Journalism took a hit last week when BuzzFeed and HuffPost both announced a steep reduction in staff, cutting hundreds of jobs over the course of just a few days. For many journalists, the layoffs meant the end of a job they’ve had for years and, in the case of many BuzzFeed staffers, the separation from a company they had effectively helped build. Jobs in media, especially digital media, are tough to come by and even tougher to keep. And the people who lost their jobs know that they will be joining an already oversaturated talent pool of unemployed industry vets.
Needless to say, it was a rough few days for those involved. Thanks to a 4chan campaign, it got even worse.
If you were to scroll through the Twitter mentions of some of the laid-off journalists, there’s one phrase you probably saw more than a handful of times: “Learn to code.” On its own, “learn to code” is a perfectly innocuous suggestion, and few would deny that coding is a strong skill to have in the modern economy. The reason this phrase was being tweeted in such large volumes, however, was not out of a genuine concern for the newly unemployed but as a way to taunt them.
The “learn to code” narrative sprung out of an impression among some on the right that journalists, whom conservatives have long tried to paint as elitists, had been flippant about layoffs that hit working-class Americans, particularly coal miners, over the last few years. By tweeting “learn to code” -- a reference to government and tech initiatives aimed at promoting STEM education -- at these journalists, Twitter users were trying to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Talia Lavin, who had a steady freelance gig writing for HuffPost’s now-shuttered opinion section, was one of the first to pinpoint the origin of the “learn to code” campaign: 4chan.
“Oh the sweet, sweet taste of victory and justice. These vile, soulless pieces of shit are going to have to find actual work now,” wrote one anonymous user on the message board, referring to news of the layoffs.
“They should learn to code,” wrote another. Others said they were going to create so-called sockpuppet accounts (fake, deceptive, or throwaway accounts) for the specific purpose of tweeting at laid-off reporters.
“Making them an hero is the goal,” wrote one person, referencing 4chan slang for committing suicide.
The following day, NBC’s Ben Collins published a story about some of the tweets laid-off journalists received, which included a meme about the “Day of the Rope” (a reference to the day of mass execution in The Turner Diaries, a novel with heavy neo-Nazi themes) and a photo of an ISIS member about to execute journalist James Foley with the text “Shut the fuck up journalist.” These messages were mixed in as part of the larger “learn to code” campaign.
Then a mangled message from Twitter set off a firestorm among conservative Twitter commentators.
On Monday morning, The Wrap’s Jon Levine reported that a source inside Twitter told him that “tweeting ‘learn to code’ at any recently laid off journalist will be treated as ‘abusive behavior,’ and is a violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service.”
Just over two hours later, the company issued a public statement contradicting this report, saying that “just Tweeting ‘learn to code’ is not a violation,” but tweeting the phrase “at an account coupled with targeted harassment, violent threats, intimidation, and/or as part of a coordinated campaign is considered a violation of our abusive behaviour policy.” Given that at least one person on 4chan explicitly stated that the goal of their tweets was to encourage journalists to commit suicide, it made sense that Twitter would view tweets resulting from that thread with at least a little caution. Essentially, Twitter’s official statement clarified that people tweeting “learn to code” weren’t somehow exempt from its rules.
Levine also tweeted an update to his original post. In a direct message to me, he wrote, “Twitter told me something on background and then backed away from it publicly after they began to take heat. The whole affair suggests that even their own staff are unsure of how to enforce the nuts and bolts of their [terms of service].”
In fairness, Twitter has what can only be described as an abysmal track record when it comes to enforcing its rules. Moderators routinely ignore posts that clearly violate the site’s terms of service, while marking harmless posts as violations all the time. Conservative media outlets and politicians often argue these inconsistencies are proof of anti-conservative bias at tech companies, but there’s little evidence to back up this claim. Twitter has wrongly taken down tweets from both right-wing and left-wing users, and it has ignored harassment campaigns against people on both sides of the political divide.
Unfortunately, the confusion arising from Levine’s initial report and then Twitter’s official statement provided a misleading narrative for conservatives in the media to latch onto, even after it had been corrected, making journalists on the receiving end of this brigade look fragile and thin-skinned.
There’s scant evidence that journalists told laid-off miners to “learn to code.” This has led the campaign’s defenders to engage in a bit of revisionist history.
The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson wrote that in 2016, “millennial reporters at various online outlets suggested that blue collar coal miners ‘learn to code’ as the Obama Administration hatched plans to close coal mines. More than one outlet suggested as much with the New York Times even going so far as to profile one group that taught unemployed rust belt workers to code.”
“Well, what’s good for the goose … isn’t working so well for the gander,” he continued. “The internet trolls at 4Chan have encouraged people to tweet out ‘learn to code’ to some of the very same millennial reporters who were suggesting blue collar workers do that.”
Erickson doesn’t give any example of a single laid-off journalist mocking the plight of coal miners, and there’s a good reason to believe it didn’t happen.
The 2016 New York Times profile Erickson mentioned wasn’t published as some sort of smug suggestion that miners just suck it up and “learn to code,” but as an empathetic look at the struggles faced by families in Appalachian coal country suddenly finding themselves without a source of income as once-reliable mining jobs vanished for good.
In September 2018, the Times published an op-ed titled “The Coders of Kentucky,” highlighting bipartisan efforts to revitalize some of the more economically challenged segments of the country. It was, much like the 2016 piece, extraordinarily empathetic to the plight of workers who saw these once-steady careers evaporate.
Neither article was authored by a millennial. The 2016 piece was written by a baby boomer, born in the 1960s, and the 2018 article was authored by a member of the silent generation, born in 1940. The closest thing to a smug “learn to code” response to miners losing jobs came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who actually dismissed out-of-work miners as being unable or unwilling to code. Bloomberg, born in 1942, is definitely not a millennial.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been articles urging various groups to learn how to code. A 2013 post published on Forbes’ community page suggested that women should learn the skill. People have made a case for including coding classes in K-12 public education, for businesspeople to give it a shot, and for designers to get in on the action. A 2014 interactive BuzzFeed piece by Katie Notopoulos listed various articles handing out this bit of advice broadly. Interestingly enough, none of them were in the oh, you just got laid off -- deal with it and learn to code vein.
Erickson’s “what’s good for the goose” statement doesn’t apply here. Instead, it simply functions as a release valve for people who might feel a tinge of guilt over targeting those who were laid off or who felt a sense of glee at the news.
The “learn to code” portion of this campaign is something of a red herring. NBC’s Ben Collins walked me through it.
According to Ben Collins, the author of NBC’s report on the harassment campaign, smugly suggesting coal miners “learn to code” wasn’t the approach newspapers took when covering those who lost their jobs. He noted that reports on news about coding programs and statements from politicians aren’t anywhere near the type of arrogant sneer conservatives are making them out to be.
And Collins has a theory about why some conservatives build on these sorts of myths. “It ... feeds into this larger narrative that ‘the news’ is one homogeneous organism that is all writing the same thing, that we're all one sentient blob,” he wrote in a Twitter direct message.
The goal of these types of campaigns is to launder actual hate and threats across social media to convince outsiders that the people being harassed are just weak, overdramatic, or perhaps even deserving of whatever they receive. Collins elaborates:
The learn to code stuff is not the point for [people on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” message board] /pol/. They understand when they brigade specific tweets/journalists telling them to do something benign, in this case tweet “learn to code,” people on /pol/ will obviously take it too far and send a picture of ISIS executing a journalist instead. Subversion, and the subversion of that subversion, is the very point of /pol/.
That's why [the recent campaign] was a perfect storm. Center-right blogs could claim plausible deniability, while writing journalists are soft for not being able to take thousands of “learn to code” messages on the day they were fired. But they understand what /pol/ is. They understand trolling culture and harassment campaigns. They are willfully ignoring the admittedly smaller subset of (but real) threats that are baked into the cake when a campaign like this gets started on the most notorious part of the internet that was built on hate.
On Twitter, Talia Lavin shared examples of the hateful messages she received mixed in with those telling her to “learn to code.”
In response to Ben Shapiro’s dismissal of the campaign, she tweeted, “A lot of the people telling me learn to code were also telling me to jump in an oven, talking about gassing all the kikes and celebrating race war. No matter how much cover you run for fascists, they still hate you, Ben.”
The generally incredulous response to these recent claims of harassment illustrates just how unwilling and out-of-touch social platforms and a sizable chunk of the media world is when it comes to understanding the way information and harassment travels on the internet.