As a candidate for the New York City Council, Sara Lind wants to talk about how to address housing affordability. She’s interested in exploring solutions to combat the effects of climate change on the nation’s largest city and tackling education inequities.
But as she messages these ideas to potential voters, the Democratic candidate has also had to make space for a barrage of harassment and threats of violence online.
“Sara needs to be muzzled,” wrote one person. Others called her “a moron” and “a waste.” At least a few Twitter accounts called her sexist expletives.
This week, Lind — who is worried for her and her family’s safety — announced she will no longer use Twitter as a candidate.
“Some of them individually don’t maybe seem that bad, but it’s the cumulative nature of them,” said Lind, an attorney.
Online harassment against elected officials is prevalent, particularly for women. Lind is familiar with the nature of politics and has worked on several campaigns over the years. But the 38-year-old has noticed an evolution in the way people respond to ideas in public spaces like social media.
“It feels like there’s a lot of hate that is coming from this deep place, and it’s being taken out on me. And in some ways, I don’t even think it’s about me … I’m just trying to help people,” she said.
Lind said she will not tweet during the rest of the primary campaign (she faces a crowded June 22 election). She has a small presence on platforms like Facebook and Instagram that she intends to keep. If she becomes an elected official, she is open to returning to Twitter to be accessible to her constituents.
Lind spoke with The 19th about her experiences in recent months and how she hopes to spend her time now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The 19th: You announced on Twitter that you will no longer post from your account because of what you described as being “trolled relentlessly with slurs, sexual assault & death threats” and “anonymous cowards spreading misinformation.” Can you share more about your experience?
Lind: I want to just take the time to say first, this is not unique to me. I know that so many, especially women candidates, are facing this. There are a lot of these anonymous accounts that really spend most of their time attacking me and a few other candidates in the city. And there have been, as I mentioned, some racial slurs used, some sexist tropes in language.
And not just me. They also have attacked my campaign manager, which was very difficult, because as a candidate I’m putting myself out there, but she’s just trying to work on staff. So it was especially difficult for her. And with her, they actually found her phone number and sent her text messages saying that they hope she gets raped and the police don’t help her.
I got some messages saying that they hope I die, or they would send messages saying, ‘Well, since you love criminals so much, I’m going to give them your address and hope they come and find you.’ So it’s been scary.
Was there a moment that felt like things had gone too far, or was there a particular incident that led to the final decision to get off of Twitter?
It wasn’t any one thing, really. I’ve been thinking about it for a while because I’m running for office, and you spend so much time on Twitter. It becomes this bubble. And then you get out on the street and you’re talking to voters, and they’re not on Twitter. I mean, some of them are, obviously. But a lot of them aren’t. And they care about different things and they have different perspectives, and it felt like I was letting a lot of my energy get sucked up by these people and that’s what they want. So I just didn’t want to do that anymore.
I posted about Daunte Wright’s murder, and I got some pretty racist responses to that, talking about how if he had just obeyed the law, he wouldn’t have been shot and things like that. I’m a White woman, so I can’t even imagine how people of color must be feeling. But for me that was just like, I don’t need these people in my life. And it wasn’t good for my mental health.
You’re a few days in without tweeting. How do you feel about the decision? Is it impacting your campaign in any way?
Personally, I feel amazing. I feel much better not being on Twitter.
I think for my campaign, there was a special election in the city a few weeks ago, and there were a few candidates in the race who were very on Twitter, who were posting all the time. If you were on Twitter you would think, ‘Wow, one of these people is definitely going to win.’ And then it ended up being that this candidate who had like 500 followers and never tweeted won. And it just made me think, ‘This is so not real life. And I don’t need to be here in order to run a successful campaign.’ We’re texting voters, we’re doing phone banks, I’m out on the street and talking to voters, and that’s what matters. That’s how you’re going to win a race. The fact that it feels that candidates feel like they have to have this Twitter presence, it might not really be as true as sometimes we think it is.
That said, do you feel there’s a risk in not sharing your ideas on a social media platform like Twitter? Or just the ripple effect of what online harassment might do to women candidates or candidates from marginalized communities?
There’s definitely a risk. And like I said, I had been thinking about it for a little while, and I had wanted to go off before. We’re two months out from the election so I felt like, ‘OK. I’ve gotten a lot of my ideas out there. And now I really want to be on the street.’
But, yeah, definitely — I’ve already felt that way. I put out a food policy [Thursday] but I couldn’t put it on Twitter, so I was like, ‘Is anyone going to see this?’ And probably there will be moments between now and June 22 when I regret going off Twitter. But, like I said, I think for me and my campaign it’s gonna be worth it.
To your bigger point, there have been moments when I thought about quitting the campaign. There have been moments that my family thought I should quit the campaign, where we felt unsafe. They put my address up on Twitter. I mean, it’s revealing personal information.
I decided that I couldn’t do that because I really feel like I’m running on important platforms that need to be out there. And I do know that there was a candidate up in the Bronx who would have been the first transgender elected official. She didn’t win, but she got some really awful stuff, too. She also stayed in, but I think that there is a risk that people with really good ideas, that would bring really good perspective, just don’t do it because it’s not safe for them physically or mentally and emotionally.
Have you heard from other candidates or other people about what they thought about your decision?
Tons of candidates have reached out to me to express their sympathy and to say how awful these people are. And I think there is kind of a general, ‘Yes, it really sucks. I wish I could go off of it,’ among candidates. I haven’t heard anyone say they’re gonna go off of it as well, but there’s definitely a general sense — especially among women, but also some men, too — that it’s just a really toxic platform and for candidates they get attacked a lot. I also have had candidates tell me that they have trolls, but they see my trolls are particularly extreme. So I don’t know, I seem to have attracted a particular brand of very extreme troll. But like I said I’m definitely not the only one facing this.
What do you feel might be the most misunderstood thing about online harassment?
I was in an abusive relationship when I was younger, and it kind of is like that. Because sometimes each individual action isn’t that bad, but it’s just the pervasive nature of it. Sometimes the individual action obviously is bad, but sometimes it’s more just remarks here and there that are offensive. If it were just the one, you can deal with it. But when it’s just non-stop, it really wears you down. And also again, similar to abusive relationships — there’s a lot of gaslighting. Like if you say something about it, people will say to you, ‘What are you talking about? I was just trying to have a conversation with you.’ And you’re like, ‘No, you really weren’t. You were trying to provoke me.’ So it really is in that way like an abusive relationship but with a stranger, and these anonymous accounts. So there’s no accountability.
Have you put a lot of thought into practical solutions, maybe from a policy standpoint? That’s asking a lot of you in this moment, with this experience that you’re having, but I’m curious if you feel like there are any types of solutions yet on how to think about online harassment, particularly for candidates.
The one thing I’ve heard that seems like it could make some difference is requiring people to use a real name and to have some kind of identity verification to have an account, because it’s always the anonymous accounts that do this. But I’m also not sure if that’s really good for freedom of speech. I don’t know if that’s the answer or not, but it’s very clear that it’s these anonymous accounts. People hide behind them, and they can say their darkest, nastiest thing. They can say without retribution. And I just don’t know if there’s a way to address that, really. It’s very difficult.
Are there other takeaways that you want the public to understand about your decision, or about the dynamic of online harassment?
I do want it to be clear that this is not unique to me. I know so many other candidates who are dealing with this right now. So it’s not like I was some special victim. I just decided that for me, it was enough and I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.
But a lot of people do feel like they have to be on Twitter to run an effective campaign, and obviously I respect that decision, too. But I think more generally, I have two kids. They’re at the ages when they start to have to deal with bullying in school. And it doesn’t end. I mean, we had the bully-in-chief in President Trump, right? So we know that adults are perfectly capable of being bullies well past the time they should have matured beyond that. And I don’t know, I think we just need, as a culture, to kind of come to terms with that. I don’t know the answer, but it’s just not a productive way to have a conversation.