First Person: My Harmless Brexit Joke Went Viral On Twitter, Then The White Supremacists Came After Me
A cautionary tale.
BY BEX SCHWARTZ | Jul 6, 2016 | Culture
I was sitting on my couch, alternating between reading the news on my phone and flipping between BBC World News and CNN on the TV. The #Brexit vote was official—somehow, the LEAVE voters won. Nigel Farage made a speech in which he basically quoted the climactic speech from Independence Day (the first one), and he lied about how they won without a single bullet being fired. (Patently untrue. RIP, Jo Cox). Financial reporters were panicking as the pound started to plummet. And all the cameras were pointed at 10 Downing, waiting for Prime Minister David Cameron to emerge and make a speech, ideally before the markets opened so he could reassure a worried world.
CNN cut to a shot of the PM's home. David Cameron was not there. Instead, there was a cat. CNN didn't cut away. They broadcast several seconds of a cat, just sitting on the front stoop and looking slightly smug. Huh, I thought. Then I took a photo of the TV screen and tweeted it:
Holy shit, they replaced David Cameron with a cat. pic.twitter.com/0r7KouIHW1— ⭐️bex schwartz (@starbex) June 24, 2016
It was 1:55 a.m. in New York, and I didn't think a silly cat joke would get much traction. Besides, the world as we know it was crumbling, and there were very important things to think about—like what the LEAVE vote means regarding people's perception of immigration and xenophobia. I stayed up watching the news because I am an anxious person who somehow thinks experiencing breaking news the moment it happens will give me more time to process it. (On December 31, 1999, I stayed up all night at my parents' house to see if the Y2K thing was real. As dawn broke over Tonga, I was mostly anticipating global thermonuclear war, War Games-style.) I watched David Cameron resign. Then I went to bed.
When I woke up, my phone battery was dead because I kept Twitter notifications on all night. Whoops. I've never written anything that spread so far, so fast! As of this writing, that silly cat joke has 46,258 likes and 36,358 retweets. Most of those happened while I was sleeping. To put that into my own perspective, that means that roughly four times the amount of people in my hometown hit a little heart button on Twitter. My friend Daniel noted that my mentions must be insane, but, honestly, they were pretty tame. About 90% of the people RTing the cat joke were discussing how the country would be safe in the hands of noted animagus Madam Professor Minerva McGonagall. Or perhaps between her paws.
When I woke up, my phone battery was dead because I kept Twitter notifications on all night.
The tweet continued to spread and ended up all over the internet in various round-ups of Things To Make Us Laugh Despite the Devastating #Brexit Vote. (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the general gist.) Friends posted BuzzFeed links featuring the cat joke on my Facebook wall. Celebrities retweeted the cat joke. (I tweeted back and forth with Aaron Douglas, who played Chief on Battlestar Galactica, and that was pretty swell.) I was retweeted by people around the world; I tried to keep up and read thousands of Twitter bios, and BOY, it's an interesting world out there. A lot of people identified 10 Downing as the location of One Direction's cover of Blondie's "One Way or Another" video, and a huge amount of Potterheads were ashamed when they realised that Harry lived at 4 Privet Drive and not at 10 Downing Street. The more you know!
I finally figured off how to turn off all the Twitter and Tweetbot and Tweetdeck notifications on my phone. (I use social media during my actual for-real job, so I have multiple apps and multiple things set up to tell me when people tweet about certain things.) When I tried to analyse the continuous stream of likes and RTs, it seemed that people who appreciated the cat joke were fairly split among LEAVE and REMAIN voters. I struck a chord on both sides, and no one seemed to notice that I tweeted that they'd replaced David Cameron with a cat before he actually resigned. Call me prescient, I don't know.
I was riding high on a cloud of being just a tiny bit "Twitter famous" and feeling pretty good that I made a cat joke that wasn't actual political in any way. It's just an observation that the Prime Minister wasn't where he was expected to be, and instead there was a cat. (The cat is named Larry. Several thousand people told me that. Mad props to your media training, Larry.) I didn't tweet anything about what the LEAVE vote implied, nor did I draw any parallels between that referendum and the election that's rapidly approaching here in the US. It was just a rather silly cat joke.
But then came the white supremacists.
I didn't experience anything like the anti-Semitic hate-speech maelstrom that swept over Twitter this weekend in the wake of Trump's "sheriff" star post—but my tweet didn't say anything about being Jewish. Nor does my Twitter bio. But you can infer it pretty easily, because my last name is Schwartz. (That's not our real last name—it was changed at Ellis Island, along with thousands of other families who had confusing names that started with "Sch." That's why there are so many Schwartzes, and we're not related.) As one Twitter user commented, I have a Barbra Streisand schnoz. Elementary, my dear Watson! She has a Jewish last name and a nose like Babs, so therefore she is Jewish!
It's true, I am. Or at least I'm culturally Jewish, as I grew up into a Buddhist-leaning atheist who respects the rituals and practices of my religion. I didn't put echoes around my Twitter name because I figured it was pretty obvious. But the tweets kept coming. One young white supremacist tweeted "You have to go back." Back to where? Back to New Jersey? Back to Poland or the Ukraine? I couldn't figure that one out until I googled it and it's a horrible thing anti-Semites say. Someone else thanked that white supremacist (while @-ing me) for exposing "Hitlery's" crimes which, uh, has nothing to do with a cat? A user named Trumpovitz™ wrote, simply, "JEW." Which: yes, true. But: why?
A user named Trumpovitz™ wrote, simply, "Jew." Which: yes, true. But: why?
And then the images started flooding in: everything anti-Semitic you could imagine and then some. Do these people keep a folder of this stuff on their desktops called "INSULTING TO JEWS" the same way I keep a folder of cat GIFs for rapid access? And here was the best one (by which I mean the worst): a trail of dollar bills leading to an open oven door. As in: follow the dollar bills into the oven. Also as in: that actually doesn't make any sense at all, have you ever read a single piece of history about the Holocaust?
I know there are anti-Semites and white supremacists, but I live in a comfortable bubble where I get to ignore those people except when they show up on the news attending Trump rallies. And if tens of thousands of people are sharing your cat joke, the laws of the Internet mean that some people will see your Jewish last name and your distinctive nose and start tweeting horrible things at you.
Do they know what happened to your grandmother's family in Wisnowiec when the Nazis invaded and reduced a population of 5,000 Jews to 93 survivors? I'm assuming the people who collect imagery of soap made out of Jewish bodies don't think twice before they tweet these things at you. And as our own important election gets closer and closer, I hope that love triumphs over hate. Let's laugh about cat jokes instead of tweeting hate-speech. Let's keep social media a place for silly comments about kitties instead of a battlefield of evil. And let's hope that in November, America votes for the candidate who doesn't tweet anti-Semitic attacks on his competition. So say we all.
From: Esquire US.