What the Harassment of Journalist Taylor Lorenz Can Teach Newsrooms

Research type:
Brief
Authors:
Emily Dreyfuss
Published on
March 4, 2022

Taylor Lorenz is one of the highest profile journalists in America. She consistently draws huge audiences to her stories, marking the publication she writes for – most recently The New York Times – as the agenda-setter for tech culture trends. She pioneered a technology beat that treats influencers like the power brokers they are. Lorenz is also perhaps the most harassed technology journalist in America. As I type this she is currently experiencing a massive wave of harassment related to an article she wrote about Instagram scams about the war on Ukraine. 

To put this current harassment cycle into context, I am publishing this rundown of the harassment Lorenz has faced, which is based on a series of conversations I’ve had with her over the past few months.

The Scope

Lorenz is reviled by some in Silicon Valley, in the burgeoning anti-censorship media sphere (like Glenn Greenwald, who tweeted disparaging remarks about Lorenz at least 15 times in 2021, racking up more than 17,000 likes), and in the partisan right-wing media. 

What unites these communities is not their politics but their “desire to discredit journalism and the mainstream media,” as Lorenz put it in an interview in August 2021, an observation backed up by our research here at the Technology and Social Change team.  When it comes to some of her most powerful critics, such as tech founder Balaji Srinivasan, she says, “I don't even know their ideology other than they hate the media. They want to dismantle the media.” 

“The entire focus of my beat is how people leverage online audiences and fandoms and weaponize that in different ways, whether that's to make money, to attack other people, or to express political dissent,” she told me. This, Lorenz points out, is likely why some in Silicon Valley appear threatened by her reporting. “That is why I'm on their radar. It's not a random thing.”

As a result of her prominence, gender, and the nature of her reporting, Lorenz is a frequent target of coordinated harassment campaigns that include being swatted, stalked, dedicated websites built specifically to harass her, her followers getting harassed for associating with her, and waves of threats and hate that include disturbing sexualized fantasies and anti-semetic slurs

Case in point: In June 2021, Lorenz attended the 16th birthday party of a TikTok influencer whom she was profiling for The Times. The party was a big, public, red carpet event attended by industry executives, press, agents, parents and many other adults. A few days later, the Free Beacon, a right-wing outlet, published an article excoriating Lorenz’s presence at the party, writing that it was inappropriate for an “adult reporter” to have attended a child’s birthday party. This story led to more serious attacks on Lorenz, online and on TV, alleging that she was a predator, a creep, and insinuating that she was a pedophile. 

The subhead on Free Beacon article was, “Raises serious concerns about ethics in teen journalism,” a reference to the GamerGate from 2014, which used the phrase “it’s about ethics in gaming journalism” to justify a coordinated harassment campaign against women gaming journalists by united factions of the online far right. The Free Beacon’s piece was a wink and a nod to the fact that Lorenz’s harassment follows the same script -- and her harassers know it.

This accusation was just one of many similar attacks Lorenz has endured. Just a few months before, on International Women’s Day in March 2021, Fox News host Tucker Carlson opened his show with an attack on Lorenz, after she tweeted about the scourge of harassment against women journalists and the impact it has had on her life. “You’d think Taylor Lorenz would be grateful for the remarkable good luck she’s had,” Carlson said. “Lots of people are suffering right now, but no one’s suffering quite as much as Taylor Lorenz is suffering. People have criticized her opinions on the internet, and it’s destroyed her life.” Greenwald agreed, tweeting, “Her attempt to claim this level of victimhood is revolting: she should try to find out what real persecution of journalists entails.”

The implication of these attacks from powerful people with huge platforms is that Lorenz is not a real journalist, and that her harassment does not constitute real harm. In truth, their negative statements about Lorenz are just one part of much broader harassment campaigns against her. These campaigns commonly begin on social media, evolve in more private spaces like 4chan or subreddits. Sometimes they are traded up the chain to more prominent voices in partisan media. The impact, and the likely intention of many of those involved, is to limit the impact of her work and work like it. 

Her experience highlights the ways in which anti-media partisans harass journalists -- especially women and people of color -- in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the journalism industry as a whole and the tech beat in particular. Her experience also makes clear that though some newsrooms are prepared to protect the security of reporters from physical threats, the industry has not created best practices for assisting reporters for whom online harassment is a regular reaction to their work. Media manipulators and harassers recognize that the specific dynamics in newsrooms can be turned into vulnerabilities to exploit.

“They recognize that media organizations are vulnerable to attacks on individual reporters,” Lorenz said. “It's the recognition that it's very hard to go after a media organization in terms of a parent brand, but it is very effective to smear a reporter and exploit these flaws in how media organizations deal with smear campaigns.”

As the co-lead of the Harvard Shorenstein Center News Leaders summit, I want industry leaders to understand how this harassment works, how it impacts journalists, their publications, and the news media at large, so we can begin to adopt best practices to protect and support people going through similar attacks.

Types of harassment Lorenz has faced

The following section details harassment Lorenz has faced, as she described in multiple interviews, as well as social media research conducted by TaSC. 

  • Lorenz says she has been the victim of stalking, swatting, anti-semitic slurs, and assaults. “I have been assaulted. I have had a stalker show up outside my apartment. I have had swatting at times,” she said. “But I don't back down from these stories. I pioneered this beat in a lot of ways. And I feel like I work every single day to legitimize it.”
  • Her harassers commonly reach out to named sources in her stories, she tells TaSC, harassing them for participating in her journalism, threatening them, and even demanding in some cases that they recant their interviews in order to make Lorenz look unprofessional. When she asks her sources why they would do that, some have said, “I just was dealing with a lot of backlash and hate.”
  • Partisan websites and blogs create disparaging news stories about her that avoid libel by being tagged as “satire.” “So much of this is obviously libelous, and they only tag it that way so that they don’t get sued. It gives them possible deniability,” she said.
  • Harassers build dedicated websites and Twitter accounts that aggregate negative coverage about her. Examples of this include: Taylor-lorenz.net, a hate site, and the Twitter accounts @Lorenzcancel or @lorenzscumbag. This makes it easy for people who dislike Lorenz, the New York Times or the influencer beat to find and amplify fodder against both.
  • Lorenz’s harassers commonly use out-of-context quotes and photos to promote smear stories
  • In the February 2022 campaign against her, her harassers have been DMing her followers, urging them not to follow her and accusing her of routinely making things up.
  • is spread to discredit her, including the recent example of the false allegation that she changed her name from Lorenz to “Lopez” in order to secure her upcoming job.

In the past year, a favorite narrative deployed against Lorenz is that she is a child predator -- an article from fall 2020 in Spectator World quoted Lorenz talking about her work and then wrote, “No, that is not a quote from a child predator. It is from a New York Times reporter. But nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference.” 

This narrative is a clear attempt to appeal to QAnon believers and those who have been exposed to growing concern about child abuse as a result of the Q phenomenon. The purpose of such dogwhistles is not just to ruin Lorenz’s reputation; it is a strategy for bringing new people into the harassment campaign, as concerns about child abuse are extremely mobilizing. It is also the kind of allegation that is extremely difficult to defend against, and which leaves an indelible reputational stain.

  • Her harassers engage in troll-like behavior, including replying to every tweet she sends with vitriol, brigading the comment sections under articles and videos she posts, and even creating anti-Taylor Lorenz meme generators that provide easy templates and images of her to use in negative meme campaigns. 

Much of the vitriol is gendered, she points out, “You can see also from the replies. [It’s always stuff like] ‘Oh, she's unmarried and she's a bitter woman and that's why she's miserable.”

  • Her critics pounce on mistakes she may make. When, in a tweet sent during a during a live event, she confused which of the two co-founders of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitzwas was speaking on the audio-only app Clubhouse, it became fodder for a large-scale campaign to prove that she was incompetent and biased. Though Lorenz corrected the mistake within minutes, the error prompted days of backlash--which began on Twitter and migrated to the partisan media sphere where it was further amplified. 
  • Lorenz endures a steady stream of personal attacks. In communities like 4chan’s Politically Incorrect board, Lorenz is a topic of constant fascination, where anonymous users trade barbs about her “low-IQ” and possible Jewish heritage along with messages about all the sexual fantasies they have about her. 
  • Anons on 4chan also brainstorm how to find her personal information to use it against her, and discuss how to bait her into revealing information about herself that they can weaponize.
  • Harassers weaponize vulnerability Lorenz shares to paint her as a weak woman. For example, when she tweeted last year that she was “exhausted,” after multiple friends and family members had died during the pandemic, it became “a three-day media cycle” condemning her for being out of touch.
  • Her harassers dismiss her reporting as merely being about teenagers or what kids are doing online.
  • Metanarratives animating much of the attacks against her include: anti-media sentiment, anti-woman sentiment and anti-semitism

Personal Impacts 

Lorenz often spends hours a day managing her harassment by herself, from reporting tweets, to monitoring her name on Reddit, to fielding emails and assuaging the concerns of sources who may worry about being in her stories lest they become a target of her haters, too. Lorenz advocates for compensating reporters for their time spent dealing with their own harassment, which is not currently factored into job descriptions nor commonly considered labor as part of a journalist’s job.

She allows little personal information about herself to be online, like her age or relationships, because she has learned all of those details can be used against her by her harassers. Even her parents’ names or details of her medical history have been weaponized against her.

Lorenz says she has lost some friends and relationships, as well as professional opportunities because of the harassment that follows her like a lightning rod.

Though she has a large internet following herself, she says she is careful not to replicate the tactics of her harassers by rallying her followers to help her fight back. She does this because she wants to draw a clear line between using her platform to promote and produce journalism, and being an influencer herself. 

The harassment undermines Lorenz's journalistic credibility. Even when false stories about her are debunked, the that is out there has damaged her reputation enough that she says it impacts her work and whatever newsroom she is in.

The attacks have weakened her faith in humanity. For example, Lorenz told me about a time when a troll pretended to be a journalism student in need of advice to get her on the phone, record her, and release the tape to make her look bad. She used to take all of these calls gladly. Now she is now skeptical of and careful about who she offers mentorship and advice to, for fear that they are bad faith actors.

And there have clearly been psychological impacts. “I wasn't being hyperbolic when I say it's destroyed my life,” she says. “I have dealt with crazy stuff, but this has affected me more than anything else, these attacks and these smear campaigns. You basically are losing the narrative of your own life. And that's very overwhelming. It's just hard. You kind of shut down.” 

Impacts on the newsroom and industry

These kinds of attacks erode media trust. Given today’s strong anti-media sentiment, tearing down one of the New York Times’ (former) top reporters bolsters the narrative that The Times and publications like it should not be trusted. 

Newsrooms are losing talented reporters. Many junior journalists on the beat are not willing to live with the harassment this work implies. Women journalists and journalists of color are particularly at risk of harassment. According to the 2020 Unesco survey of women journalists, 73% have experienced online violence. A report from 2018 found that Black women journalists (as well as Black women politicians)  are 84 percent more likely than other demographics of journalists to receive abusive tweets.  And in some cases, coordinated harassment campaigns have led newsrooms to part ways with journalists, bending to the requests of the crowd. In 2021, for example, the AP fired junior journalist Emily Wilder after right-wing partisans surfaced pro-Palestinian tweets she had sent while a student at Stanford.

These attacks make good journalism harder. Part of the reason why journalists are such targets is because their harassers don’t want to be the subject of news stories; they are attempting to make reporters afraid to cover them. When it comes to Lorenz’s beat, newsrooms that can’t cover the creator-economy beat well risk missing a huge and important story. Investigating and understanding the powerful, wealthy online economy that impacts so much of everyday life -- from Wall Street Bets to January 6, 2021 -- is perhaps the biggest story of our time, and yet many reporters fear engaging in it because of the danger it entails. 

The online creator economy beat is especially vulnerable to these attacks, because it puts a spotlight on online communities that may not want attention. A story pointing out the ways online influencers leverage websites to monetize something harmful or jump on a breaking news bandwagon (such as Lorenz’s recent reporting on the “scammy” Instagram influencers making money off content about the Russian war on Ukraine), for example, can jeopardize their entire business model. Thus, the narrative that Lorenz is just a “teen reporter” or a person who reports on children''  is designed to diminish the legitimacy of the beat and protect their bottom line. Often Lorenz is reporting on techniques and trends that bad actors online use to achieve their goals, so taking her down is also a way to protect their arsenal.

But technology is becoming a part of every beat, and as that continues, this kind of technologically enabled harassment will expand to the rest of the newsroom. As Lorenz puts it: “Right now it's affecting [technology reporters] because we're on the forefront of all of this. But in a few years, it's not going to be the forefront anymore. This is going to become mainstream. It's like with GamerGate, only it’s got more traction. It started in this corner and now it's a whole thing.”

There is no tactical training for this uniquely risky assignment, yet there needs to be. Internet culture reporting, like combat or crisis zone reporting, carries with it its own risks and newsrooms must support staff enduring extreme threats, coordinated hate and harassment on this beat.

 

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