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The Fetid, Right-Wing Origins of “Learn to Code”

How an online swarm has developed a sophisticated mechanism to harass and gaslight journalists—and to get mainstream media outlets to join in.

Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Last Thursday, I received the news that the HuffPost Opinion section—where I’d been opining on a weekly basis for a few months—had been axed in its entirety. The same opinion column had had a home at The Village Voice for some 21 weeks before that entire publication shuttered as well. “This business sucks,” I tweeted, chagrined at the simple fact that I kept losing my column because of the cruel, ongoing shrinkage of independent journalism in the United States. Dozens of jobs were slashed at HuffPost that day, following a round of layoffs at Gannett Media; further jobs were about to be disappeared at BuzzFeed. It was a grim day for the media, and I just wanted to channel my tiny part of the prevailing gloom. 

Then the responses started rolling in—some sympathy from fellow journalists and readers, then an irritating gush of near-identical responses: “Learn to code.” “Maybe learn to code?” “BETTER LEARN TO CODE THEN.” “Learn to code you useless bitch.” Alongside these tweets were others: “Stop writing fake news and crap.” “MAGA.” “Your opinions suck and no one wants to read them.” “Lmao journalists are evil wicked cretins. I wish you were all jail [sic] and afraid.” 

I looked at the mentions of my editors, who had been laid off after years at HuffPost, and of other journalists who had lost their jobs. There they were, the swarm of commentators, with their same little carbuncular message: “Learn to code.”

On its own, telling a laid-off journalist to “learn to code” is a profoundly annoying bit of “advice,” a nugget of condescension and antipathy. It’s also a line many of us may have already heard from relatives who pretend to be well-meaning, and who question an idealistic, unstable, and impecunious career choice. But it was clear from the outset that this “advice” was larded through with real hostility—and the timing and ubiquity of the same phrase made me immediately suspect a brigade attack. My suspicions were confirmed when conservative figures like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump Jr. joined the pile-on, revealing the ways in which right-wing hordes have harnessed social media to discredit and harass their opponents.

What’s a brigade attack, you may ask? It’s a rather dramatic name for coordinated harassment, usually migrating from one social media site to another. Often hatched in the internet’s right-wing cesspools, these campaigns unleash a mass of harassment on unsuspecting targets. 4chan’s /pol/ board—a gathering-place for people who want to say the n-word freely, vilify feminists, and opine on nefarious Jewish influence—has an oversize role in organizing brigade attacks, in part due to the fact that all its users are anonymous. 

While it’s difficult to trace the origins of brigading—like most of internet history, its beginnings are ephemeral—the term, and its tactics, came to new prominence during the loosely organized and militantly misogynist harassment campaign known now as GamerGate, which unfolded over the course of 2014 and 2015. 

“I think brigading has always been around,” said Caroline Sinders, a design and research fellow with the digital program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, who received enormous volumes of harassment during GamerGate. “I think of it like ‘campaigning’—it’s coordinated, it’s planned, it’s designed. Brigading is like targeting a victim and planning a course of attack—from overwhelming their mentions, flooding a hashtag, to SEO bombing.” 

After Sinders wrote about GamerGate harassment online, a SWAT team was called to her mother’s house—a malevolent kind of “prank” that has resulted in at least one death.

Shireen Mitchell, founder of the project Stop Online Violence Against Women, had a similar experience during GamerGate. A campaign originating on Reddit targeted a South by Southwest panel on online harassment at which Mitchell was scheduled to speak. It received thousands of “down-votes” when audiences were encouraged to vote on proposed panels at the festival. Mitchell and others involved with the panel were bombarded with abuse and threats, accused of being biased against GamerGate. 

“I was overwhelmed,” Mitchell told me. “They collected our information, created lists of our names, then made up accounts to pretend to be in a rational debate while attacking us on the back end.” 

In the end, South By Southwest convened a separate Online Harassment Summit, at which security was so tight due to threats of violence that, Mitchell told me, she “had a security detail the whole time.”  

The attacks on Mitchell and other panelists were vicious, while wrapped in a thin guise of concern about “ethics in games journalism.” This was the rationale for the entire GamerGate harassment campaign, an ugly welter of death threats, stalking, SWATting, and precision targeting of women, particularly women of color, for abuse. But that rationale was taken seriously by both media outlets, which wrote up the controversy as if it were a genuine conflict between two sides of equal legitimacy, and by advertisers, which pulled support for media organizations targeted by “Operation Disrespectful Nod”—a GamerGate brigading campaign. 

GamerGate was essentially a public test of weapons online trolls would use to inflict hell on anyone who they perceived as enemies, with a central focus on journalists. Its tactics have only grown in sophistication in the intervening years. In particular, it was notable for the way it used a consistent, specious narrative—ethics in games journalism—to cover for its ugliest actions.

“The basis was that only white male gamers are actually good at games. So everyone else needs to go through some ‘ethics’ screening,” Mitchell explained. “That women sleep around and minorities are only given jobs because of their skin not because they are qualified. So that became the ruse. The narratives are used as cover.”

GamerGate used sympathetic journalists to add a patina of legitimacy to its cover narrative—a tactic that has been repeated with the ongoing harassment campaign called “Learn to Code.”

When I smelled the putrid odor of a brigade attack, I decided to do a little research into the origins of this sudden, and plainly coordinated, bombardment of “learn to code” tweets. (There were also death threats and a flood of anti-Semitic Instagram comments.) It was a fairly simple operation: I clicked over to 4chan’s /pol/ board and searched for the phrase.

In a thread entitled “HAPPENING - Huffpo / Buzzfeed / other MSM garbage (((journalists))) FIRED,” which discussed the extant and impending layoffs, there were dozens of responses laying out the “learn to code” plan.

“Learn to code is what should be spammed over and over. Fuck these elitist cunts,” wrote one user.

“Reminder to tell all the fired fucks to learn to code,” wrote another. 

“I’m not ready to declare victory until these maggots are killing themselves with a live stream,” wrote a third.

An odd little narrative sprung up around this malevolence, postulating that journalists had condescendingly told coal miners who had lost their jobs to “learn to code.” The scant evidence for this quickly debunked narrative was a collage of several articles covering programs to retrain jobless former coal miners in the rudiments of coding, and bipartisan job-training efforts. 

But as with “ethics in games journalism,” the narrative was just a means to deflect attention from the ultimate goal of adding distress to a terrible week for journalists. 

Multiple right-wing media figures consciously took the bait. After the Wrap’s Jon Levine misleadingly tweeted that simply typing “learn to code” might get Twitter users suspended, conservative figureheads leaped in, leveraging conservative paranoia about social-media censorship. “Our nation’s bravest firefighters must be protected from microaggressions like ‘learn to code’ jokes on Twitter. Pathetic,” wrote Daily Wire pundit Ben Shapiro. Donald Trump, Jr. weighed in: “Could someone explain to me why if I tell my kids to ‘learn to code’ it’s likely sound parenting, but if I told a journalist the same it’s grounds for a @twitter suspension?”

Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s most openly white-supremacist host and a frequent amplifier of far-right meme warfare, ran a segment about the trolling campaign for his roughly three million viewers. 

“Someone on Twitter came up with a pretty brilliant piece of advice for all those laid-off journalists trying to figure out what to do with their lives: Learn to code. Perfect. Suddenly ‘learn to code’ was everywhere on Twitter,” Carlson said. “But journalists didn’t see the humor in this at all. A former New Yorker employee called Talia Lavin called the phrase, quote, ‘far right hate’ ... so they complained to the censorship authorities at Twitter.”

For me, the open hostility of “learn to code” was, from the first moment, compounded by escalating misogyny and anti-Semitism. One Twitter user posing as a Jew named “Moshey Goldberg” sent me a photo of a pizza with a crude caricature of a Jew on it. It said “Oven-Ready.” Others utilized a photoshopped meme of Tucker Carlson in a skull bandana of the type favored by certain fascist groups. “Day of the Rope,” it read, a reference to a scene in The Turner Diaries, a novel that remains the ur-text of the American far right and was an inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, where political enemies are hanged en masse.

The experience of the “learn to code” campaign was being bombarded with harassment that others stridently claimed wasn’t harassment; being told death threats were a joke; having my name broadcast mockingly on Fox News—all for the temerity of tweeting about losing a column. It was an experience of being mugged by gaslight.

I’ve chosen to write and speak about it not to celebrate my own victimhood, or to claim that a harassment campaign against journalists is the most significant issue being faced by any American. I write about it because it shares such overt DNA with harassment campaigns born in GamerGate and perfected since—and because it is long past time that far-right trolls stopped being granted any presumption of innocence and plausible deniability. I chose to expose this campaign, knowing it would bring me nothing but grief, because I didn’t want to see such a campaign succeed without opposition. And I wrote about it because campaigns against journalists aren’t going to go away; the moment trolls like these see an opening, whether the provocation is real or imagined, they will harass journalists again.

After all, the goal was clear from the start: “Rub it in their fucking faces. Yell at them, call them names, accuse them of being pedos. DM them pics of nooses or gay porno. Zero fucking mercy. Make them regret ever standing against us,” one 4chan user wrote in the thread that launched it all. “You know what to do, lads.”