April 22, 2022

It’s an unmasking worthy of a demented superhero story: the exposure, after months of intrigue, of the elusive political operative known as Libs of TikTok. You may have missed this story — part secret identity drama, part media gatekeeping controversy, part ordinary political outrage at a moment of national mania — but you have almost certainly encountered Libs before.

Even if you’re not among the account’s 826,000 Twitter followers, its nearly 100,000 Instagram fans, or its 20,000 subscribers on YouTube, its content is ubiquitous. The gimmick is simple: Libs of TikTok offers a collection of reposts from the far-Left internet, lightly editorialised and curated for maximum outrage.

Some of the content promoted by the account is blatantly misleading ragebait, including fabricated claims of sexual predation among schoolteachers or one ludicrous post claiming that an American high school had installed a litterbox in the restroom for students who sexually identified as cats. Some is objectively alarming, at least to parents of school-age children who would prefer their first graders didn’t receive explicit in-class instruction on alternative sexualities and gender identity. Some has the uncomfortable voyeuristic vibe of a freakshow: inviting spectators to gawk and jeer at people who are either very young, or clearly unwell, or both.

What they have in common, though, is virality. Virtually every post on the Libs of TikTok account does numbers, and its curator has a clear talent for picking out stuff that makes conservatives (and even some liberals) smash that retweet button.

Until recently, its curator was anonymous, and unremarkably so. But as the account’s influence over Right-wing political discourse grew — attracting attention from Republican politicians and shoutouts from people like Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, and Megan McCain — the curiosity about who was behind it began to grow, particularly among ideological opponents who found its prominence suspicious. Fast forward to this week, and screenshots began circulating of emails from Washington Post reporter Taylor Lorenz, who claimed to be writing an exposé that would reveal the poster’s identity.

When or whether to respect the right of online provocateurs to remain anonymous (or indeed, if such a right even exists) is a complicated question; much has already been written on whether or not unmasking the Libs of TikTok creator constitutes doxing, or if it’s just journalism. But this story also plays into a broader pattern in which media coverage functions as a sort of punishment — and a way to kneecap ordinary people who rise to prominence outside the walled garden of legacy media.

Destroying the lives of random citizens by exposing them to a wider, hostile audience is very much a bipartisan enterprise. In one by no means isolated example from the political Right, a Breitbart editor’s coverage of one woman’s distasteful joke about a murdered police officer resulted in so much harassment that she had to flee her home. But the practice feels particularly slimy when such a piece is spearheaded by one of the big legacy outlets. In one standout example, also from the Washington Post, the paper inexplicably blew up the life of a random woman who had worn an offensive Halloween costume to a party two years previous. A year after that, the pseudonymous writer of the rationalist blog Slate Star Codex deleted his entire website after a New York Times reporter threatened to reveal his identity in an upcoming article.

When that piece did run, it contained ugly insinuations that Slate Star Codex was a haven for white supremacists, race scientists, and unapologetic misogyny — an angle that Robby Soave at Reason described as emblematic of “the paper’s increasingly panicky tech coverage”, which sought to tar influential entities in the tech space as “sources of Right-wing disinformation”. (Scott Siskind, who outed himself as the author of Slate Star Codex before the NYT could do it for him, was unsurprised, having been warned that embarrassing the Gray Lady would not go unpunished.)

There are parallels in the Slate Star Codex story to what happened with Libs of TikTok: just as the rationalist blog became an influential voice among Silicon Valley thought leaders, Libs has developed a presence big enough to shape the public conversation on the American political Right. That power makes the account’s existence newsworthy, but its creator’s identity decidedly less so. The most salient questions about Libs of TikTok centre not on its maker but its message, its role in the discourse: How did this collection of reposts get so big, so fast? What’s in there that so reliably animates the anxieties and anger of the American Right? What do people who like and share these posts have to say about them?

But when the WaPo story ran, it was bizarrely short on the details that made Libs newsworthy. Instead, the woman behind it — a politically unconnected real estate agent and Trump supporter in Brooklyn — was the entire focus of the story.

It’s easy to criticise the hypocrisy of progressive journalists on this front, many of whom are decidedly inconsistent when it comes to preserving the anonymity of online posters, even when said posters gleefully draw negative attention to others. (Compare the praise for Lorenz’s piece to the general tone of the response in 2018 when rumours began circulating in 2018 that journalist Katie Roiphe intended to name the creator of the Shitty Media Men list, an anonymously sourced document containing the names of alleged bad men in New York media.)

And certainly, publishing the Libs of TikTok creator’s name alongside allegations that she is a purveyor of Covid misinformation and anti-gay hate smacks of attempted cancellation, a desire to see her harassed, fired, professionally and socially destroyed. As with most such allegations, the truth is slightly more complicated, especially when what Lorenz classes as “anti-LGBT sentiment” would be described by some as normal parental concerns about what goes in on their kids’ classrooms — but there’s certainly much about Libs of TikTok, including its penchant for mocking maladjusted teens and the way it plays fast and loose with the word “groomer”, that is unmistakably distasteful. Many have also noted that the piece went the extra mile of not only outing the creator but including a link to her real estate licence, which contained private information including her Brooklyn address.

Yet what seems to animate this controversy isn’t just loathing, but professional envy — the same envy that lurks behind the negative coverage of Slate Star Codex, of Joe Rogan, of the independent journalists launching successful careers on Substack. These independent content creators threaten the monopoly of outlets like the Washington Post over the distribution of information and the setting of public opinion. And they’ve found enormous, organic success, even as the rest of the industry flounders under wage stagnation, dwindling pageviews, round after round of layoffs. Ultimately, it’s hard to know what Libs of TikTok’s greater sin is: being wrong, or being popular.

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