Apr 21, 2022

Libs of TikTok.

Libs of TikTok.

The story that took over the internet.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

The Libs of TikTok controversy. Plus, a question about immigration reform.

Photo: Solen Feyissa / Flickr
Photo: Solen Feyissa / Flickr

Correction.

In yesterday's edition of Tangle, there was an error/typo in our "numbers section." First, we wrote that 95% of people "5 and up" have one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. This was a simple typo: It should have said 95% of people 65 and up. We also listed 91% of people 65 and up being fully vaccinated, when the number is 90%. This was based on two conflicting sources, but we were using the New York Times Covid tracker, which calls it at 90%.

This is the 59th Tangle correction in its 143-week history, and the first correction since March 28th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. Russia's President Vladimir Putin test-launched a new nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missile which he said should make Moscow's enemies stop and think. (The test)
  2. Federal prosecutors charged 21 people of running health care scams related to Covid-19. (The fraud)
  3. Senator Bernie Sanders is not ruling out a presidential run in 2024 if Joe Biden doesn't run for re-election. Separately, Sanders is visiting Amazon workers fighting to unionize in New York City. (The candidacy)
  4. The world’s most famous tennis tournament, Wimbledon, announced a ban on players from Russia and Belarus. (The ban)
  5. The Energy Department launched a $6 billion credit program to prevent financially distressed nuclear power plants from folding. (The bid)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

Libs of TikTok. If you just said, "What?" you are probably not alone. This is a "very online" story — but one that I think is important to cover. It's also one quite a few readers have asked about, so we decided to cover it today.

The background: There is an account on Twitter called Libs of TikTok that posts videos of various citizens — often school teachers or online influencers — discussing hot-button political issues like abortion, LGBTQ issues, or critical race theory. The videos usually highlight LGBTQ teachers, "progressive" behavior, or people making political comments from the far left. For instance, on April 11, the account posted a video of an elementary school teacher explaining that he was trans, and what that meant:

Or, on April 12, this post from a woman sharing an "abortion" cake she "celebrated" with after terminating her pregnancy:

On April 20, the account shared a video of an Old Dominion University professor explaining why they describe pedophiles as "Minor-Attracted Persons" in an effort to de-stigmatize them.

As The New York Post described it, the account "prides itself on exposing far left hypocrisy and liberal 'wokeness' on steroids." It was run by an anonymous woman.

“I don’t do this for money or fame. I’m not some politician or blue-check journalist. And people feel like they have someone they can talk to when they have no one else to ask to help them spread it,” the account runner told the New York Post in February, explaining that she relies on direct messages in her inbox each day from parents and ordinary citizens who want their stories to have a platform.

And it has been remarkably popular.

Last week, the account had over 600,000 followers on Twitter, and its contents regularly appeared on Fox News and in other major conservative news outlets. The account has also had real-world impact. In one of the more high-profile outcomes, a teacher named Tyler Wrynn in Oklahoma was fired from his job after Libs of TikTok elevated a video of him. In the video, Wrynn addresses his LGBTQ students, saying: "Hey, if your parents don't love and accept you for who you are this Christmas, f— them. I'm your parents now. I'm proud of you. Drink some water. I love you. Bye."

In February, the person behind the account began giving anonymous interviews about their work to outlets like The New York Post. Then on Monday, The Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz published an exposé on the anonymous person behind the account, in which she names her as Chaya Raichik, describes her background, and recounts how she came to run the account. Lorenz described the account as shaping public discourse, but also “spreading anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment."

In the days since, the account’s following has ballooned to over 900,000 people. And a fresh controversy has bloomed.

The controversy: There are a few threads of controversy here. One is that the account owner and her conservative allies have said Lorenz, the reporter, "doxxed" the account owner (revealing her name and contact information), and had been "harassing" family members and friends with interview questions and appearances at their homes. Lorenz has defended her work, noting that Raichik's name had already surfaced on the internet and that it was identical to another woman who lived in the same state and was being mistaken for the owner of the account. Once Lorenz's story was posted, though, a third woman with the same name also began to receive harassment online.

The other thread of controversy stemmed from The Washington Post initially including a link to Raichik's real estate license, which also showed her physical address and phone number (The Post quietly removed the link after people pointed it out). In the copy of the story, Lorenz and Post editors also noted that Raichik was an orthodox Jew, which many found inappropriate and irrelevant.

On top of that, it was controversial that the story was written by Lorenz in particular, a prominent internet personality who used to work at The New York Times and now covers the internet beat for The Washington Post. Just a few weeks ago, Lorenz gave a tearful interview where she explained the harassment she has received online for her reporting and described the horror of people seeking out her friends and family members on the internet to berate them. Now, many feel she has just hypocritically invited harassment onto another private, previously anonymous citizen with her article.

The divide: The story around Libs of TikTok and Lorenz's coverage of it has caused debate on the right and left about power dynamics and journalism ethics. Below, we'll offer some perspectives from both sides, and then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right criticized the piece, saying Lorenz "doxxed" the Libs of TikTok account holder.
  • Some said this is part of the mainstream media's effort to silence dissent.
  • Others pointed out the hypocrisy of the left and said the media are the ones with the real power.

In Newsweek, Angie Speaks said this is part of a new trend: shaming private citizens who dissent.

"A controversial exposé in the Washington Post by journalist Taylor Lorenz revealed the identity of a popular anonymous twitter account, 'Libs of TikTok.' The article included private information about the account holder in a naked attempt to shame her into silence," Speaks said. "And as such, it is part of a larger trend in which liberals use legacy and social media to silence dissent. The 'Libs of TikTok' account exploded in popularity last year for hosting viral videos of overly-zealous liberals engaging in bizarre behavior and advocacy. As bizarre as doxxing an anonymous account over political differences seems, Lorenz went as far as harassing the family members of the woman behind the account in an attempt to gather information.

"One need not agree with the political stances of Trump supporters or the 'Libs of Tik Tok' account to feel apprehensive about these attacks on anonymity and privacy being normalized and celebrated as brave activism," she wrote. "The Washington Post exposé not only failed to explore the cultural and political reasons why the 'Libs of Tik Tok' Twitter account gained such cultural prominence; it also failed to contextualize why the choice to doxx the anonymous user served any real political or journalistic purpose beyond a show of malice and intimidation. This kind of petty behavior is a common theme among the self appointed digital 'authorities' of the corporate media class, who mask their desire to silence independent actors that pose a threat to their discursive dominance beneath a facade of activism and the work of exposing pernicious actors."

In The Federalist, Jordan Boyd said the media's "main function" is to destroy the right, not understand its appeal.

"Lorenz sought to destroy the account’s owner by publishing the creator’s name and even linking to details about the user’s day job," Boyd wrote. "She even explicitly referenced the creator as a 'powerful' Orthodox Jew who is 'shaping' the media, an antisemitic trope, despite religion’s irrelevance to the story. Lorenz’s hit piece was more than just bad-faith smears with no other discernible cause or effect. It was a diversion so that she didn’t have to explore why content documenting leftist crazies and then reposted by Libs of TikTok resonates with the public.

"The Libs of Tik Tok Twitter account achieved fame because it gave parents and taxpayers a peek into the leftist radicalism that often happens behind closed doors in schools, such as advertisements for genital mutilation and pornographic library books," Boyd wrote. "When the corporate media repeatedly claimed that critical race theory isn’t taught in schools, Libs of Tik Tok posted an avalanche of videos and pictures showing the opposite... Its amplification of left-wing radicalism in schools attracted the attention of the media, politicians, and even Elon Musk. More importantly, it horrified parents who were already growing restless about leftist ideology pervading the nation’s educational institutions."

In The Washington Examiner, Stephen L. Miller said Lorenz is simply "following the new rules" of journalism.

"In 2017, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski tracked down an anonymous Reddit user who had created a gif of President Donald Trump clotheslining a wrestler at a WWE event, with the CNN logo replacing the opposing wrestler’s head," Miller wrote. "CNN found this to be doxx-worthy simply because it was retweeted by Trump. CNN did not reveal the user’s identity but stated that it 'reserves the right to publish his identity' should his future behavior not meet its expectations. In 2019, when a joke video of a 'drunk' Nancy Pelosi (the creator simply reduced the speed of the video) spread around, Kevin Poulsen of the Daily Beast tracked down and doxxed the person who did it, revealing he is an ex-con living in the Bronx who was working as a forklift operator... In 2018, HuffPost writer Luke O’Brien doxxed and revealed the identity of a pro-Trump Twitter user, including information regarding a popular Brooklyn deli that her siblings owned and was not related to her social media posts.

"These are just three examples of what has become an industry standard," he added. "It's a standard that now has some reporters comparing Libs of TikTok to Harvey Weinstein and the Watergate scandal. However, in singling out Taylor Lorenz, what the political Right doesn’t understand is this is about politics and shutting down opposing speech. That is to say, speech that Lorenz or Kaczynski or the Daily Beast are ideologically opposed to. Of course, this is also about media power. Taylor Lorenz is not the ultimate problem. The problem is news outlets and infotainment companies using their outsize power and vast budgets to harass and doxx private citizens they disagree with. It's a new journalistic model for an industry that sees its grip loosening on what news it can control and create."


What the left is saying.

  • Most on the left defend the piece, saying it is worthwhile journalism.
  • Some call Raichik a "hate monger" who needed to be exposed as the real hypocrite for her own doxxing of private citizens.
  • Others question whether the piece was worth publishing at all.

In MSNBC, Kara Alaimo said "there is a proper term" for what happened to Libs of TikTok, and it's not doxxing.

"It’s an influential account that has more than 600,000 Twitter followers (according to The Post’s reporting, it was suspended on TikTok for violating community guidelines) and has been amplified by public figures like Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald and Meghan McCain, as well as others on the far right," Alaimo said. "The account has called for teachers who come out to their students to be 'fired on the spot,' called people who don’t conform to traditional gender identities mentally ill and accused people who teach children about LGBTQ identities of abuse. It has been suspended by Twitter twice for engaging in targeted harassment.

"There are many reasons it’s inappropriate to publicly expose a person’s private information — a practice known in internet parlance as 'doxxing.' But this isn’t one of them," Alaimo wrote. "Let me be clear: Doxxing can be dangerous — or even deadly. There are many people who should be able to share information anonymously online. For example, to document their experiences as transgender people if they fear discrimination or even violence for openly sharing their identities... But there’s no justifiable reason to protect the identity of someone like Raichik on social media so she can spread this kind of intolerance with impunity. The public has a significant interest in knowing who is behind accounts that have major influence on public discourse about important issues, like Libs of TikTok... The proper term for what happened to Raichik long predates the internet. It’s called accountability."

The Los Angeles Blade wrote that the real victims were the ones Libs of TikTok is targeting.

"Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media," The Blade wrote. "On April 10, Raichik posted a Twitter thread that shared a trans TikTok creator’s video and tagged the school they work in. Libs of TikTok celebrated after that school was forced to block the account and some of its followers, restrict comments, and more, with Raichik writing, 'They aren’t coping well with all the attention.' On April 11, she praised an Oklahoma middle school for firing a teacher 'after complaints of grooming and this tiktok + others containing questionable content were brought to the principal’s attention.' A follow-up post included the teacher’s name and post on a local Facebook group 'supporting our LGBTQA+ kids.'

"And on April 12, Raichik tagged another school district for featuring a ‘drag teacher' performance, calling it 'sickening.' In a follow-up tweet, the account noted that the school had restricted comments after Libs of TikTok told its large following to 'imagine if they focused on teaching math, science, and history instead of drag.' An April 14 Media Matters review found that Libs of TikTok has misgendered at least 14 individuals in 15 of its tweets so far this year, receiving more than 113,000 total engagements for content in seeming violation of Twitter’s terms of service," they said. "Raichik’s account was also part of a broader right-wing harassment campaign last July against two trans parents of a newborn, instructing its followers to call child protective services on them and directing them to one parent’s Instagram page. The couple faced widespread harassment online, and one of the parents had to make their social media profile private due to threats of violence."

Matt Taibbi criticized Lorenz's piece, saying it was an "impressively vacuous" nothingburger.

"My problem is there’s no allegation of corruption or impropriety in the story," Taibbi said. "The Lorenz piece essentially accuses Libs Of TikTok of being popular and driving legislation like the Florida law barring discussion of sexual orientation in schools through the third grade. Also, Joe Rogan, Glenn Greenwald, and Tucker Carlson like it. It doesn’t really go beyond that. This is the latest effort in a genre that’s becoming vogue in center-left media, which is ironic because writers from outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post used to look all the way down their noses at Fox shticks like the 'O’Reilly Ambush.' Meanwhile, other forms of, 'Say cheese, motherf—!' -type journalism like Project Veritas have usually been considered beneath contempt by j-school types.

"There have always been gotcha artists in right media, but the surprise visit is increasingly being deployed to 'out' random people whose main offense is supporting conservative causes," Taibbi wrote. "The first bizarre case I noticed was in 2018, when CNN knocked on the door of an old lady in Florida who was part of Team Trump Broward County... There have been many more of these of late. The Post did another story outing people who donated to the Canadian trucker protests, including random individuals giving as little as $100. The Intercept did a story that went through hacked Gab accounts and identified accounts in what they called an 'online safe space for white supremacists'... These stories aren’t done to expose corruption, unless you think being pro-Trump or supporting Canadian truckers or being on Gab qualifies, which apparently is what’s going on in a lot of cases."


My take.

First, I'm going to tell you why I think it was fair to publish Raichik's name. Then I'm going to explain all the things I think were wrong with the story.

To start: I don't buy the argument that this piece was inappropriate or unworthy to pursue. Not from Taibbi and not from commentators on the right. The account had well surpassed "public interest" status when its videos started to be shared regularly on the most popular news network in America, and the person behind the account was doing anonymous media interviews for weeks. If you are Raichik, you can't expect to have millions of people see your videos, do interviews with outlets like The New York Post, and also remain anonymous. You can't post "any teacher who utters the words 'I came out to my students' should be fired on the spot," get actual teachers fired, and then expect people not to investigate who you are. That is not how it works. If you have a public facing, influential platform, people are going to find out who you are.

But there’s a more practical reason why publishing Raichik’s identity was ethical. Taylor Lorenz didn't figure out who Raichik was, an internet sleuth did. Her name had already been circulating for three days, and went viral on this website. I had seen it on Twitter in response to the Libs of TikTok videos, which I watch. The name also happens to be fairly common, which is why people were already accusing the wrong woman of being behind the account before The Washington Post published their story, and why people got it confused again (by attacking an online influencer from the United Kingdom) after The Washington Post published it. Doing the work Lorenz did, knocking on doors, interviewing people, confirming with the other "Chaya Raichik" in the state that they weren't the same person, is journalism. And it's totally fair play.

In other words, this piece is simply not comparable to CNN tracking down someone who posted a meme or a woman who was fooled by a Russian disinformation campaign. I did not think those were legitimate acts of journalism. This woman, though, has real influence, a huge following, her name was already out, and other people were being mistaken for her. That's a legitimate story, full stop.

But it doesn't mean there wasn't a lot wrong with it, either.

For starters, the story did basically nothing to investigate the reasons for the success of the account. There was, seemingly, no curiosity about why an anonymous account showing college professors "de-stigmatizing" pedophilia or K-12 teachers telling kids to pledge allegiance to a pride flag or promising to keep teaching critical race theory even if it is banned was getting so much traction. There was no balance in the reporting. No real space given to people explaining why the account was important or valuable to them, no inquisition into the narratives it was trying to push back on, nor any reckoning with the fact the account essentially republishes videos people have already put online.

Instead, Lorenz focused entirely on the horrible effects of the account: That it was drumming up fear and hatred of LGBTQ people, that it was causing right-wing fury at the left, and that it had actually cost some people their jobs. All of this is true, and important, and should have been in the piece. She even left some stuff out, like Libs of TikTok’s (since deleted) tweet calling an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization a “grooming organization” or the other hundreds of now-deleted tweets full of hateful comments. But to write that story without the context that the account was largely covering stories being ignored by the center and center-left media is precisely why Libs of TikTok exists in the first place.

When I wrote about legislation banning critical race theory and the parental rights bill in Florida, I criticized both repeatedly. Part of my point was that the bills created were overly broad and unnecessary, since parents already had power to influence what happened in schools. Another point I made was that a lot of this stuff was imaginary.

An account like Libs of TikTok, however blunt an instrument it may be, is both an example of the kind of power parents do have and proof that some of this stuff is really happening. This isn't hidden camera footage or entrapment. Sometimes the videos are context-free, and Raichik’s comments accompanying them are often bigoted and cruel, but it's still a collection of videos other people had already put online themselves for the world to see — only now being elevated to a far larger audience.

Similar accounts are popular on the left, too. The account Right Wing Watch is verified on Twitter and posts videos of conservative news hosts calling for CEOs to be tried for treason or Michele Bachmann calling Rep. Ilhan Omar "an Islamic supremacist" or self-proclaimed prophets claiming Biden "will be removed by God." The account focuses more on public-facing conservatives than random citizens as Libs of TikTok does, which I find more palatable, but it's a similar brand of online warfare designed to make the “other side” look as radical as possible.

Importantly, though, The Washington Post also made a huge mistake. It published Raichik's real estate license in its initial piece, which included her phone number and physical address. This is, quite literally, the definition of doxxing. Rather than accept responsibility, they hid behind a rather lame excuse: "We linked to publicly available professional information," the paper told a Fox News reporter. When asked why it was scrubbed without comment, they said, "Ultimately, we deemed it unnecessary."

No kidding.

Sure, the info was public. But it is also hard to find. It's not the kind of thing most normal people would be able to dig up on the first page of Google results, and it's precisely the kind of easily accessible information that leads to widespread harassment of an individual. To remove the link without notifying readers or explaining why (until another reporter asks you) speaks volumes.

In the end, this whole story is a nice encapsulation of the circular firing squad that has become our modern-day culture war. Taylor Lorenz, a journalist who does TV segments about the online harassment she receives, doxxes an anonymous citizen who runs a popular Twitter account. That citizen, Chaya Raichik, spends her days doxxing random private citizens, attempting to get them fired, harassed or otherwise ostracized. When she's exposed, she complains about her life being upended by having her personal details put online by a journalist who herself complains about online harassment, and who is now reporting on an account that incites online harassment of others.

And around we go.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Do you think Congress can get a comprehensive immigration law passed within the next 2 to 3 years? It has been since 1986 that we had meaningful legislation and it causes massive issues with the President having to make decisions about immigration.

— Patrick, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Frankly, I'd be shocked.

For me, comprehensive immigration reform is a top three political priority. I think well-regulated, humane immigration is an extremely important part of America's success, a part of its future, and a part of tamping down the political divisions in our country. But with the fault lines we have in Congress now it's really hard to see it coming to fruition.

One encouraging sign recently, though, is members of the Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus in the Senate who are pushing for reforms now. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and John Cornyn (R-TX) seem genuinely interested in reviving negotiations. I think having a Republican from a southern border state involved is extremely important, though he has thrown cold water on it being a "comprehensive" bill like past attempts. Any bill that pairs protections for DACA recipients with border security has a chance. But it's all the stuff that comes after that which will be difficult.

I'd keep an eye on these negotiations. But I'd also keep your hopes minimal. If it doesn't happen before the 2022 elections, it is probably kaput.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

For the first time since 2013, the Colorado River has been named America's most endangered river. The river provides drinking water to more than 40 million people across seven states and 30 tribal nations, as well as a huge chunk of the water for the southwest's agriculture and outdoor recreation industries. It irrigates 15% of America's farmland in an area which produces 90% of the United States’ winter vegetables. On top of that, its flow rate has been so low that river dams can no longer produce electricity from the currents. By 2050, experts warn the flow rate could fall another 10-30% because of climate change. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 145,000. The number of followers the Libs of TikTok account gained in the first 24 hours after the Washington Post published its story.
  • 914,000. The number of followers the account has as of this writing.
  • $46.5 billion. The amount of money Elon Musk said he has secured to purchase Twitter.
  • $150 million. The amount of money 21 people allegedly defrauded the government of with various Covid-19 related aid schemes.
  • $375,300. The median price of a home in the U.S., a new all-time high.

Have a nice day.

A small French town 30 miles outside of Paris has found a novel way to power its streetlights: bioluminescence. Rather than being powered by the electrical grid, they're running on light from living organisms created when chemical reactions occurring inside an organism’s body produce light, the process known as bioluminescence. Fireflies, fungi and fish all glow through bioluminescence, and now France is collecting some of the marine bacteria Aliivibrio fischeri to store inside saltwater filled tubes, adding a unique new element to its streetlights. Soon, the lamps are going to be popping up all across France. The BBC has the story.


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