Shafiqah Hudson remembers the moment she realized something was off. She saw a tweet from an account she had never seen before: “#EndFathersDay because I’m tired of all these white women stealing our good black mens.” Something about the grammar—not to mention the idea that black women wanted to abolish Father’s Day because of interracial dating—just felt too cartoonish to be real. That day, Hudson, who tweets as @sassycrass, had a job interview. It was June of 2014, the Friday before Father’s Day. As she typed out her follow-up thank-you note and went through what she calls “the unemployment shuffle,” toggling between social media and email and playing with her cat, she spotted some reactions from people she followed to other suspiciously inflammatory tweets posted by a handful of new Twitter accounts claiming to be black feminists. “#EndFathersDay,” read one. “We’ll bring it back when men stop raping and killing us.”
Hudson began to dig, following “this trail of terrible tweets.” She asked if anyone on her timeline had any idea what was up. No one she knew could verify that the women behind these accounts actually existed. No one had met them in person or encountered them on earlier blogging platforms like LiveJournal or Tumblr or BlackPlanet. Many of the accounts didn’t follow the feminists they were parroting or even the tastemakers of Black Twitter, like Desus and Mero. But more than anything, Hudson said, the clearest red flag was the accounts’ inability to hide their contempt for the very people they were attempting to imitate. They tweeted about collecting welfare checks and smoking weed, with an occasional screed against white people. And most of these accounts spoke a version of African American Vernacular English that no real black person had ever used. “#EndFathersDay,” said one, “until men start seeing they children as more then just ‘fuck trophies.’ ” To casual observers online, #EndFathersDay appeared to be the work of militant feminists, most of whom were seemingly women of color. To Hudson, the ruse was never anything but transparent. “No one who knew or liked a black feminist,” she told me, “was fooled.” But the hashtag was already trending worldwide.
She had a hunch that many of the Twitter accounts were fake. They had handles like @NayNayCantStop, @LatrineWatts, and @CisHate, and bios like “Queer + black + angry.” They dropped words like intersectional and patriarchy. And Hudson found herself horrified by how easily people on social media could be lured into believing a stereotype of black women. While she watched a credulous rage build online, not just against these fake Twitter accounts but against the black feminists she called friends, her own anger grew as well: “No one is going to come into my house and start breaking shit,” she said.
The mockery #EndFathersDay made of an increasingly influential online feminist movement became predictable catnip to conservatives. Tucker Carlson devoted a segment to it. Ashe Schow in the Washington Examiner called it the latest “drivel” “from the feminist outrage machine.” Dan McLaughlin tweeted that the hashtag was “a neat illustration of the cultural trajectory of progressivism.” “#EndFathersDay Because it’s really just Second Caregiver of Unspecified Gender Identity Day, you cisnormative a**holes,” mocked Ben Shapiro. What these commentators were missing was that the #EndFathersDay campaign was a hoax, started by anonymous trolls on 4chan to engender exactly the vitriol that pundits so readily stepped up to spew.
Exposing #EndFathersDay ultimately took the work of a group of black women who were determined not to let the ruse spiral, sensing just how poisonous this kind of trolling could be. And yet, in the years since, even as journalists have publicly asked themselves how they missed the rising threat posed by far-right extremists radicalized online, somehow one of the earliest crowdsourced anti-misinformation campaigns on the internet has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media. To I’Nasah Crockett, who, along with Hudson, helped uncover the #EndFathersDay hoax, watching the events of the past few years has made her feel like she was “a canary in a coal mine.”
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Like Shafiqah Hudson, Crockett had an early inkling that something was fishy with #EndFathersDay. She’d long been an active Tumblr user, where she said it wasn’t an entirely uncommon phenomenon for white users to claim blackness in an attempt to win an argument, and so she had developed an instinct for certain kinds of sock-puppeting—that sense, in her words, of “OK, this does not feel organic, this does not feel like a real [person], this feels like a harassment campaign.” Crockett knew that Tumblr posts from so-called social justice warriors would often find their way onto 4chan, where trolls would coordinate brigading campaigns, sending violent anonymous messages in an effort to bully “SJWs” off the website. By the time #EndFathersDay began to trend, she had installed a stat counter on her Tumblr page so that whenever she was getting a lot of traffic from 4chan or Reddit, she could brace herself for a wave of harassment. Much of it was garden-variety internet vitriol: “kill yourself” and an assortment of slurs. But she’d found that some of the abusive messages were also written in faux African American Vernacular English, seemingly an attempt to make black users think their own community was attacking them. As Crockett, who tweets under the handle @so_treu, scrolled through Twitter, she also spotted a new hashtag that some other women were already using to flag “black feminist” accounts they suspected of being trolls: #YourSlipIsShowing. It was a hashtag Shafiqah Hudson had created.
Rooted in the particular Southern black dialect of the South Florida community where Hudson grew up, the phrase “Your slip is showing” refers to something that’s meant to be concealed but is, embarrassingly, on full display. In this new context, it took on another layer of meaning: Along with outing the imitators among black feminists, #YourSlipIsShowing exposed the malice those imitators felt toward the very people they were attempting to mimic.
Hudson was the first to use the hashtag, but soon a whole group of black feminists was combing through the #EndFathersDay tweets, retweeting the accounts they believed were masquerading as black women and adding #YourSlipIsShowing. They posted screenshots of accounts that were falsely using photos of black women they knew, including former BuzzFeed writer Heben Nigatu. They responded to other users who had expressed incredulity at #EndFathersDay and encouraged them to search the handle of any account they thought was fake with #YourSlipIsShowing to see if anyone had outed them.
The fake accounts had handles like @NayNayCantStop, @LatrineWatts, and @CisHate, and bios like “Queer + black + angry.”
Crockett, meanwhile, starting Googling around, and soon enough, she found the source from which #EndFathersDay had sprung: the original 4chan post outlining the fake hashtag as part of a crusade by men’s rights activists, pickup artists, and miscellaneous misogynists hoping to capitalize on previously existing rifts in the online feminist movement related to race and class. On 4chan threads, users said things like “I’ve had hundreds of nigs chimp out at me over this [fake tweet]. This turned out way better than expected :)” and “the more you do it the less effective it is going to be when we launch a proper attack. making them question each other is great but i want to make them hate each other.” Using the tag #YourSlipIsShowing, Crockett posted screenshots from 4chan to Twitter as evidence of the premeditation behind the hoax.
As more and more black women in the same orbit began to notice the new hashtag, the tool Hudson had created gained traction. “I didn’t have to ask anybody to help,” Hudson said. “Once they saw the hashtag, they were like, OK, so what are we doing? Let’s do it.” Women with many thousands of followers—like black feminist writers Mikki Kendall, Feminista Jones, and Jamilah Lemieux—picked up the hashtag, spreading it beyond Hudson’s immediate circle. Many of these women had never met each other in person before they joined forces to root out troll accounts—and according to Hudson, some hadn’t even directly interacted on Twitter. As the women blocked users and shared their block lists with each other, they found that the vitriol in their mentions, which had driven other black women off Twitter completely, decreased. Within days of the creation of #YourSlipIsShowing, Crockett, Hudson, and others had documented a small army of fake accounts numbering in the hundreds—accounts that users could not only cross-reference with their followers but also mass-report to Twitter.
But despite the evidence that harassment campaigns fueled by a noxious mixture of misogyny and racism spelled out a threat to users from vulnerable groups, Hudson and Crockett felt that Twitter basically did nothing. At most, the company suspended a few of the mass-reported accounts tagged under #YourSlipIsShowing. (According to Twitter, the company’s long-standing harassment policy, which gets updated sporadically, is designed to protect users from “brigading attacks.” In 2018, the company also updated its policy against fake accounts to clarify that no one is allowed to use misleading bios to “engage in spamming, abusive, or disruptive behavior, including attempts to manipulate the conversations on Twitter.”) To Hudson and Crockett, Twitter’s actions felt like too little, too late: In combating #EndFathersDay, they were on their own.
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When Hudson and Crockett first connected on Twitter over #YourSlipIsShowing, Hudson had been following Crockett since 2010 or 2011, but they’d never actually met in person. (They still haven’t.) Crockett, who describes herself as an “indie public scholar,” was living at home in Atlanta at the time. Crockett now lives in North Carolina; Hudson asked that her current home not be mentioned, in order to help protect her identity. They had several of the degrees-of-separation connections that link many black feminists who have been blogging and tweeting since the mid-2000s. Hudson was working as a freelance writer, mostly about pop culture and race. She was also, she laughs, “on Twitter way more than somebody who doesn’t get paid to be there should be,” in large part because the platform had been important to her professionally.
For Crockett, too, social media was central to her life. She’d found her history Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt to be lonely and frustrating. But Tumblr and Twitter were where she encountered a network of black women who were genuinely interested in ideas about race and culture in a way she felt her university was not. Crockett thinks it was in part her academic background that spurred her to dig deeper into #EndFathersDay and to look for connections among different troll accounts—and to theorize that it was not a one-off hoax, but the result of concerted surveillance of her community.
“No one who knew or liked a black feminist,” Hudson said, “was fooled.”
Hudson and Crockett both grew up in the South. (Crockett is originally from Atlanta.) Hudson called me honey in conversation with an ease that reminded me of my own family’s Southern roots. And to Hudson, the phrase “Your slip is showing” contains a particular kind of gleeful, patently Southern condescension. Disdain is barely hidden beneath the sweetness, like the smirk you might wear when you tell someone, “Bless your heart.” When she was first contemplating what to call the new hashtag, Hudson thought about a play on wig-snatching as a metaphor for unmasking posers. She figured that was overused, though, and besides, it didn’t quite feel right. “One of my favorite aspects of #YourSlipIsShowing is that it’s funny,” she explained. “It’s something that your meemaw would say, it’s church. I love that something that your big ma would say to you is essentially weaponized. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where you can combat true maliciousness and racism and ick with good manners and good humor.”
#EndFathersDay and the corrective rise of #YourSlipIsShowing is the story of a community that, mostly ignored by institutions, chose to fight back with the limited tools available. But despite all their efforts, Hudson, Crockett, and the other black feminists watched as the very same 4chan boards that had birthed #EndFathersDay spawned a new misogynistic harassment campaign mere months later: Gamergate. They watched as women like Zelda Williams and Zoë Quinn were aggressively bullied by accounts using many of the same tactics deployed during #EndFathersDay. And eventually, they watched as the 2016 election campaign unfolded and the very same forces that had been antagonizing them for years rebranded themselves as the alt-right.
It wasn’t just Twitter that seemed initially reluctant to take the problem seriously. In the years after #YourSlipIsShowing began, some media outlets diminished the danger of “trolls” by characterizing their flirtation with white nationalism as tongue-in-cheek—until those trolls took their rhetoric offline and onto the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitney Phillips, a Syracuse professor of online ethics who has written extensively about what she calls “subcultural trolling,” authored a 2018 report about how the media amplified the messages of hate groups in both the runup to and in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election; in her report, multiple journalists described feeling like they’d made light of the rhetoric they’d seen online, operating under an assumption that real, violent hatred and ironic provocation were separate worlds. As one Gawker reporter told Phillips, “Every once in a while I’ll look back and see something that I wrote a year and a half ago and the pit of my stomach falls, because … I was joking about these trolls.” Gawker wasn’t alone: A few months before the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, for instance, one Intercept investigative reporter tweeted, “hot take: people who write the laws that govern society, from war to taxes to pollution to wages, should be more of a focus than anime nazis.” Another journalist agreed: “Elevating fringe trolls to serve as foils is pathetic. You’ve been duped.”
But to Hudson and Crockett and the other black feminists behind #YourSlipIsShowing, the idea that violent speech on the internet could easily translate to an actual physical threat was never a question. “If your body … has never been subject to this kind of racist violence, if you have never been under threat because of how you look or who you are in the world, then you’re going to be less inclined to take attacks against other people’s bodies very seriously,” said Phillips. “Because for you your body has only been a vessel of safety … those women [who created #YourSlipIsShowing] understood in an embodied, visceral way that this is not playful trolling … the majority of people didn’t pay attention.”
What Crockett found on 4chan showed how coordinated and deliberate “trolling” could be—and how dangerous. In the recesses of 4chan message boards, she saw users discussing #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, the hashtag started by Mikki Kendall, the black feminist writer, in early 2014 to pinpoint how whiteness was centered in many conversations about feminism—specifically, she found 4chan users noting how that hashtag had exposed deep fissures among online feminists along racial lines. Users on 4chan had seemingly been observing the tensions among black and white feminists online and decided that creating fake accounts for black feminists was one way to further stoke those tensions by painting black feminists as hysterical and radical. One user mentioned Kendall’s hashtag as a reason why #EndFathersDay seemed, to them, to be working: “[#EndFathersDay] is the perfect response to #solidarityisforwhitewomen.”
When Crockett began posting screenshots of 4chan threads on Twitter, she was met with violent threats. “Ok we need to doxx this nigress,” read one anonymous message. “Find out her address, workplace, even where any of her niglets go to school. If she’s anywhere in my state I’ll pay her a visit.” Hudson received a call from one of her former places of employment, which 4channers had called to complain that she was “misusing company property” by outing trolls on company time. Both of them received rape and death threats. “It got real extra,” Hudson said. “It got … scary and dark. That’s what we’re dealing with, that kind of level of malevolence.”
It’s now conventional wisdom that today’s hateful right-wing trolling has its roots in Gamergate. Gamergate, argued a 2015 BuzzFeed piece, “first revealed … that under the modern internet’s surface layer of samey platforms and feel-good cultural consensus, burbled, in chans and subreddits and forums and anonymous networks and IRC, a reservoir of opposition to its values.” Gamergate, declared a 2018 Salon essay, was the beginning of “a very dark turn in American conservatism.” Gamergate, observed Politico Magazine in 2017, was the moment that “hardened anti-political correctness sentiment on 4Chan.” But as the media has pieced together the story of the alt-right’s rise, #EndFathersDay has been a key omission. This feels particularly notable in light of the fact that Quinn, arguably the main target of Gamergate, not only quotes Hudson in her book, Crash Override, but also specifically cites #EndFathersDay as a precursor to “similar disinformation tactics used during GamerGate, and later during the 2016 presidential election.”
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The first time Hudson saw the hashtag she had created break through to a wider cultural audience, she was, as she describes it, “between addresses.” It was November 2017, a rough time for her financially and personally. On an episode of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee about the influence of Russian bots and trolls on the 2016 election, Bee gave a shoutout to #YourSlipIsShowing and the black women who popularized it. In the segment, she describes Russia’s efforts to sway black voters by fueling the racial tensions that are already so close to the surface of American life. Specifically, Bee mentioned the phony social media campaign “Blacktivist,” which was found to be linked to the Russian government and whose Facebook page had more likes than the official Black Lives Matter Facebook page. Bee drew a direct line between Blacktivist and the account Hudson and Crockett had noticed three years prior: “In 2014,” Bee said, “black women began marking accounts they thought were bots posing as black users with the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing.”
Hudson doesn’t have basic cable. When she first saw the segment, it was through a screenshot a friend tweeted at her. She remembers feeling a wash of emotions: a deep sadness at the scale of the problem, vindication because she had never imagined anything “so grandiose” when she first created the hashtag, and finally, feeling “extra broke” and at a loss as to how to turn this work into income. Crockett felt similarly torn. On one hand, Bee didn’t mention either her or Hudson, attributing the hashtag to “black women” on Twitter generally. But Crockett said, “Ultimately, I appreciate the fact that [our] work was put out there.”
It’s impossible to say how many of the fake accounts that #YourSlipIsShowing called out were actually part of the Russian propaganda operation that may have helped tilt the 2016 election. But what does seem clear is that the misinformation, bot networks, and weaponized trolls that Twitter did little to curb back in 2014 were a “dry run” for the presidential campaign two years later. In 2018, a New Knowledge report commissioned by the Senate described how Russian agents specifically “focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” a campaign honed in the depths of 4chan. “It should be validating,” Hudson said, to be proved right about what she calls the “toxic white manosphere.” “But instead it’s been upsetting and alarming. Nobody wants to be right about how much real peril we’re all in, even if you saw it coming.”
The work of digging for and calling out these Twitter accounts takes a grim psychological toll. Crockett said that, at some point, therapy might be a good idea after years of being subjected to violent harassment, of receiving death threats, and of the humdrum indignities that black women face on the internet every day. “Not going to lie, alcohol helps too,” she laughed. In the years since #YourSlipIsShowing began, Crockett, Hudson, and others have continued to sound the alarm about the campaigns of disinformation targeting women of color. Every so often, the two will compare notes on suspicious users in their mentions. Hudson recently began to spend some of her time writing fiction; Crockett is training as a doula. She also spoke at a journalism conference in December 2018, connecting #YourSlipIsShowing to other historical black information networks: “kitchen tables, hair salons, you know, after-church services. These sort of intimate, intercommunal services, where, as they say, ‘spill the tea.’ ”
At its core, after all, #YourSlipIsShowing wasn’t created for traditionally white, male gatekeepers. Both Hudson and Crockett agree on what’s gotten them through all of this: the network of women this hashtag has connected. “The community of black women that I’ve built kind of represents the promise of the internet to me, or the promise of social media,” Crockett told me. “We just remind each other that we’re more than whatever happened to us online.”