HUFFPOST PERSONAL

Here's What Happened When Twitter Trolls Almost Ruined My Life

Like so many women in my orbit, I lost my mind during the Senate confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. I do not say this to be flippant about mental illness (which I suffer from) or to minimize the trauma experienced by survivors (whom I count myself among) but because I felt utterly insane sitting in my cubicle watching MSNBC with tears streaming down my face. Short on outlets to relieve the rage building up inside me, I tweeted, “DO NOT FUCK MEN WHO SUPPORT KAVANAUGH” (four times, with emojis for emphasis). I didn’t give it another thought until later that night when I saw the like count climbing higher and higher. Ever the social media manager, I was pleased to see my content performing well, especially since so many of the women engaging with it were apparently suffering through an equally traumatizing week. 

The author's tweet, which she wrote during the Senate confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the
The author's tweet, which she wrote during the Senate confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

The next day, I met my mom to attend New Yorker Festival panels around the city, and as the afternoon blurred by, I noticed my Twitter notifications had taken a turn for the worse. Many people failed to grasp my nod to “Lysistrata” and instead took the message as a personal attack on them and their values. Others felt compelled to criticize my physical appearance, claiming I’d never find myself a real man. Some assumed I was a lesbian or called me one as a supposed slur. They called me ugly, a bitch, psychotic, a cunt and a whore, as well as several anti-Semitic slurs I won’t write down. My audible gasps while I scrolled through them quickly tipped off my mom that something was amiss, but since she is not a Twitter user, it was easy to assure her they were just angry trolls blowing smoke through a screen. The last thing I wanted was to cause her to worry about me more than she already does as a Jewish mother.

By the time our afternoon event let out, my drama had jumped from Twitter to Instagram. I barely know anyone who follows me on Twitter, but my Instagram followers are primarily friends, family members and co-workers. The thought of them seeing what people were writing about me made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t need my stepcousin once removed to see someone call me a dirty whore. I felt exposed and vulnerable to everyone in my life. 

Late that night, I was alerted by a concerned follower that things had spread to the accounts I run as senior social media manager for a big book publisher. What these people didn’t realize is that tweeting at my work’s account is reporting me to me, since I’m the one who runs the accounts. My hands shook as I read dozens of comments from people like the Ohio principal who would stop stocking his school’s library with classics from the publisher I work for unless I was terminated. Or the woman who could no longer buy her favorite author’s books while I was employed there. I resisted pointing out that while my Twitter bio noted my employer, it also said, “Opinions all my own.”  

I hoped things would cool off overnight, but by Sunday morning, they were replying to every single tweet on the publisher’s feed. I consulted my parents, who agreed that the situation had grown out of control. My mom’s easy dismissal of the situation less than 24 hours earlier was now replaced by constant worry, as my notifications continued to blow up with hundreds of angry messages. This was now above my pay grade. I swallowed my pride and dialed my boss.

To make matters worse, my call reached her while she was on a first date. For millennials, a Sunday afternoon phone call is the equivalent of an emergency flare, so she made her brunch companion wait while she took in the details of my story. Ever the professional, she calmly listened, then said she’d keep me abreast of any developments while she took the situation upward. I was left to wait it out.

I blocked dozens of accounts that night, many of them with leering photos of President Donald Trump in their profile pictures or #MAGA in their bios. I reported several anti-Semitic comments, rape threats and death threats to Twitter, which eventually recommended that I call law enforcement if I believed I was in immediate danger. There’s no section of the social media handbook for judging whether a cyber rape threat is credible, so I just went to bed and said a nonreligious prayer for my job.

I reported several anti-Semitic comments, rape threats and death threats to Twitter, which eventually recommended that I call law enforcement if I believed I was in immediate danger.

The rest of that week was a blur. The harassment kept trickling in, the most unsettling of which happened when my father got a phone call from an anonymous number telling him he should be ashamed of his “nasty daughter.” I knew my supportive, liberal parents would support me, but my company stood by me more than I could have ever hoped. It championed the freedom of speech above all else while genuinely prioritizing my physical and mental well-being.

At the suggestion of my office’s building security, which had been made aware of the situation, I used a side entrance to get to work all week, lest a troll be waiting at the front door to harm me. Thankfully, no people made good on their threats, and by the next week, the situation had mostly blown over. Unsurprisingly, Twitter trolls have short attention spans, although it sickens me to think about the person they undoubtedly moved onto.

Having closely followed the 2016 election, I knew about Trump’s army of Twitter champions, but until they shined their spotlight on me, I was blind to them as the force that they are. Through sheer numbers, they have the power to destroy people who speak out against their values, and they’re happy to do it. I’m lucky to work in an industry and for a company that values free speech, but had I been employed elsewhere, this could have done lasting damage to the career I care so deeply about.

So many people asked me why I didn’t delete my account when I thought my job might be in jeopardy, but the truth is that doing so never felt like an option. To delete my account would have meant letting them win, “them” being the Kavanaugh supporters (and by near definition, Trump supporters) who were so offended by a few dozen characters of female rage that they wanted to ruin my life for it. I also didn’t delete the tweet for several days for the same reason. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing their actions had affected me, even as I sat cowering in my apartment wishing for it all to stop.

It wasn’t until almost a week later, with a handful of trolls lingering on my company’s account, that I decided to take it down. By that point, I felt so fortunate to have the backing of my company that deleting one social media post to end the harassment felt like an easy decision. Anything to make those last few people who continued to email every public inbox listed on the company website move on.

After the furor over her Kavanaugh tweet had blown over, the author broke up with her boyfriend and posted this tweet. T
After the furor over her Kavanaugh tweet had blown over, the author broke up with her boyfriend and posted this tweet. The response reminded her how social media can provide a supportive and nurturing community.

Six weeks after the Kavanaugh hearings, I was reminded how social media can provide a supportive and nurturing community. I broke up with my boyfriend of four years. We had an apartment and a dog and a life, and just like that, it was all gone. Four days later, after it began to sink it, I tweeted the news. Within a few hours, I received a thread of support so generous, I cried many times over, just looking at it. People from all over the world reached out to me, expressing their condolences for my relationship, their sadness for my sadness, their own stories of heartbreak to prove that I wasn’t alone. Their well-wishes would have been enough, but dozens of people Venmoed me $5 or $10 each, for a total of $550, insisting I take myself out for a much-needed drink on them. I even received a $100 gift card from Seamless, which enjoyed my tweet about my friends sending over tacos from our favorite restaurant to cheer me up.

I was — and still am — overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. That money went toward buying the couch I’m sitting on as I write this, giving me a profound sense of kismet. Far more important than the money were the dozens of stories I’ve been sent about broken engagements, unfaithful partners, painful divorces. For most, these stories are miles down the memory path, unburied only to comfort me in my time of need. They want me to know it will get better, and I am desperately trying to believe them.

Even three months after my breakup, I still have a digital support group to keep me company on evenings when I’m too emotionally drained to drag myself out of bed. There are women I’ve never met who still text me once a week just to check in on me, and it’s their empathy that keeps me afloat until time heals my broken heart.

In the wake of the Kavanaugh tweet, it was hard to feel optimistic about anything. I couldn’t shake the sense that we had fractured too far as a country to ever sew ourselves back up. And I’m so thankful to the community that reminded me there really is still good in this world. For a platform that hosts so much hate, there sure is a lot of love on there.

Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to pitch@huffpost.com.

CONVERSATIONS