Black Women Caught in the Digital Crosshairs

It’s no coincidence that Black women like Claudine Gay and Beyoncé are prime targets for online abuse.

Claudine Gay attends a menorah lighting ceremony on the seventh night of Hanukkah on Dec. 13, 2023, in Cambridge, Mass. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images)

Just days before the fateful testimony of Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black woman president, at a congressional hearing on campus anti-Semitism, a different Black woman was being targeted for the same global conflict.

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter debuted her concert documentary Renaissance in movie theaters the first weekend in December 2023 amid a controversy in which certain “fans” criticized her for allowing the film to be shown in Israel during its war in Gaza. A TikTok video that seemingly captured movie audiences waving Israeli flags while singing the lyrics to Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul” bolstered a move among some radicals and progressives to boycott her film.

Few people questioned the validity of that video.

“Perhaps these stories [on social media] are not true,” said Tara L. Conley, Kent State University professor and documentary filmmaker. “But if they fit our narratives, we’re just going to run with it.”

Two prominent Black women on different sides of the same conflict: one criticized for not denouncing Israel, the other condemned for not denouncing student protests against Israel’s war.

Beyoncé kept silent.

Gay tried to provide context for campus protests. This only opened her up to a right-wing media onslaught that led to questionable accusations of plagiarism and her eventual resignation after only six months as Harvard’s president.

Is it a coincidence that the targets of such online attacks were Black women? Far from it.

Beyoncé onstage at SoFi Stadium on Sept. 1, 2023, in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin Mazur / WireImage for Parkwood)

Black women are often in the crosshairs of abusive discourse driven by social media. Back in 2018, Amnesty International and Element AI conducted a study of online abuse against women and concluded that women of color were 34 percent more likely than white women to experience abusive tweets. Black women specifically were 84 percent more likely than white women to be mentioned in abusive or problematic tweets. That recent targets are often public figures suggests that social media abusers find it profitable to attack high-profile Black women who have become symbolic avatars for the group as a whole.

Moya Bailey, the Black feminist scholar who coined the term misogynoir to refer to the racist misogyny that Black women experience, sees such online abuse as a distraction from larger political and social issues.

“Misogynoir creates a false conversation,” Bailey said. “It’s distracting us from the real issues of what’s happening to Palestinians in Gaza. It’s distracting us from the way Jewish identity is being conflated with the state of Israel. Misogynoir continues to be an effective tool in getting people to pay attention to the wrong things.”

Misogynoir creates a false conversation. … It’s distracting us from the real issues of what’s happening to Palestinians in Gaza. It’s distracting us from the way Jewish identity is being conflated with the state of Israel.

Moya Bailey

According to Safiya Umoja Noble, a UCLA professor and the author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, Black women become the focus of online abusers because they are explicitly positioned in our society as mediators of social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, and have become symbols of Democratic voters more generally.

“Black women have always been the organizing backbone around civil rights work, even though men have often been in the leadership figure-head position,” Noble said. “Black women have actually been the ones who turned the people out for the marches, organized the boycotts, helped draft the policy and the language for the lawsuits. I think it’s much more valuable to destroy the intellectual and emotional labor that goes into civil rights work than it is to just take down figureheads. Figureheads do get taken down too, but if we can take down Black women, we can take down these equity programs that are about social justice.”

Being a Black woman figurehead is, therefore, especially potent.

“It’s easy to go after famous Black women,” Noble continued. “The Oprah Winfreys, Michelle Obamas, Meghan Markles, Serena Williams. This makes it easier to target Black women who are not well known. Black women who are superintendents of school districts, faculty or teachers, librarians, nurses, fast-food workers, domestic workers—they come under attack because the level of dehumanization that we see in the popular culture makes it easier to erase and oppress women who don’t have power. We see this so powerfully with the Black women who were poll workers in the last presidential election. I mean, the threats that they have come under, this is what symbolic racism is about. You have a narrative that demonizes the people you can’t touch, but then you have more affordance to act out on the people you can.”

The level of dehumanization that we see in the popular culture makes it easier to erase and oppress women who don’t have power. We see this so powerfully with the Black women who were poll workers in the last presidential election.

Safiya Umoja Noble

This symbiotic relationship between the powerful and the powerless requires us to pay attention to the ways in which Black women are harmed in our present moment. In truth, they have always been targets—and usually by the same groups, who can find in Black women a focus for their racist and sexist preoccupations.

Black feminist scholar-activist Loretta Ross has been observing over the decades how the arbiters of hate often reside at the crossroads of white supremacy and misogyny.

“Back in the early 1990s, I speculated that there was crossover between the people doing antiabortion activities and white supremacist activities,” Ross said. “So when I overlaid the data, it turned out to be the same people. I keep saying we have to add race into the women’s movement and gender into the Black movement.”

This, of course, is the reason why Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in the late 1980s, around the same time that she came up with critical race theory—decades before right-wing conservatives demonized their interpretation of the concept. Crenshaw, who is also the co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum (which founded the #SayHerName campaign to bring attention to Black girls and women targeted by police violence), is both a virtual and offline target of misogynoir in the wake of these political attacks. She, like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project fame, represents a progressive anti-racist and feminist force, one that has become a threat to those who wish to fortify the power of white supremacy and the patriarchy.

Social media is now the battleground for the competing visions of the nation. Conley, who created the digital platform Hashtag Feminism in 2013, reminds us that it was a watershed moment for Black feminist conversations online: 2013 was the year that Black feminist activists Alicia Garza, Ayo Tometi and Patrisse Cullors came together to form the foundation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement; the year that CaShawn Thompson promoted #BlackGirlMagic; the year that Beyoncé dropped her game-changing, culture-shifting self-titled album via digital platforms.

“There was a moment where Black women were shifting the narrative online,” Conley said. “Black women were telling their stories, and we had documentation of it. I do think that’s why we often get targeted—that we are underestimated.”

One of the things that the left needs to do is pay attention and listen to the most marginalized. Very much in the spirit of Combahee River Collective’s statement: If Black women were free, we’d all be free.

Moya Bailey

This vibrant Hashtag Feminism ignited backlash from online trolls. One infamous incident in 2014, which writer Rachelle Hampton described as a “canary in the coal mine,” involved the 4chan gang, who impersonated Black feminists using the bogus hashtag #EndFathersDay. Fortunately, Black feminists like the late Shafiqah Hudson exposed the hoax with the hashtag #YourSlipIsShowing.

This form of trolling and disinformation preceded by a few months the ugly misogynistic attacks against game developer Zoë Quinn and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian in what would become known as #Gamergate.

The same sorts of trolls behind #Gamergate helped give oxygen to Donald J. Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016 and weakened Hillary Rodham Clinton’s through an overblown email scandal premised on the narrative of women as either untrustworthy or incompetent in the realm of digital technologies. We can thus trace these gendered online attacks to the early misogynoir.

“One of the things that the left needs to do is pay attention and listen to the most marginalized,” Bailey said. “Very much in the spirit of Combahee River Collective’s statement: If Black women were free, we’d all be free.”

Mutale Nkonde, founder and CEO of AI for the People, makes a similar suggestion for those working in tech industries, especially those ushering in the new wave of artificial intelligence.

“Engineers must ensure Black women, and all marginalized people, are fairly represented in their datasets,” Nkonde wrote in an op-ed for Ms. about ChatGPT’s potential. “Imagine a chatbot designed to write women, Black people, people with disabilities and nonbinary femmes into global history.”

Fortunately, younger generations of Black feminists and coders, like Sofia Ongele, are already learning to resist and take back control of these digital narratives. In 2022, she led a campaign that flooded Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) online tip line—set up for parents to report the teaching of CRT—with spam emails.

“Democracy is more fun and inviting when you take it into your own hands,” Ongele reminisced in her TED Talk.

This much-needed lesson is echoed by earlier generations of Black feminists like Ross, who is encouraged by the work of Black women in countering both online and offline attacks.

“You have to not take responsibility for what the fascists do,” Ross says. “They do what they do because of who they are, not because of what you do. You can’t predicate your actions for fear of what they’re going to do… They’re going to lie; they’re going to troll; they’re going to dox. Because this is who they are.”

So, what can we do?

“We can have each other’s backs,” Ross said. “Anticipate the attacks. Form supportive circles around each other because we know the attacks are coming and it’s going to make you feel very isolated, very alone, very vulnerable. Be demonstrative in our support for each other. Do an analysis that shows the patterns that are taking place so that you don’t begin to believe it’s your fault.”

Noble concurs: “Black women have been at the forefront, women and trans people have been at the forefront, of talking about harms and making harms online legible as a problem in our society. And I think that’s one of the places where we need to keep doing our work and keep surfacing the stories and keep trying to protect one another.

“Because if you get swarmed online and then hate mail and anthrax shows up at your house, that’s real life,” she continues. “When you’re doxed, your private information is made public or a deepfake happens to you that touches your real life. We have to organize around our rights and our protections from these different kinds of algorithmic attacks, coordinated online attacks.”

As our digital technologies continue to evolve, so too will our responses and expressions.

“I think we may need to go back to our tradition of ‘hush arbors,’” Conley suggests, referring to the secret and hidden spaces Black communities used in the past to connect with each other away from white surveillance. “I do think that there’s a value and a beauty to some of these expressive spaces online where we can think out loud, but we also just have to be very aware of who’s watching while we’re doing that thinking out loud.”

Whatever the platform, wherever the space, we can focus on how we get free and escape the crosshairs—both online and offline.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Winter issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.