Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Bullies and Platforms

Speaking of Taylor Lorenz, some men including Tucker Carlson and Glenn Greenwald have become obsessed with Lorenz’s tweets over the past several weeks. They are not critiquing her work, despite the way they frame these pieces; it is a strangely obsessive campaign that tests the line between criticism and harassment. Carlson dedicated the A-block of his show last night to mocking women — those with a platform, specifically, including Lorenz — who point out times when they have been treated with disdain and contempt. Greenwald sent a rant to his, as Substack puts it, “tens of thousands” of subscribers last month complaining about an erroneous claim she made and corrected within a few hours.1 It is a very weird and arguably cruel beat these commentators have chosen.

This targeting of any woman who dares to express the unique vitriol they experience is, sadly, standard fare, as is the mockery directed towards anyone in a position of relative influence or wealth who is not happy and satisfied at all times. This clearly needs to change. Without discounting that more serious and pressing concern, I am mentioning this situation because I think there’s a broader point here about platforms.

Ryan Broderick in his Garbage Day newsletter:

Substack released their first real community guidelines in December. At the time, I wrote about them, saying I was skeptical, but I liked the general direction they were going in. One thing that worried me was how simplistic their definition of harassment was. It’s one line in their content guidelines, “In all cases, Substack does not allow harassment or threats.” And in their December announcement, they also said they don’t allowing doxxing. I read through Greenwald’s original Substack piece on Taylor (it wasn’t easy lol). And it was a vicious screed, but he doesn’t doxx her. But online harassment is a constantly evolving process of boundary testing. Campaigns become better and more organized and every community guideline that can be stress-tested will be. Right now most of the abuse being carried out by this group is confined to Twitter, but it stands to reason that it will eventually spill over to Substack. And dealing with people like Greenwald is going to be much harder to moderate than your average troll.

Carlson and Greenwald get to make choices about how they use their platforms and, make no mistake, they both have considerable power. Fox News has claimed for decades that it is in opposition to the “mainstream media”, but it finished 2020 as the mainstreamiest cable network with its best year ever. It may have begun the year on an off-note, but its CEO is confident of a rebound. Carlson is one of the network’s biggest stars and a trust fund baby. Greenwald may not have the circulation or institutional gravitas of the Times behind him, but he is certainly an influential and powerful media figure. He has a Pulitzer to his name, his recent reporting of the Operation Car Wash scandal in Brazil rocked the country, and he was able to replace his six-figure salary after quitting the Intercept and grow his audience at the same time.

Both commentators have decided to throw their considerable weight this week behind against a specific Times reporter. Neither outright calls for targeted harassment, but both are surely aware of the size of the audience they are directing at their target. How much responsibility do they bear for using their influence in this way and, more to the point, how much responsibility is borne by the platforms that host them? I don’t mean legally, but ethically: do Fox or Substack have any moral culpability when they are a vehicle for aggressive targeted disparagement?

The people who run Fox should, I think, be ashamed of its broadcasting — just in general, all the time — but we all know what that channel is and strives for. It is Substack that is a more complicated and interesting case. Substack is not like Twitter or Facebook’s blue site. Posts from its publishers stand alone, have more context, and there are not really any mechanisms to juice popularity — there is not an intra-network reshare button; there is really no “network” to speak of. Substack is more like an old-school blogging platform with email.

Except, Substack also has paid subscriptions of which it takes a cut. Anyone can theoretically offer subscriptions — give me money on Patreon — but those with an existing fan club particularly benefit, regardless of those writers’ ethics. To be clear, nothing about Substack is uniquely a problem here: Broderick’s newsletter is hosted on Substack, and Lorenz offers an email subscription through it too. But there is an awkward relationship between deliberate assholes and those who financially benefit from that behaviour. I don’t think we — in the broadest sense — are navigating that relationship well. Part of the reason for that is undoubtably because Substack has positioned itself as a more household name; you can identify a Substack newsletter through its poor typography and consistent layout. Substack is a particularly identifiable beneficiary of the users of its platform in a way that a generic self-hosted email subscription is not.

It seems to me that a key differentiator between platforms and more infrastructural elements is how conspicuous they are. If Substack were entirely customizable and had no branding, I doubt there would be as much expectation that it will intervene — but there also would not be trend pieces about Substack appearing in media outlets worldwide.

  1. I am intending to make a broader argument so I don’t want to get too into the specific disputes or individuals here. But, for completeness, Greenwald wrote a followup piece today complaining about Lorenz and, more generally, how he feels that journalists should just toughen up, smile, and embrace the consequences of criticizing powerful people. Which, whatever. I think burying your feelings is a terrible suggestion for being on the receiving end of abuse because abuse should not be happening to anyone, but I don’t have the time for all of this.

    One thing he wrote early in his piece stood out to me because it was trivial to check:

    She [Lorenz] also often uses her large, powerful public platform to malign private citizens without any power or public standing by accusing them of harboring bad beliefs and/or associating with others who do. (She is currently being sued by a citizen named Arya Toufanian, who claims Lorenz has used her private Twitter account to destroy her [sic] reputation and business, particularly with a tweet that Lorenz kept pinned at the top of her Twitter page for eight months, while several other non-public figures complain that Lorenz has “reported” on their non-public activities). It is to be expected that a New York Times journalist who gets caught lying as she did against Andreessen and trying to destroy the reputations of non-public figures will be a topic of conversation.

    Calling Toufanian a mere “citizen” not only makes for an awkward sentence, it is misleading. He is the founder of a couple of scummy companies, elected not to comment on a critical article by Lorenz about his business practices, and has repeatedly appeared in national and online media since 2012 including in other Times articles. Greenwald’s claim is also factually incorrect: in a PACER search, I was unable to find any lawsuit against Lorenz, and the only relevant suit involving Toufanian was against someone else. Lorenz’s article was cited by the defence in that libel suit, which is now being considered for dismissal.

    I brought this to Greenwald’s attention by email about two hours after he tweeted a link to this edition of his newsletter. Seven hours have passed between when I sent that email and published this post. During that time, he has been active on Twitter and at least one other person has informed him of this apparent error. He has not replied to me nor has he corrected his article. If Lorenz’s claim about Marc Andreessen is to be considered a “lie” because it was tweeted and then deleted after three hours, what would be the best term for Greenwald’s claim about this, as best as I can tell, entirely fictitious lawsuit?

    Update, March 12 The above is incorrect, and I apologize. This (SLAPP) lawsuit exists. The DC court system, where this suit was filed, is not searchable by PACER, which is why I was unable to find it. I still think it’s weird that Greenwald seems excited by the prospect of a lawsuit against a journalist for critical but fair coverage. I thought he was against that sort of thing. Also, he still hasn’t replied. ↩︎