Daunasia Yancey’s first inkling that something was amiss came when she started getting racist tweets from herself.
It was 2015, and Yancey, who founded the Boston arm of the Black Lives Matter movement and led marches around the city, had just made national news for asking then-candidate Hillary Clinton some tough, important questions about race. Yancey gave thoughtful interviews to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and to CNN and MSNBC.
So why were hateful words shared under her name suddenly spreading virulent racism all over Twitter?
“Someone was tweeting [as] me, and it wasn’t me,” Yancey said.
She and others reported the account, and Twitter — which bans impersonation that isn’t obvious parody — shut it down. But that was just the beginning.
“Daunasia Yancey” had a whole life online that Daunasia Yancey knew nothing about. Without her knowledge or permission, someone had built her a website, daunasiayancey.com, with a careful recounting of her biography and accomplishments, and a photo lifted from a Boston Magazine profile. If you can’t beat her, be her: There was no indication it was inauthentic — let alone anything to reveal that it was, in fact, a trap.
The website offered a contact form and listed an e-mail address. But some — maybe all — who reached out to Yancey through the site received troubling replies: Nasty tirades about why “black lives do NOT matter,” as an e-mail to a Boston high school student this June read. The student had sought to talk to Yancey for an oral history project. Instead, she got some cherry-picked, context-free crime statistics from the Department of Justice, and this:
“if you are black...just stop going to school and go get a job it the local Mcdonals...thats about all you will ever be good at....”
I discovered the dopey ruse when I tried to reach Yancey for a story recently, only to receive a similar screed. How many others tried to reach her through the site, only to receive hate mail in return, is impossible to know.
By the time I stumbled onto this, Yancey and her godmother, Carol Goodman, had spent nearly two years pleading with various Internet companies to take down the site. The domain name had been registered with GoDaddy, but the site was apparently built and hosted through a company called Wix.
“I talked at length with both of them and I did not get any satisfaction,” said Goodman, whom Yancey enlisted because she couldn’t stomach thinking about the problem anymore. “I called them and yelled at them and talked to them, and they promised and nothing ever happened.”
Only after I e-mailed a few questions and a request for comment to Wix did the site suddenly disappear. Wix hasn’t responded to that e-mail or another one, asking why it had not acted sooner.
The site had been registered using Yancey’s name and a fake address in Florida; the listed phone number was last registered to someone who died in 2011 and now belongs to an anonymous Google Voice user. Goodman and Yancey had no idea who was tormenting them; they probably never will.
The lengths people will go to discredit and harass people like Yancey — a young black woman willing and able to make her voice heard — shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point. Other Black Lives Matter activists have been victims of even more serious identity theft. DeRay Mckesson, one of the best-known voices to reach national prominence through Black Lives Matter advocacy, had his phone and Twitter account hacked in 2016.
The attack on Yancey’s online identity “is a reminder of the lengths that our detractors will go through to attempt to discredit us and damage the reputation of those who fight for justice,” Mckesson said in a text message. “In Daunasia’s case, it is clear that her effectiveness made her [a] target.”
But while racism is hard to eradicate, obvious online harassment shouldn’t be.
A GoDaddy spokesman said the case was particularly confounding because the website itself was not offensive or harassing. Indeed, any harassment that occurred — such as telling a teenager her life doesn’t matter and she should look forward to being shot — happened via e-mail, not in a publicly viewable forum. Plus, GoDaddy had only registered the domain name; it wasn’t hosting the site.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, said the key is complaining while using the right language.
Had Yancey demanded action under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, then GoDaddy likely would have intervened, Zuckerman said.
In an e-mail, the GoDaddy spokesman said that when a complaint is framed that way “GoDaddy, as the registrar, would comply with and implement whatever decision is made by an approved dispute resolution service provider.” Why Wix didn’t comply with Goodman’s requests is less clear, as the terms of service listed on the company’s website appear to plainly prohibit this kind of harassment.
“Finding help to address online harassment is harder than it should be,” Zuckerman said in an e-mail. What apparatus exists is mostly set up to protect corporations and brands, not people, he said, and fighting individual harassment can require legal resources that few individuals possess.
Yancey was thrilled to learn that the site had finally come down, but it shouldn’t have taken so long. The whole ordeal was disturbing, even traumatic.
But if the doppelganger set out to prove that “black lives do NOT matter,” then the effort was a laughable failure. After all, the only way the racist impostor could make his own life matter was to try to steal Daunasia Yancey’s.
Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.