Photo Illustration: by The Cut; Photo Getty Images
On October 26, a new report was released detailing the way in which attacks by Twitter accounts had led to harassment and hatred directed at Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex. According to the analysis service Bot Sentinel, these troll accounts were not bots, just very coordinated: 83 accounts, with a potential reach of 17 million users, were responsible for 70 percent of the negative and hateful content generated about the couple. The company’s CEO told BuzzFeed News that this anti-Meghan Twitter campaign is unlike anything he and his team have ever seen before:
“There is no motive,” he said, comparing the anti-Meghan campaign to other disinformation and harassment campaigns on Twitter such as the #StopTheSteal movement to overturn the results of the 2020 US presidential election or the campaign to remove actress Amber Heard from the upcoming . Aquaman successor as a result of abuse charges against her by ex-husband Johnny Depp. “Is it people who hate her? Is it racism? Are they trying to hurt [Harry and Meghan’s] credibility? Your guess is as good as ours. “
This coordinated and probably well-funded campaign against Meghan is just one of many examples of the long-standing tradition of taking black women down for sports. For Meghan, whose lawsuit against the publisher of Mail on Sunday continues this week, it is important to win in court, not only symbolically but practically, as it may extend the protection of the rest of us. That is why we should all prepare for further attacks on not only her character but her existence.
This match was already won by Meghan in the British courts: That was decided by a district court judge in February Mail on Sunday had invaded her privacy when it published correspondence she had written to her father. Now the newspaper has sought to appeal her victory and paint her as calculating, manipulative and even diabolical because she dared to try to save herself from becoming the fodder of their tabloid media machine. This is an experiment from Mail on Sunday to regret the right to privacy, she has already won, all because they published a private letter she wrote to her father in August 2018, in which she asked him to stop talking to the press, a letter she was concerned about , would be leaked anyway.
Imagine knowing that all your movements, even the most intimate communication with your family members, can be armed against you. How do we rationalize any difficult, private conversation that turns into content that digital media platforms can exploit as a matter of routine practice? For an industry driven by hatred and vitriol, the audacity of a black woman suing for her privacy and winning is too much for the tabloids to bear. In this case, her concern and expectation of being exploited is now put forward by the tabloids as a basis for revoking her rights.
With this reasoning, any expression of concern on the part of a woman about being harmed means that she waives her protection against said harm. Such is the distorted logic of sexism – and racism – that governs this case. It is one we should follow closely to see if the courts will uphold her victory or go to court. On Thursday, at the conclusion of a three-day hearing, the London Court of Appeal said it would take its time to deal with the case. “I would urge you not to read tabloids,” Meghan told an interviewer earlier this week. “I do not think it’s healthy for anyone. Hopefully one day they will come with a warning label like cigarettes do. Like, ‘This is toxic to your mental health’.”
These activities are not new and not new. While some may think that harassment and exploitation of a famous black woman is somehow less consequential by virtue of her fame, they create harmful consequences for all black women. In the case of social media, trolling has not only been emotionally and psychologically devastating for countless black women, it is financially lucrative for the addicts who demonize and dehumanize us, and it does not take into account the strain on our mental health. Internet and media companies that trade in stereotypes and whip up a negative mood towards women – especially colored women – drive huge amounts of engagement, which means big profits for the platforms.
I have spent the last decade researching and writing about the harms that come to black women and girls from Big Tech companies who have been negligent in the design and administration of their platforms. Both traditional media conglomerates and Internet media companies are dragging users into their network of disgusting ignorance of black women through the random and constant use of dog whistles and ingrained stereotypes. Hate speech and behavior towards black women is a heinous and enduring practice that has serious consequences, not only for the rich and famous, but for ordinary black women who have to live, work and try to thrive in racist and misogynistic workplaces and societies , whose hostility to our existence is persistent and routinely normalized.
In 2018, Amnesty International reported that although all women are targets of online abuse and violence, colored women were 34 percent more likely to be mentioned in “abusive or problematic” tweets than white women. Moreover, black women were 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in such tweets. We see how Internet platforms can be effectively mobilized for these purposes: Last month, Newsweek reported the existence of an anti-Meghan Markle YouTube channel: more than 300 videos dedicated solely to monetizing hatred of her through content and merchandise.
Many famous black women have been ruthlessly targeted online at what activist Trudy aka @thetrudz and Black, queer feminist scholar Moya Bailey, back in 2008, called “misogynoir”: “the ways anti-black and misogynistic represent broader ideas about blacks women, especially in visual culture and digital spaces. ” We see examples of misogyny everywhere, often symbolic in the case of well-known black women, whose fame cannot isolate them from harm, and whose experiences remind us of our own vulnerabilities. Under these inverted racist logics, being excellent at our job, like Serena Williams, becomes a source of ridicule. Taking care of our health invites a backlash of hostility and rage that Simone Biles faced. Being funny and amazing in a movie makes racist, sexist trolls attack you; just ask Leslie Jones. Simply declaring that Black lives matter breeds hatred and criticism, as Naomi Osaka faced.
The very being of black femininity never escapes the merciless microscope of criticism, scorn, or lack of empathy. The better black women are than the small, racist notions constructed for us, the more backlash we experience to break these forms with our greatness. There is often no choice but to withdraw significantly from public life or withdraw from full participation, precisely when the world could use more, not fewer, examples of black women’s expertise and success. Who loses most of all on their absence? Everyday black girls and women, of course. Allegations of under-representation of black women’s expertise are so free to spread. They never probe beneath the surface to ask why so many retire, are put on the sidelines or forced out of all sorts of experiences, jobs and opportunities in the first place. Instead, those who abuse us are rarely held accountable, and we are expected to resist the tireless barrage.
Social networks often portray their connections as neutral without addressing the harms that come from connections we do not want, need, or deserve. Although evidence is accumulating about how social and tabloid media are actively involved in trolling, harm, violence and civil and human rights violations, these companies are doubling and continuing to make huge profits. Facebook alone generated $ 16.34 billion alone in the third quarter of 2019. The business of sexist and racist propaganda – from tabloids to social media – is tearing us all down and creating a race to the bottom. Some repair work is being done in the courts by people like Meghan. Some work is being done by organizations such as the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which has effectively advocated and helped enact the most comprehensive laws on pornography without consent (ie, revenge porn) in the United States – laws that extend the concept of privacy to women who otherwise would be exploited for profit through websites that monetize private photos, videos and material without their consent. Repair work is being done by scholars and activists to make trolling and violence against black cis- and transgender women visible so we can resist it. It has been done in the research of digital black feminism by scientists like Catherine Knight-Steel, and it has been done by the many people who draw attention to these damages and try to correct them. Yet we still need much more support to establish legal precedents that protect our lives from being turned into goods without consequences or compensation.
Most black women cannot afford the legal fees and expenses associated with fighting publishers who seek to degrade them through bad headlines that sell newspapers and magazines and get boosted by online sharing. In Meghan’s case, efforts to resist invasions of privacy and defamation of her nature come at a very high price – a cost that most women cannot afford. The dehumanization and barrage of racist and sexist hatred has devastating mental, emotional and physical consequences – including the stress that led to her devastating abortion last summer. (And in court this week, she revealed that the stress of her case against Mail on Sunday had made her fear another miscarriage.) These are familiar forms of pain, the kind many of us encounter in hostile or unsupportive workplaces and institutions where standing up for ourselves is being painted as angry, uncooperative or ungrateful. That kind of relationship – stress, low wages, blocked opportunities – that takes years from our lives.
The culture of abuse cultivated against black women must be vehemently rejected. It is time that we re-imagine the world through the eyes of the injured, and bring an end to the relentless pursuit and exploitation of the lives of black women for sport and profit. To me, Meghan’s suit represents what so many of us wish we could do: fight back and win.
Safiya United Noble, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Gender Studies and African American Studies and Director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry. C2i2 is a partner of the Archewell Foundation on Internet policy reform. Her latest book, Oppression Algorithms: How Search Engines Enhance Racism, explores technology harms vulnerable people. She is the 2021 MacArthur Fellow and founder of equityengine.org, an organization that supports racial and economic justice for black women and women of color.