On Tuesday, the New York Times announced that it had hired technology journalist Quinn Norton to contribute to its editorial page. In a matter of hours, Norton and the paper had parted ways. The reasons are, on the one hand, utterly obvious — homophobic comments on Twitter and an insistence on friendship with a notorious white supremacist — and at the same time muddled and thorny. Unpacking the issue, however, provides a useful demonstration of how the internet works in 2018, when its most august institutions and its seediest corners are converging.
Norton joined the editorial board as the Times’ “lead opinion writer on the power, culture and consequences of technology,” putting her in a position to affect how much of the country perceives technology and web-related cultural issues via the editorial section of the most important newspaper in the world. Joining the editorial board is slightly different from being an op-ed columnist like David Brooks or Bret Stephens — pieces from the editorial board are unsigned and reflect an institutional position (which is entirely separate from the paper’s much larger reporting division), though it was likely that Norton would also have written signed op-eds.
Picking her for the role was gutsy, to say the least; she is not the safe-centrist, establishment type you might expect from an institution like the Times. Norton is an accomplished activist and journalist who has spent much of her career covering and embedding closely with Anonymous and the Occupy movement — two amorphous groups born or cultivated on the internet — for Wired and other publications. A 2013 Rolling Stone article describes Norton as a “self-defined anarchist.”
Norton was also linked, for a time romantically, to Aaron Swartz, the digital activist present at the founding of Reddit. Swartz committed suicide in early 2013 while being prosecuted by the federal government. He had downloaded millions of academic articles from JSTOR using MIT’s computers and, the DOJ alleged, had intended to release all of them for free. Norton played a pivotal role in the case. Recounting her experience in The Atlantic, she wrote:
I mentioned a blog post [to prosecutors]. It was a two-year-old public post on Raw Thought, Aaron’s blog. It had been fairly widely picked up by other blogs. I couldn’t imagine that these people who had just claimed to have read everything I’d ever written had never looked at their target’s blog, which appeared in his FBI file, or searched for what he thought about “open access” They hadn’t.
So this is where I was profoundly foolish. I told them about the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. And in doing so, Aaron would explain to me later (and reporters would confirm), I made everything worse. This is what I must live with.
I opened up a new front for their cruelty. Four months into the investigation, they had finally found their reason to do it. The manifesto, the prosecutors claimed, showed Aaron’s intent to distribute the JSTOR documents widely. And I had told them about it.
It was Norton’s role within these communities — inside online spaces like Anonymous and social circles like the one Swartz belonged to, where the people who saw the world-changing potential of the internet tried to figure out how to wield it — that made her a compelling choice to lead the Times’ editorial coverage on tech.
But it was also her role around fringe communities like 4chan that made her, ultimately, the wrong choice.
The thing about rubbing elbows with people like the ones who populate /b/, 4chan’s notorious “random” board, is that sometimes they rub off on you. With a not inconsiderable frequency, Norton has referred to Weev (Andrew Auernheimer, a white supremacist with a swastika chest tattoo who was also the foremost hacker-troll on 4chan) as a friend. “I can’t write about my friend’s incarceration with detached journalistic distance,” she wrote in a piece about Weev on Medium in 2013. On Twitter in 2014, she sounded mostly amused that people had only just begun to notice Weev’s Nazi disposition, and stated that she has been affiliated with various neo-Nazis (Weev’s twitter handle is @rabite).
From time spent on 4chan, Norton had also picked up some of its, if we’re being charitable, verbal tics. The words retard and fag are staples of the 4chan lexicon. Those who frequent /b/ are known as “/b/tards,” and “fag” is often deployed as a suffix (new users would be called “newfags,” etc.). More generally, you can’t walk two steps without bumping into a slur of some kind on 4chan boards like /b/ or /pol/. As is often the case when politically incorrect internet users are confronted about their language, Norton asserted that it all comes down to context.
Speaking as a straight, white male who spent much of his impressionable teen years involved in 4chan-adjacent gamer chat rooms between 2006 and 2010, I can say from experience that it was remarkably easy to discuss things like video games and memes with other users who casually deployed slurs without also picking up the language myself. Which is just to say that the “context” excuse for saying “fag” online barely held water a decade ago, and even less so now.
In the wake of this exhumation, the Times got cold feet. The paper’s editorial-page editor, James Bennet, said in a statement regarding the language and opinions expressed on Twitter: “Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us. Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.” But as her tweets demonstrate, Norton is nothing if not open about her beliefs, and it’s odd to have only discovered her association with white-supremacist trolls so late in the process. It seems just as likely that she was hired to play a “provocative” role like other recent op-ed hires, but her candor ultimately made her position unsustainable. (Never underestimate the power of plausible deniability.)
Last night, regarding her relationship to Weev, Norton explained it as a function of a broader belief that people are redeemable.
She also characterized, I would say accurately, the brief furor as an example of “context collapse” — her trollish 4chan posture; her glib both-sides, all-are-redeemable politics; and her identity as a professional journalist meant to serve a broad audience were all housed incongruously within a single Twitter account.
The mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight world of technology and digital-culture journalism is in the midst of a cultural realignment about how it views the sort of “ironic” political incorrectness (and outright Nazism) prevalent in online spaces like 4chan and its orbit. What was once permissible among hacktivists and their observers and hangers-on — hobnobbing with white supremacists, even if you disagreed — no longer is in an America where white supremacists are particularly emboldened, and when that movement has literally been stoked on 4chan. A decade ago, it was much easier to shrug off explicit invocations of Nazism and white supremacy online. For a certain type of reporter hanging out in transgressive parts of the internet, putting up with these shenanigans was par for the course. But that attitude — that it’s just trolling, that it’s ironic, that you don’t know the context — has provided cover for hundreds of acts of genuine hate and violence over the last two years. The idea that because a person leans left in their politics, they can comfortably associate with white supremacists and not be guilty by association is outdated for a lot of people, and the Times apparently heard from enough of them.