On October 26, a new report was released that detailed the way in which attacks made by Twitter accounts had fueled harassment and hate aimed at Meghan, the duchess of Sussex, and Prince Harry, the duke of Sussex. According to analytics service Bot Sentinel, these troll accounts were not bots, just highly 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’s 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 actor Amber Heard from the upcoming Aquaman sequel as a result of abuse allegations made against her by ex-husband Johnny Depp. “Are these 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 likely well-funded campaign against Meghan is but one of many examples of the long-standing tradition of taking down Black women for sport. For Meghan, whose legal case against the publisher of The Mail on Sunday continues this week, winning in court is important not only symbolically but practically, as it could expand protections for the rest of us. It’s for that reason we should all brace ourselves for further attacks against not only her character but her very existence.
This battle was already won by Meghan in the U.K.’s courts: In February, a High Court judge ruled that The Mail on Sunday had invaded her privacy when it published correspondence she had written to her father. Now the paper 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 fodder for their tabloid-media machine. This is an attempt by The Mail on Sunday to undo 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 begged him to stop speaking to the press, a letter she worried would be leaked anyway.
Imagine knowing that your every move, even the most intimate communications with your family members, could be weaponized against you. How do we rationalize every difficult, private conversation being turned into content for digital media platforms to exploit as a matter of routine practice? For an industry fueled by hate and vitriol, the audacity of a Black woman’s suing for her privacy, and winning, is too much for the tabloids to bear. In this case, her very worry about and anticipation of being exploited is now being framed by the tabloids as grounds for the revocation of her rights.
By this reasoning, any expression of concern by a woman about being harmed means she cedes her protection from said harm. Such is the distorted logic of sexism — and racism — that governs this case. It’s one we should watch closely to see if the courts will uphold her victory or go to trial. On Thursday, at the conclusion of a three-day hearing, London’s Court of Appeal said it would take its time in considering the case. “I would urge you not to read tabloids,” Meghan told an interviewer earlier this week. “I don’t think that’s healthy for anyone. Hopefully, one day they come with a warning label like cigarettes do. Like, ‘This is toxic for your mental health.’”
These activities are not new and not novel. While some might believe that the 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, not only has trolling been emotionally and psychologically destructive for countless Black women, it is financially lucrative for the abusers who demonize and dehumanize us, and it has no regard for the toll on our mental health. Internet and media companies that traffic in stereotyping and whipping up negative sentiment toward women — especially women of color — drive massive amounts of engagement, which translates to big profits for the platforms.
I’ve spent the past decade researching and writing about the harms that come to Black women and girls from Big Tech companies that have been negligent in the design and management of their platforms. Both traditional media conglomerates and internet media companies draw users into their web of vile disregard for Black women through the casual and constant use of dog whistles and entrenched stereotypes. Hateful speech and behavior toward Black women is a heinous and enduring practice that has grave consequences not just for the rich and famous but for everyday Black women, who have to live, work, and try to thrive in racist and misogynistic workplaces and communities, whose hostility to our very existence is persistently and routinely normalized.
In 2018, Amnesty International reported that while all women are targets of online abuse and violence, women of color were 34 percent more likely to be mentioned in “abusive or problematic” tweets than white women. Further, Black women were 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in such tweets. We see how internet platforms can be powerfully mobilized to these ends: Just last month, Newsweek reported the existence of an anti–Meghan Markle YouTube channel: more than 300 videos that are wholly devoted to monetizing hate against her through content and merchandise.
Many well-known Black women have been relentlessley targeted online, in what writer Trudy aka @thetrudz and Black, queer, feminist scholar Moya Bailey, back in 2008, termed “misogynoir”: “the ways anti-Black and misogynistic representation shape broader ideas about Black women, particularly in visual culture and digital spaces.” We see examples of misogynoir everywhere, often symbolically in the case of well-known Black women, whose fame cannot insulate them from harm, and whose experiences remind us of our own vulnerabilities. Under these inverted racist logics, being excellent at our jobs, like Serena Williams, becomes a source of derision. Taking care of our health invites a backlash of hostility and rage, such as Simone Biles faced. Being funny and great in a movie whips up racist, sexist trolls to attack you; just ask Leslie Jones. Simply declaring that Black lives matter engenders hatred and criticism, such as Naomi Osaka faced.
The very being of Black womanhood never escapes the relentless microscope of critique, or the mocking, or the lack of empathy. The better Black women are than the small, racist imaginaries constructed for us, the more backlash we experience for breaking those molds with our greatness. There is often no other choice but to significantly withdraw from public life, or retreat from full participation, just when the world could use more, not fewer, examples of Black women’s excellence and success. Who loses out from their absence most of all? Everyday Black girls and women, of course. Claims of too little representation of Black women’s excellence are then free to proliferate. They never probe beneath the surface to ask why so many withdraw, are sidelined, or are forced out of all kinds of experiences, jobs, and possibilities in the first place. Instead, those who abuse us are rarely held accountable, and we are expected to withstand the unrelenting barrage.
Social networks frequently frame their connections as neutral, without addressing the harms that come from connections we don’t want, need, or deserve. Even as evidence accumulates of how social and tabloid media are actively implicated in trolling, harm, violence, and civil- and human-rights abuses, these companies double down and continue to make enormous profits. Facebook alone generated $16.34 billion dollars in just the third quarter of 2019 alone. The business of sexist and racist propaganda — from tabloids to social media — tears down all of us, creating a race to the bottom. Some repair work is done in the courts by individuals like Meghan. Some work is done by organizations like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, which has effectively advocated and helped pass the most comprehensive non-consensual pornography (i.e., revenge porn) laws in the United States — laws that extend the notion of privacy protections to women who would otherwise be exploited for profit through web sites that monetize private photos, videos, and material without their consent. Repair work is done by scholars and activists in making the trolling and violence against Black cis- and transgender women visible so we can resist it. It’s done in the research into digital Black feminism by scholars like Catherine Knight-Steel, and it’s done by the many people who bring attention to these harms and try to fix them. Yet we still need much more support in establishing legal precedents protecting our lives from being made commodities without consequence or redress.
Most Black women cannot afford the legal fees and expenses associated with fighting publishers who seek to degrade them through salacious headlines that sell newspapers and magazines, and get boosted by online sharing. In the case of Meghan, the effort to resist invasions of privacy and defamation of her character comes at a very high cost — a cost most women cannot pay. The dehumanization and barrage of racist and sexist hate have devastating mental, emotional, and physical consequences — including the stress that led to her devastating miscarriage last summer. (And in court this week, she revealed that the stress of her suit against The Mail on Sunday had made her fear another miscarriage.) These are familiar kinds of pain, the kinds many of us face in hostile or unsupportive workplaces and institutions, where to stand up for ourselves is to be painted as angry, uncooperative, or ungrateful. The kinds of conditions — stress, low wages, blocked opportunities — that take years off our lives.
The culture of abuse cultivated against Black women has to be resoundingly rejected. It’s time we reimagine the world through the eyes of those harmed, and bring about an end to the relentless commodification and exploitation of Black women’s lives for sport and for profit. To me, Meghan’s suit represents what so many of us wish we could do: fight back and win.
Safiya Umoja 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 to the Archewell Foundation on internet policy reform. Her latest book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, explores the harms of the technology on vulnerable people. She is a 2021 MacArthur Fellow and the founder of equityengine.org, an organization that supports racial and economic justice for Black women and women of color.