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Saturday 11 May 2019

us politics

Troll slayer

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the fight to her internet enemies

By Ellie Simon and Helen Lewis

In the face of endless overblown attacks from Republicans, Michelle Obama had a simple slogan: “When they go low, we go high.” It was the Obama era in a nutshell. The other guys might be crazy but the White House valued calmness, restraint and dignity.

Those days are gone. Now, the US presidency is held by a man who retweets white nationalists, calls Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and accuses pro-choice doctors of murdering full-term babies. In turn, his opponents are abandoning their commitment to the high road.

“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for,” Hillary Clinton told CNN in October last year. Two days earlier, former Attorney General Eric Holder had been even more explicit in his rejection of the Obama doctrine: “When they go low,” he said, “we kick them.”

The 29-year-old New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – known as AOC – has wholeheartedly embraced this approach. Young, attractive, working-class and Hispanic, she has already been identified as a major threat by the Republican party.

Everything from her clothes (too nice for a former bartender) to her name (did she once go by “Sandy”?) have been picked over. She has responded not with dignified silence but with mockery. When a video resurfaced of her dancing on a rooftop in college, she tweeted back: “You hate me coz you ain’t me, fellas.”

Research has established that women and minorities face more abuse than others online, and well-meaning onlookers often suggest they should ignore it and move on. If the last decade proves anything, though, it’s that ignoring offensive behaviour does little to stop it. In the UK, Labour’s Jess Phillips has spoken publicly about the abuse she has received from fans of the YouTube personality-turned-Ukip candidate Carl Benjamin. In 2016, he tweeted that he “wouldn’t even rape her”, a comment he insists was satirical. More recently he recorded a video in which he says: “I’ve been in a lot of trouble for my hardline stance of not even raping her. I suppose with enough pressure I might cave. But let’s be honest, nobody’s got that much beer.”

There is a crucial distinction here between the likes of Carl Benjamin, or the Republican pundits who fixate on AOC, and the endless hum of low-level abuse they inspire. Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t spend hours arguing with every numbskull who comes up with a dumb conspiracy theory about her life. But she does rebut attacks from high-profile pundits and opposition politicians.

“What I’ve chosen to do is break this fourth wall a little bit and respond to them,” she told an interviewer recently. “We saw how completely unfounded attacks, like the Birther Movement with President Obama, were ignored because it was beneath the President to respond to these things. But then they started to… grow legs and start walking around.” Sometimes it was OK to respond to rumours and call them “ridiculous”, she added.

That last bit is vital. She pokes fun at her tormentors and uses Twitter – where she has four million followers – to do it.

Whose way is better – Michelle Obama’s or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s? It’s worth pointing out that AOC’s jokes only work because she is genuinely funny. God help us if other Democrats employ a team of late-night comedy writers to focus-group their Twitter zingers.

There remains a risk in presenting yourself as a perpetual warrior: you’re performing for your fans, not for the floating voters.  Going on the attack may present another problem in modern politics: how do you energize your base and win over the undecided?

If AOC can crack that, she can do anything.

Helen Lewis


The critics and the comebacks How AOC responds to the internet trolls


Her childhood home

When 1 July 2018

Who John Cardillo, conservative radio host of Newsmax’s America Talks Live

What Cardillo shared an image from Google Maps of the home AOC grew up in outside of NYC, in Yorktown Heights

The story Part of a longer-standing campaign to prove AOC grew up wealthier than she claims

The reality She went to Boston University; she was born in the Bronx to two working-class parents; her dad was a small-business owner from the South Bronx, her mom was from Puerto Rico

AOC response


Her clothes

When Interview between AOC and Kerry Washington, the actress from Scandal, published on 5 September 2018

Who Conservative activist Charlie Kirk, and the hosts of Fox & Friends, Katie Pavlich and Pete Hegseth

What Kirk criticised AOC for wearing a Manolo Blahnik outfit in the interview worth about $3,500

The reality The suit she wore came from Gabriela Hearst, an Uruguayan designer, who uses compostable plastics for packaging and hosted one runway show inspired by Angela Davis

AOC response


Her dancing

When 2 January 2019, the day before AOC’s  swearing in

Who Anonymous Q1776 tweeted: “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is…High School video of “Sandy” Ocasio-Cortez

What A four-minute video of AOC dancing barefoot on a rooftop

The reality The video was made at Boston University in 2010 as part of a viral video fad where users reenacted John Hughes movies in response to YouTube’s copyright laws. The re-enactment paid homage to The Breakfast Club

AOC response

Her response It had 12 million views in 15 hours


Her nickname

When 6 January 2019

Who Jim Hoft, conservative conspiracy bloggers known as The Gateway Pundit and Sarah Palin

What Circulating a 2007 high school yearbook photo of AOC in which she went by “Sandy Ocasio-Cortez”

The story The suggestion was that by attending high school in the affluent Westchester County, AOC was not “from the Bronx”. It was part of a wider series of claims that AOC’s authenticity is a performance.

The reality She commuted 40 minutes to the school in Westchester County, in order to get a better education

AOC response



Her body

When 9 January

Who Daily Caller posted a story headlined “Here’s the Photo Some People Described as a Nude Selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”

What A photo taken by a woman in a bathtub, showing her from the shins down, with a reflection of her body in the faucet

The story A claim that the photo, circulating on Twitter, Reddit and 4chan, was AOC – a falsehood that the Daily Caller acknowledged in the article, but imputed truthfulness in their headline

The reality Reddit users cross-referenced Wikifeet, a foot-fetishist site, with an online photo gallery of celebrity women’s feet, and determined they weren’t her feet but belonged to Sydney Leathers, the former sexting partner of former Representative Anthony D. Weiner, who clarified the photo was hers.

AOC response


That she’s an actress

When Boosted 13 March 2019, though originally posted in January 2018

Who Sean Hannity, Fox News host, shared a video made by vlogger “Mr Reagan” (whose real name is Chris Kohls) for his four million Twitter followers

What A 23-minute video claiming she is “an actress, merely playing the part of a New York Congresswoman”

The story A claim that Justice Democrats held open auditions in 2016 for potential congressional candidates and that they chose AOC out of the 10,000 responses. The video showed a Justice Democrat explaining that AOC’s brother Gabriel had submitted her name as a potential candidate; an interview of AOC about Gabriel’s nomination and was used to make the suggestion that she is a puppet Congresswoman, and the people “controlling” her are dangerous

The reality Political action committees routinely select candidates through this process

AOC response


Her star chart

When Mid-February 2019, after her star chart was released on 14 January

Who Astrologer GianPaolo DiCocco, reported to have conservative leanings

What He wrote that AOC’s was the birth chart of “someone who should NOT be in government whatsoever. Look at all those Mercury squares!”

The story The start chart was said to prove “she is just mentally out of the loop, and absolutely, unequivocally unfit when it comes to government affairs”

The reality Unclear – AOC is a Libra sun, Aries moon, and Sagittarius rising: this could mean she was a queen in a past lifetime; the first female President; the next Ben Franklin in a dress

AOC response

All quiet – perhaps her star chart revealed that conservative attention on her will probably calm down later this year as the 2020 presidential race warms up. Remember, she’s only 29, and presidents must be over 35.

Ellie Simon

Further reading