On April 25, the UMass College Republicans hosted an event in Stockbridge Hall featuring several prominent pop-conservatives. The event, “The Triggering: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?,” was billed as a discussion of the perceived excesses by social justice movements from feminism to microaggression. British conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos opened the forum with the mic-dropper: “Feminism is cancer. Thank you very much.” The dozen-plus protesters in the audience jeered and booed.
Christina Hoff Sommers, author and resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, followed Yiannopoulos, attempting to dial it back a little by clarifying that “third-wave campus feminism” is “madness,” but the protesters were riled. Some, including Hampshire College junior Cora Segal, shouted down the speakers with cries of “Fuck you!” and slogans like “Keep your hate speech off this campus!”
“I invited her here as a demonstration of utter madness,” Hoff Sommers said, pointing out Segal, according to a video of the event. Someone in the audience called Segal a “dog,” which was met by laughter and applause.
This is where a months-long battle with bloggers and internet trolls began to unfold for Cora Segal, protest organizer Jennie Chenkin — two women at that event who have shouldered the angry and sometimes violent wrath of the web. The women have received items in the mail, gruesome photos, and threats against their personal safety over what happened April 25.
The fallout from The Triggering has been different for each woman, and they have all decided to handle it in their own ways. The common thread between the three, however, is that it seems no one can help them. U.S. laws do little to protect people from cyber stalking, harassment, and threats that take place online. U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) has been leading the charge to improve legislation and get the government to put funding behind enforcement. For her efforts, a team of police were sent to her house Jan. 31 on a false tip of an active shooter.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, women aged 18 to 24 “experience certain severe types of harassment at disproportionately high levels.” The study finds that 26 percent have been stalked online, and 25 percent have been sexually harassed. A March study of online harassment among Australian women by the online security firm Norton found that 47 percent had been harassed online, but that number was 76 percent among those under 30.
The internet is often not a safe space for women, especially women with something to say. Of the 3,787 people who reported being harassed or stalked on the internet to law enforcement between 2000 and 2012, 72.5 percent were women, according to the organization Working to Halt Online Abuse.
To deal with the online hate, Chenkin created a Twitter account largely devoted to putting this harassment on display and she continues interacting with her ideological adversaries, including Dillon.
Segal tried to fend off trolls for a while, but it got to be too much. She doesn’t tweet much these days, though users still direct insults at her constantly, and she’s created an alternate Facebook profile. She doesn’t apologize for the protest, though, and continues her activism.
“As a fat woman, people are going to be horrible to me no matter what I do,” she says. “I might as well stand up for what I believe in and make myself heard, but I am still not immune to incredibly valid human emotions of feeling terror and feeling horrible when I have people sending me death threats or telling me that they want to rape me or that I should be grateful that they want to rape me.”
Onthe night of The Triggering, Kassy Dillon, a correspondent for the conservative blog CampusReform.org and a junior at Mount Holyoke College, recorded a cell phone video of an increasingly agitated Segal. Dillon submitted the video to CampusReform.org, which then posted it to its social media channels. The post went viral and has been viewed more than 2.3 million times. It’s spawned remixes and memes. Spurred on by Yiannopoulos and The Triggering’s third panelist, comedian Steven Crowder, a hashtag aimed at insulting Segal’s appearance set twits to Twittering.
“I want to emphasize that 99 percent of the attacks on me are attacking my physical appearance,” Segal says. “They’re not actually attacking my arguments. I think that’s important to emphasize. It’s not any kind of reasonable engaging in a debate, it’s just bullying.”
Yiannopoulos, a columnist for the conservative Breitbart News who has dubbed himself “the most fabulous supervillain on the internet,” has made a career out of incendiary comments. He’s had his Twitter account suspended — and reinstated — multiple times for his comments on everything from Islam to the social justice movement. He’s tweeted that the women’s equality movement “made fat lesbians socially acceptable” and “lesbians = cancer.” In May, he tweeted “KILL ALL FAT PEOPLE.” But his quick mouth, easy charm, and willingness to say almost anything has made him the darling of a certain brand of outspoken conservative activist, though he routinely draws the ire of liberals and conservatives alike.
Media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News picked up the Segal story and pilloried her as a typical feminist activist. Dillon appeared in a segment of Fox’s Varney and Co. in which presenter Charles Payne referred to Segal as “the young lady who just really went berserk.”
Many in the anti-social justice movement saw the video as a dream come true. Segal and the other protesters were widely criticized for their attempts to silence the speakers, and the protest’s leaders acknowledge that their goal was to disrupt the event and shut down the discussion. The focus following The Triggering, though, has been mostly about Segal’s appearance. And trolls have really glommed onto the fact that Segal is a self-proclaimed “fatty” and fat liberationist.
Things might have died down for the women by now if it weren’t for Worcester-based blog Turtleboy Sports, which has run multiple stories decrying the protesters. The anonymous blogger writes of Segal: “What the hell is that thing?” and calls her “by far the worst person that has ever lived.” The blogger goes on to say that “these people need to be publicly humiliated” and that “the fact that she’s huge is fair game.”
A Turtleboy Sports blogger identified only as “Jay,” who says he’s written several of the stories about Chenkin, says that it’s about time that college liberals are held accountable for what he sees as the bullying of conservatives. He says he has no sympathy for Segal and that he blames Chenkin for the prolonged coverage. To him, the protesters are emblematic of a problem. And he’s trying to address it.
“People are sick of that type of destructive behavior that they exhibited,” Jay, who declined to give his full name, said in an interview. “Now they’re being held accountable and they don’t know what to do.”
“This is what comes with the territory,” Jay adds. “If you can’t handle that, you should not be on the internet … [Segal] was an easy person to videotape. She is the image, the embodiment of social justice warrior nation … I don’t know why Jennie Chenkin continues to keep this whole thing alive by not shutting up ever. This could all be out of the spotlight, but they insist on keeping it in it and I don’t know why.”
The people of the internet were way ahead of Turtleboy on that one. The public shaming was well underway on social media already. In the collective eyes of the internet, Segal was no longer an individual, but the embodiment of a social justice movement that many love to hate.
Chenkin, a friend of Segal’s and the organizer of the Hampshire College protesters, fired off a series of retaliatory emails. She threatened Turtleboy Sports with legal action for the use of her Facebook posts and profile information. She accused the UMass College Republicans of complicity and demanded punishment. She demanded that Mount Holyoke take action against Dillon for filming the video. Turtleboy fired back with a series of posts on Segal and Chenkin’s personal lives, including a dating website profile and legal records, all of which were publicly available on the internet. Dillon forwarded Chenkin’s email to Breitbart, which published it beneath a photo of a crying baby.
“My reaction to that was one of sheer horror,” Chenkin says. “We never expected anything like that to happen. We anticipated backlash, but not that it would extend beyond the event. He [Turtleboy Sports] put my Facebook profile, which has some of my personal information, on his website, which is frequently visited by people who really don’t like social justice folks. I didn’t really feel like I was in immediate danger, but it was enough to really, really concern me.”
After speaking with lawyers, Chenkin realized she didn’t have much of a case. All of the information posted on the blog was publicly available. But her email pointed out that the online threats against Segal were getting worse the more widely circulated the video became. And now Chenkin herself was drawing the same kind of attention.
“Basically, none of us had really organized a protest before,” says Chenkin. “Our goal wasn’t to educate or even get a point across. We wanted to send the message that, okay, you can have these people here … but you’re going to have pushback.”
“I was basically just asking for someone to do something. I felt very powerless,” she says of her emails.
Then things got dark. Chenkin and Segal were placed on an internet blacklist devoted to outing social justice activists. Chenkin says she received a collage made from photos of a naked, decapitated woman. According to screengrabs from Chenkin’s Facebook inbox that she provided to the Advocate, the same user sent her a nude photo with the the subtitle “I’ve got a knife and a cock. One of them is going inside you.”
Another Facebook user told her: “remember ‘suicide is painless’” adding “btw Turtleboy’s coverage of you and that humongous beast has been fabulous.”
Chenkin and Segal found that they had little recourse but to try and block their harassers. Laws around online harassment exist, but are vague and difficult to enforce.
Chenkin says she was in touch with law enforcement, but they could do little for her. UMass Amherst officials wrote in a statement: “Following the event on campus in April, concerns expressed by specific audience members to the university about social media posts were forwarded to the UMass Police for review. The UMPD concluded the posts did not constitute a criminal violation of the law.”
“I’ve talked to a nonprofit that works specifically around internet harassment,” Segal says. “There are very legal specific definitions of a death threat. The words literally have to say ‘I am going to kill you.’ They’re very much death threats, but the messages I’ve been getting have been saying ‘I want you to die’ or “you need to kill yourself,’ ‘I hope you die,’ ‘go kill yourself,’ that kind of thing. That’s still very much a death threat and it doesn’t change the severity of it. But because the legal system only recognizes a death threat as very specific wording, I don’t have a lot of legal standing for this kind of case.”
In a blog entry from May 19, Turtleboy Sports posted: “This will never, ever get old. Someday I’ll show this to Turtleboy Jr. as Jennie Chenkin and [Segal] desperately try to erase their names from search engines. Seriously, Google Jennie Chenkin. It’s amazing. That’s what happens when you pick fights with websites that get lots of traffic. This girl has single handedly destroyed her digital footprint for eternity.”
Kassy Dillon, who shot the video, says she condemns the attacks on Segal’s appearance.
“Her actions were enough to criticize,” she says. “I don’t agree with people attacking her looks. That’s wrong.”
“People are using Cora as a symbol,” she adds. “She’s not Cora. She’s the nickname they gave her. She’s a symbol now. They’re not going after her.”
Dillon is no stranger to online threats herself, especially since she’s started airing her opinions about Middle East policy on Twitter, though she says she hasn’t received anything as serious as what Chenkin and Segal have.
“I just don’t take everything so seriously,” she says. “I know people are going to say what they want to say and that doesn’t offend me. It’s their right to say it to me. I just make a joke out of it … I think people need to be smart and realize that whatever they put online is going to be public information.”
Since the harassment began on their end, Segal and Chenkin seem to have handled the threats in very different ways.
Jay says that he doesn’t condone death threats, but that he’s skeptical that Segal and Chenkin have actually received them.
“Oh please,” he says. “They have not received any death threats. Show me one death threat … We at Turtleboy Sports get real death threats all the time. It comes with the territory of being a public figure.”
Contact Peter Vancini at firstname.lastname@example.org.