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Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Violent ads and fake nudes: AOC not sorry for blocking harassers on Twitter

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism following news that she was blocking some users from her personal Twitter account. In defense, Ocasio-Cortez said that the few accounts that she has blocked are those that subjected her to online harassment.

A violent ad paid for by New Faces GOP, a new right-wing political action committee, aired during the Democratic debate on Sept. 12, showing a photo of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face burning, followed by images of human remains.

Former California GOP congressional candidate Elizabeth Heng delivered the ad’s message: “This is the face of socialism and ignorance,” said Heng, as Ocasio-Cortez’s face burst into flames on screen and melted into images from the 1970s Cambodian genocide, which Heng’s parents survived.

The cost of the ad to the conservative PAC was close to $100,000, according to Federal Communications Commission financial documents.

Heng, who was defeated by incumbent Congressman Jim Costa, used much of the same imagery in the controversial ad as she did in a video for her congressional campaign in 2018, which became the center of a first amendment squabble after it was flagged by Facebook as inappropriate content and removed from the site, resulting in Republican outrage.

“My parents did not have the luxury of blocking the horrific content from the reality of their lives,” wrote Heng in a tweeted response in August 2018. “Why does Facebook feel they have the right to censor that content in the land of free speech?”

Five days after blocking the ad, Facebook reversed its decision and returned it to the site.

While Heng’s ads continue to spark controversy, this time the outrage rests largely on the other side of the political divide.

“Republicans are running TV ads setting pictures of me on fire,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter after the ad first aired on ABC following the Democratic debate.

The 29-year-old from the Bronx gained national attention after unexpectedly defeating longtime congressman Joe Crowley in a democratic primary in 2018 and has been a target of hostility from conservatives since she took office. This time, she said that Republicans are profiting from using her face to spread hate. That isn’t without consequence, she said.

“Who pays for heightened security? Who answers the phones for the threats resulting from a violent, false ad?” she wrote.

Regardless of the ad’s violent nature, Ocasio-Cortez has no clear legal recourse to demand its removal. The conservative PAC’s right to produce and distribute the content is protected under the first amendment, and the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that hate speech is no exception when it comes to speech protections.

Personal attacks are nothing new for the congresswoman. Although people are free to say what they want about her, in cases in which she is subject to extreme forms of online abuse, she said she believes she can choose not to listen.

Her solution? The block button.

In August, a letter sent by Knight First Amendment Institute, a free speech protection organization at Columbia University, called the practice “unconstitutional.” Ocasio-Cortez responded, and said that she has only blocked 20 of her 5.3 million followers from her @AOC account.

Among the accounts blocked by the congresswoman is the Daily Caller, a conservative online news organization that shared a fake nude photo of her in January 2019. “Here’s the photo some people described as a nude selfie of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” read the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for a list of additional blocked accounts or specific examples of the behavior she is blocking.

Katie Fallow, a First Amendment lawyer with Knight First Amendment whose name appeared on the letter chastising Ocasio-Cortez for banning certain voices from her Twitter account said that in cases where a “true threat” is made, the rules change a bit, but didn’t provide a clear definition of what a true threat entailed.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has over and over again upheld that public officials must withstand pretty withering and caustic criticism, not just about their policies but about their character,” said Fallow. “The theory is that it’s better to do that than to allow public officials to block speech based on viewpoint and determine when they think something is inappropriate or not.”

But Ocasio-Cortez issued a defiant response to the letter while at a Town Hall held in New York City Housing Authority Boston Post Road Plaza in the Bronx in late August.

“Free speech isn’t an entitlement to force someone to endure your harassment,” Ocasio-Cortez told a crowd of reporters after the meeting.

Currently, two other newly elected young, female representatives from the Bronx have joined Ocasio-Cortez and said that online harassment is a problem and should not be tolerated.

Bronx elected officials speak out

Alessandra Biaggi, a 33-year-old newly-elected New York state senator whose district overlaps with Ocasio-Cortez’s, said she believes the law on free speech is still adjusting to having women in power in the era of social media.

She, along with Ocasio-Cortez and New York Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernandez of the Bronx represent a growing number of young women and women of color running for and winning positions in public office at the city, state, and national level.

“This is not a knock on men, it’s just that so much about leadership has been defined by this male lens,” said Biaggi, who ousted 14-year incumbent Jeffrey Klein in the 2018 state senate election. “We have to work harder to define what it means to be a leader.”

Biaggi said she has experienced various degrees of gender related harassment since taking office, which has ranged from minor instances, like men using her physical appearance to belittle her position—calling her things like “cute” and “small” in business settings— to more extreme instances of threat and exploitation, such as threatening physical harm.

“I will listen to someone who disagrees with me, who’s angry at me for something,” said Biaggi. “But I don’t need to listen to someone calling me nasty degrading names or harassing me. Online is the perfect environment for that really outrageous behavior.”

Biaggi’s office did not respond to a request for further specification of the type of behavior that she believes crosses the line.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is escorted out of a Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29, as a man in attendance shouts that she’s a fraud.

Regardless, data makes clear that there are major gender-based differences in the experiences of members of public office, especially those engaged in online arenas.

Monica Anderson, a senior researcher at Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organization, said that 70 percent of women in the US see online harassment as a major problem.

“That’s compared to only about half of men,” Anderson said.

More people are online today than ever before, according to Anderson, and that has fueled the necessity for greater research on online environments and the differences in perceptions of what constitutes online harassment.

Most notably, Pew research found that women experience much higher rates of sexual harassment, including receiving unsolicited pornographic images and having nude images of them shared without permission. Women between the ages of 18 and 29 reported being sexually harassed at rates that more than doubled their male counterparts.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez signs a magazine cover she’s featured on for a constituent in attendance following a housing Town Hall in the Bronx on Aug. 29.

Assemblywoman Fernandez, a former staff member in the same office she now serves as an elected official, said she hasn’t had to block anybody, yet, but she’s seen the differences in how men and women in office are treated online, first-hand.

“I take this experience from having had to manage a social media account for a male elected official,” said Fernandez, who added that followers have messaged her professional account to make a pass at her, called her beautiful and ask her personal questions about what she’s doing and where she’s at. “Now, seeing my own account, I do see different messages come in.”

When asked whether or not she thought Trump blocking somebody on Twitter (he received a letter from the Knight Foundation in 2017 and recently lost a lawsuit raised by Knight First Amendment) was the same as AOC blocking somebody on Twitter, Fernandez said, “absolutely not.”

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