In 2021, there’s no excuse for media failing to recognize bad-faith disinformation campaigns targeting journalists
AP’s apparent decision to fire Emily Wilder over her support for Palestinian human rights was the latest example of media outlets and institutions caving to a right-wing harassment campaign and firing a journalist
Last week, The Associated Press fired Emily Wilder, a recent hire who graduated from Stanford in 2020, in an apparent response to her past pro-Palestinian activism. The decision to fire Wilder showed AP’s willingness to cave to a right-wing disinformation campaign, led by the Stanford College Republicans, that targeted Wilder. Wilder is the latest example of journalists and other figures who have been fired or professionally harmed for their support of Palestinian human rights; it is also part of a larger pattern of right-wing agitators targeting individuals on the left -- often women or people of color -- who speak out in support of racial and social justice issues deemed unacceptable by the right.
The attacks on Wilder and her subsequent firing
The attacks on Wilder began when the Stanford College Republicans -- a right-wing student organization at her alma mater -- began to tweet about Wilder’s old statements supporting Palestinians and criticizing Israel, as well as her past activism with groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine. The attacks were swiftly picked up by right-wing media agitators like The Washington Free Beacon, The Federalist, and Fox News, ultimately reaching Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), who also attacked AP on Twitter.
These outlets insinuated that Wilder -- who is Jewish and received Orthodox schooling growing up -- is antisemitic for her pro-Palestinian support. They also insidiously attempted to link her hiring to the Israeli government bombing of the AP’s media offices in Gaza only a few days before; Israel has said it targeted the building because it housed Hamas military intelligence, though there is no known evidence to support that claim. The Free Beacon even wrote that “AP's objectivity [is] in question amid revelations it shared office space with Hamas.”
Almost two weeks into her job as a news associate, Wilder was fired from the wire service for unspecified “social media violations.'' (At a staff town hall, AP acknowledged that they made “mistakes in the process” and that they should “have done things differently,” but that they still “stand by” the decision.) Wilder said in an interview with the SFGate that an editor told her that there would not be trouble for “past activism” when the attacks initially surfaced. Wilder added that AP recommended to her that she remove the “Black Lives Matter” slogan that was in her Twitter bio, which she did.
Although the AP did not cite her old posts in its public announcement of Wilder’s dismissal, her firing came only three days after the Stanford College Republicans first began surfacing her past activism -- sparking backlash among fellow journalists who criticized the AP’s biased standards of “objectivity.” Wilder told BuzzFeed that AP’s objectivity policies are “so imprecise, vague, and nebulous" that they were “haphazardly and selectively enforced and almost universally and disproportionally used against journalists of color and journalists who expressed dissent towards the state of Israel." Wilder also said in a statement that it was “terrifying as a young woman who was hung out to dry when I needed support from my institution most” and that she felt she was “thrown under the bus.”
Wilder is not the first journalist fired for supporting Palestinian human rights
Numerous journalists and academics have lost their jobs or tenure after expressing support for Palestinian human rights. Some have experienced threats and targeted campaigns to get them fired after they merely acknowledged human rights abuses levied at the Palestinian people. As the Columbia Journalism Review noted, there is a clear double standard for topics like Palestine which challenge traditionally held views.
In higher education, several professors in recent years have been fired or denied tenure for expressing support for Palestinian human rights or criticisms of Israel; in the case of former University of Illinois professor Steven Salaita, right-wing news outlets like the Daily Caller circulated his tweets about Israel. Marc Lamont Hill was fired as a contributor from CNN after facing criticisms for a speech about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and newspaper columnist Nathan J. Robinson was fired from The Guardian after joking on Twitter about U.S. military aid to Israel, after which he wrote that it is “widely recognized that critics of Israel, no matter how well-founded the criticism, are routinely punished by both public and private institutions for their speech.”
Right-wing agitators’ targeted campaign playbook
AP’s decision to fire Wilder represented a clear failure to identify a bad-faith disinformation campaign, first fueled by the Stanford College Republicans and then followed by known right-wing agitators. Stanford journalism professor -- and Wilder’s former professor -- Janine Zacharia wrote about AP’s failure to identify a disinformation campaign in Politico:
For the AP and other news managers, the most urgent issue in Wilder’s dismissal is that a reporter was targeted by a disinformation campaign—in this case, by people who took issue with Wilder’s documented pro-Palestinian views—and rather than recognizing it as such, the organization essentially caved to it.
Disinformation campaigns against journalists are a growing problem in our age of information overload, and it’s essential that news outlets in particular are able to distinguish between organic outpourings of outrage or grievance online and targeted campaigns that seek to undermine the legitimacy of news organizations and obscure the facts around conflicts.
As Zacharia noted, bad-faith actors in right-wing media and the online far-right have in recent years increasingly targeted journalists and other figures by building a firestorm of outrage, harassment, and threats. This strategy is notoriously weaponized by bad-faith actors like far-right extremist and Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, and it typically relies on nitpicking past tweets or statements to manufacture faux outrage toward perceived enemies and swarming a target and their place of employment.
Journalist Talia Lavin (who previously worked at Media Matters) wrote about this dynamic in her reporting on the far-right mass “learn to code” campaign targeting journalists, describing these attacks as “coordinated harassment, usually migrating from one social media site to another. Often hatched in the internet’s right-wing cesspools, these campaigns unleash a mass of harassment on unsuspecting targets.”
Journalists are not the only targets of these campaigns -- an earlier example includes Shirley Sherrod, the Agricultural Department’s director of rural development in Georgia during the Obama administration who was forced to resign in 2010 after a selectively edited Breitbart video claimed she was racist.
An extreme example of these types of harassment campaigns includes what came to be known as “Gamergate," or the mass harassment and doxxing of women in the gamer community, some of whom were journalists, that took place in 2014 and 2015. As Aja Romero wrote in Vox in 2020, “Gamergate should have armed us against bad actors and bad-faith arguments. It didn’t.”
These coordinated attacks have occurred for years, and in 2021, mainstream media outlets have no excuse for falling for such campaigns. It is unacceptable to capitulate to bad-faith audiences and leave employees, particularly women and people of color who face higher levels of vitriolic aggression, without the necessary support or resources to navigate this harassment. Sacrificing journalists to bad-faith online mobs only emboldens these actors to continue targeting journalists, whereas an institution’s support can neutralize the harassment campaign. Consider the case of Sarah Jeong -- a tech journalist who, when hired by the The New York Times, received a torrent of right-wing harassment accusing her of being racist against white people. But the Times was able to identify the bad-faith campaign and, in publicly supporting Jeong, effectively defanged the bullying tactic.
At a time when it is imperative for media outlets to protect their employees and recognize how bad-faith actors weaponize online outrage, some media outlets have failed to provide this necessary support and have instead caved to these attacks. Like Wilder, many of these journalists were targeted by right-wing media and the far-right and reported experiencing a surge of harassment and threats.
Some media outlets and even academic institutions have failed to support their employees against attacks led by right-wing media
Here are some recent examples of journalists who were targets of right-wing media outrage and whose employers failed to support them, thus impacting their careers:
- Nikole Hannah-Jones: This month, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after an intense “racialized disinformation campaign” targeted Hannah-Jones in response to the 1619 Project she spearheaded at The New York Times Magazine. The project is a “journalistic series that tells the history of Black Americans’ role in creating the nation” and urges a reframing of history to consider the vast impact slavery and institutionalized racism have had on society today. Right-wing media and politicians attacked the project from the start. Fox News and other right-wing outlets have sustained an intense vitriolic backlash against the project since it was announced in 2019. The Federalist called it “fake history” and a “racist screed,” and state Republicans have attempted to ban the 1619 Project from being taught in schools. The decision not to offer Hannah-Jones tenure in what is typically a tenured position came after right-wing media and organizations predictably expressed outrage against Hannah-Jones’ hiring, and it represents the university caving to “the latest instance of conservatives using the state to suppress ideas they consider dangerous.”
- Hemal Jhaveri: In March, USA Today fired Hemal Jhaveri from her role as race and inclusion editor after nearly eight years with the company. Jhaveri -- who detailed her experience in a Medium post -- was fired over an erroneous tweet in which she claimed the shooter at a supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, was a white male. Jhaveri deleted the tweet and apologized, but it was picked up in far-right circles -- including by YouTube personality Dave Rubin. Jhaveri claims to have endured “social media outrage, threats and harassment,” followed by USA Today firing her within a day. Of her firing, Jhaveri wrote:
Some part of me has been waiting for this to happen because I can’t do the work I do and write the columns I write without invoking the ire and anger of alt-right Twitter. There is always the threat that tweets which challenge white supremacy will be weaponized by bad faith actors. I had always hoped that when that moment inevitably came, USA TODAY would stand by me and my track record of speaking the truth about systemic racism.
- Lauren Wolfe: In January 2020, The New York Times fired freelance editor Lauren Wolfe after she said in a since-deleted tweet that she had “chills” seeing Joe Biden’s plane arriving at Joint Base Andrews for his presidential inauguration. The Times denied firing Wolfe over a single tweet, but the decision followed a fierce wave of right-wing attacks, harassment, and threats toward Wolfe, as well as criticisms of the Times for employing her. Journalists criticized the decision to fire Wolfe, arguing that journalists should be “judged by the fairness of their work” and that “knee-jerk firings in response to online harassment campaigns only further embolden harassers — and put ALL journalists at risk.”
- Sam Seder: In 2017, MSNBC cut ties with contributor Sam Seder after Mike Cernovich spread a 2009 tweet in which Seder mocked defenders of Roman Polanski, a film director charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Following a harassment campaign led by Cernovich, MSNBC caved, deciding not to renew its contract with Seder. MSNBC ultimately rehired Seder after a furious backlash in response to the outlet caving to Cernovich.
- Sopan Deb: In 2017, Cernovich targeted New York Times culture reporter Sopan Deb for a satirical tweet mocking rape apologists, implying that Deb himself is a rape apologist. (Cernovich has a well-documented history of rape apology which includes him denying the existence of date rape.) After a series of far-right attacks that followed Cernovich’s lead, Times Public Editor Liz Spayd published a column lambasting Deb’s tweet. While Spayd acknowledged that many of the complaints she received were from “far-right conservative groups” that “have latched onto his tweet for their own purposes,” she still failed to support Deb from attacks coming exclusively from professional trolls.
- Talia Lavin: In June 2018, writer Talia Lavin resigned from her job after working three years at The New Yorker as a fact-checker. Lavin had compared a picture on Twitter of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent’s tattoo with the Nazi symbol of an Iron Cross. As people pointed out that these were dissimilar designs, she quickly deleted the post and offered an apology. But the backlash was immense; ICE called out Lavin by name in an official statement and accused her of “baselessly slandering” the agent, and Lavin received near-constant harassment. The New Yorker even made a public apology to the National Review for Lavin’s “derogatory assumption.” While The New Yorker did not technically fire Lavin, in a later interview reflecting on the fall-out, Lavin said, “It was like having the roof pulled off your life. I wound up issuing an apology to the ICE guy, and I resigned. I wasn't forced to resign, but my resignation was very gladly accepted an hour after I submitted it.”