifically Black women, the Internet has been a powerful tool to tell their own stories and circumvent the traditional, predominantly white media establishment that too often ignores their campaigns or provides coverage that plays to racist or sexist stereotypes.
But in recent years, Black women have become frequent targets of an onslaught of online hate from domestic and foreign perpetrators whose tactics have become more sophisticated and harder to trace, disinformation and media analysts said.
This presidential election, Harris — whose committed fans refer to themselves as the “KHive” (a nod to Beyoncé’s “BeyHive”) — won’t be alone to fight her battles. An online campaign has emerged to defend her from the attacks: #wehaveherback.
“We are prepared and have been preparing for this moment,” said Shropshire, founder of the political action committee BlackPAC. “We are preparing precisely because we think it’s going to be very ugly.”
The arrival of online communities and proliferation of social media have enabled new forms of virulent sexism against women that researcher Karla Mantilla has dubbed “gendertrolling.”
While trolling is the disruption of online conversations and spaces through inane or incendiary comments — often for laughs by white, somewhat privileged men — gendertrolling can be more destructive. It’s coordinated, encompassing vicious language, gender-based insults, and credible threats, such as of rape or death. And it can shift into real life activity, including stalking victims, posting their personal information online, or sending fake pornographic images of women to their employers.
“The attacks are perpetrated by multiple men – sometimes hundreds of men – who keep on it in a sustained way,” said Mantilla, author of “Gendertrolling: Misogyny Adapts to New Media.” “This can go on for years and crosses many forms of media.”
For Black women, the level of coordination is often greater, the attacks harsher, and the protections much fewer, said Shireen Mitchell, who as founder of the advocacy group Stop Online Violence Against Women has been tracking harassment against Black women and other women of color since 2013.
Tech companies often ban or suspend Black women from platforms when they comment on white people’s behavior or attempt to expose bigoted and sexist posts, she and other researchers said. In many instances, Black women face higher chances of being removed from a service than their abusers or white people who use derogatory language against Black people, Mitchell said.
“We have documented that for years, and it is still happening,” she said.
Long before the Gamergate controversy brought attention to the harassment of women online or reports surfaced of Russian agents impersonating Black activists and infiltrating Black civil rights organizations during the 2016 presidential campaign, Black female digital activists and researchers had been documenting such hate and tactics used to target and co-opt the voices of Black women in online spaces.
One of the most prominent cases of harassment that Black women helped bring to the fore — and likely the first in which Twitter took action to protect a Black woman — involved racist and misogynistic slurs against actress Leslie Jones after she starred in the remake of the 1984 movie, “Ghostbusters.”
For women in politics, the attacks can be just as vicious, if not more, digital activists and researchers said. The terrain is difficult to navigate: The barrage of biased and prejudiced criticism can come from the dark corners of the web but also news coverage, Republican operatives, and President Trump himself.
Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has experienced it firsthand. She has garnered massive digital fame as “Auntie Maxine,” hailed for her sharp wit, acerbic criticism of Trump and his allies, and her calls for impeachment. But after Trump launched attacks on her on Twitter, Waters received death threats, spurring her to cancel events in Texas and Alabama in 2018. Her own Republican opponent posted a fake allegation on Twitter that the company refused to remove.
But Waters said none of it has deterred her. “It is vicious and I understand that, but it does not unnerve me at all,” she said of the vitriol. “It does not interfere with my progressive ideals and my ability to do my work.”
The online ambushes on Black female politicians have ticked up as Black female mayors such as Lori Lightfoot of Chicago have emerged, steering their cities through a pandemic and economic downturn; and as Biden vetted vice presidential candidates, with some Black activists calling on him to pick a woman of color.
Enduring conspiracy theories that entangled former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton resurfaced, as did unproven information about Rice’s role in the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack and false accusations that she committed crimes.
Mitchell and other researchers noticed a spike in online attacks on Harris just weeks before she launched her presidential campaign in January 2019. On the left, the reductive narratives of “Kamala is a cop” blended with legitimate criticisms of her record as a prosecutor and California attorney general.
On the right, the attacks centered on her identity, appearance, gender, and birtherism, said Brian Friedberg, a disinformation researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. News of her selection on Tuesday immediately spurred right-wing online activist Ali Alexander to change his Twitter bio: “2020, is my greatest work yet. I took down Kamala Harris in the primary. Ready to again.”
Alexander pushed initial birthplace claims against Harris during the primary.
“This is all a very standard playbook for trying to denigrate Black women,” Friedberg said.
With November looming, longtime researchers like Mitchell and Mantilla worry that not enough online users are aware of the malicious perpetrators — both foreign and domestic, both Democrat and Republican — working to sow discord and exploit internal debates within Black communities. Others are concerned some have downplayed the impact of disinformation and online harassment.
And some digital advocates say they want Harris to be more vocal about the online attacks she has faced, particularly as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that released bipartisan reports on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But Democratic political operatives, women’s advocacy and civil rights groups, and digital activists say they aren’t sitting back.
UltraViolet, Color of Change PAC, Planned Parenthood Votes, and Women’s March have released a 32-page guide for reporters on how to fairly cover women and people of color in politics.
Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, said the group is focused on working to hold tech companies accountable, educating voters about digital disinformation, celebrating Harris’s achievements, and finding ways to debunk claims against her without amplifying them.
“This is not about stopping critiques on the substance,” Thomas said. “But what we can’t let happen and what we won’t let happen is to let racism and sexism to define who Kamala Harris is or who any woman of color running for office this year is.”
Waters said she believed the coordinated vitriol is losing its potency as more people step up to protest and call out racism and sexism in politics. There was a time when the news media wouldn’t even use the word “racism” — or describe Trump as having lied, even when it was clear he had done so, she said.
“We are witnessing something marvelous and extraordinary that is happening in our country,” she said. “This is the change for good.”