Writer ∙ Author ∙ Journalist

How I survived the Twitter mob

Maclean's / September 2015

What I learned from my 15 minutes of infamy in social media’s crosshairs

At 1:54 a.m., the first tweet came. “Please help, very racist article!” it read, with a sudden sense of urgency and a link to my most recent piece in a city newspaper. The headline, at the time, read, “A feast of local delicacies not for the faint-hearted,” and the body was a short travel piece about challenging myself to eat strange (to me) local delicacies while in the Philippines.

A few months earlier, and with the help of a Filipino guide who kindly escorted me around Palawan ordering foods for me to try, I’d eaten woodworm and “chicken ass” (his words) and crocodile. With what was supposed to be a Buzzfeed-esque quick-hit tone, I described each with a personal “ick factor,” then ate them anyhow. I enjoyed all but one, a boiled duck embryo called balut, which, because I’d eaten all the other foods and topped it off with a malaria pill in sweltering heat, I took one look at before vomiting over a wall. (Once upon a time, this was a funny story.) I returned to Canada with fabulous memories and experiences, psyched to write about my trip.

The first piece published was about my afternoon at the Selfie Museum at Manila, the world’s first and only selfie museum. Nobody noticed it.

Similarly, the food piece, for five glorious days, received only a handful of the usual “great job!” comments and a casual few Facebook likes, mostly for the photo of me with my tongue out and about to eat a woodworm, which we’d added at the last minute just for fun. Otherwise, the piece’s tone was amped up to be “edgy,” then turned up another notch online, where its title changed to “PETA-offending treats on the menu in the Philippines.”

The click bait didn’t work; the piece failed to gain steam and I had mostly already forgotten about it. I was getting married out of town that weekend, had been frantic and distracted for months. In fact, at first, I wasn’t even sure which piece the tweet referred to. In six years as a freelance writer, I’ve only dabbled in travel writing, but a handful of pieces came to mind as maybe-offenders. In those same six years, I’ve become used to the occasional negative tweet. Usually, I immediately and sheepishly apologize.

Don’t feed the trolls,” my new husband warned. It’s a basic and ubiquitous truth for anyone in journalism, especially for a particularly aggressive troll like this one, whom I’ll call Linda. Linda began tweeting at dozens of prominent Toronto figures and personalities, some of them my friends. Google Analytics shows me she spent a few middle-of-the-night hours on my website, combing for dirt.

“OMG just noticed @RosemaryCounter describes herself as feminist lol! She’s so far from that,” she wrote. When she learned I teach a night course at a local university, she looped in my employer, too. “And she teaches! Can anti-racism familiarity be required of all instructors?” To another local paper, as well as larger sites such as Buzzfeed itself, she wrote, “Maybe do a critical piece on articles about ‘icky ethnic” food?’ ” (Though the phrase “icky ethnic” never appeared in my piece, it was mine now.)

Competitive papers took the bait. “It’s sad, ignorant, pith-hat colonialist non-journalism, paid for by a sponsor,” wrote one food critic. He was right, of course. My whole story felt like one of those funny-in-the-moment vignettes that you retell to blank stares, then say, “You had to be there.” Only, instead of putting my foot in my mouth at a dinner party, I’d done it in front of the whole city.

“100k Filipinos here might not like their food called ‘disgusting,’ ” wrote another competitor. (The whole quote, for the record, was “Delicious or disgusting? There’s only one way to find out,” but no matter. The words “ick” and “disgusting” were everywhere; “delicious,” “tasty” and “beautiful” were ignored.) She threw a hat-tip to Linda for spotting me, and linked to “a lovely, nuanced article about cultural appropriation” in her own paper.

At 8:31, I sent my editor an email, subject line: “Yikes!”—and we talked inside baseball. People were always and easily offended, he said; this was hardly even about me, and I was not to worry. Or even respond. It would all die down soon, said absolutely everyone.

Only it did not. As Linda tweeted more and further, others chimed in: “Loved your article dogging Filipino food. Love when non-Filipinos crap on my culture #ignorant #hackwriter”; “I’m appalled at how racist this article is”; “Your ignorant white privilege stinks to high heaven”; and, perfectly capturing everything that was happening in my mind, “This is so not cool . . . what were you thinking?”

I wasn’t thinking, obviously. I had returned from the rush of the trip high from the dares to eat everything they could find for me. I’d tossed that spirit, without sufficient context, into a fast piece intended to be fun and funny. When the paper wanted to run it on the cover of the travel section, and asked if I had a photo of myself in action, I was flattered. I sent a shot of myself, tongue wagging from my mouth, worm in hand. They posted the picture online, and a technical error ran my personal email with it. I got in my car and left the city.

As I drove, the emails started. “Filipinos hate you,” read one, and, “Your piece severely insulted and offended an entire culture.” Another: “You’re obviously very narrow-minded about food and culture and view yourself as better than all Filipinos.” Other cultures were similarly offended: “What’s next? Articles about how black people eat too much fried chicken?” People said I was nothing and nobody while the impact was simultaneously vast and severe. “Your article isn’t even a blip on the radar, yet it offended me in a way I’ve never been offended before.”

I desperately wanted to respond and explain. Each name that landed in my inbox was a real person, whom I’d legitimately upset, and my heart ached for each, individually. But as a collective mob, they were terrifying. Among the emails and tweets (or maybe paranoia had got to me) was a handful of what felt more and more like threats: “Good luck to you, you’re going to need it . . .” and, “Hope you sleep well tonight,” and, “The Filipino community is onto you until you do something.”

So, at 2:21 p.m., I did something. Against the advice of my editor, my husband, my family and everything I’ve been taught about modern journalism, I tweeted: “Sincere apologies to anyone I offended. Meant the piece to be fun & silly & poke fun at my own hangups, not Filipino food,” I wrote. “Will be far more careful & considerate in the future, I promise.” It was the truth, but it was too late.

“Is an apology on Twitter the farthest we go these days?” “@RosemaryCounter gives a half-ass apology on her twitter re: ‘ick-factor.’” “A Twitter apology is insufficient for that ignorant, disrespectful piece of bad journalism.” “Instead of this lame apology, maybe you can actually admit you wrote a piece of garbage & retract it.”

But it wasn’t mine to retract and, with my editor now rightfully irked that I’d caved and apologized at all, I had less power than before, which is to say none at all. Whether the piece was pulled or not wasn’t my call; as a freelancer, I’m not included in these conversations. Unlike me, the newspaper was standing by the piece. Not just by it, but against an ever-growing group of protestors.

By 3:11, a petition popped up on change.org. It was written by a Toronto university English professor and co-signed by experts from the Kapisanan Philippines Centre for Arts & Culture, the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival, and the David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies. “If Counter again had done due diligence in research,” it read, “she would discover that majority of the food she has eaten have similar versions in Japan, Taiwan, China, and Spain (to name a few countries). This would not be surprising, given the Philippines’ colonial history, and given its historical trade role in the region.” The petition’s banner used the worm-eating photo, tongue out like an indignant brat’s. A hundred people had signed already.

I arrived at my parents’ house in near tears, and tried desperately to explain what had happened. “I don’t understand what the big deal is,” said my mother. “Twitter isn’t real.” To her, to everyone else outside the tiny corner of the Internet that was now calling itself #IckGateTO, and to my three brothers, not one of them on any social media platform, the whole situation was silly. Then came a note from the evening news.

The story would star the aforementioned university professor and was slotted to run on the 6 p.m. news. If I wanted to defend myself, this was my chance. The paper wasn’t commenting and I didn’t have to, either, said my editor. Mom suggested that if I just said sorry nicely, it would all go away; my husband advised me not even to respond; had I learned nothing? We all hoped that, without me, there’d be no conflict, and therefore no story.

We were wrong. The segment skipped four complimentary food reviews and zeroed in on the balut egg—all while flashing and re-flashing the photo of me. “Other offerings include duck embryo, which the author writes, ‘literally made her throw up,’ ” said the ominous voiceover. (Note: This is literally not a quote in the article. Real, unquoted quotes include: “sweet and tasty but very subtle”, “the best of both sand and surf” and “absolutely scrumptious!”)

After the segment, Twitter sped up. There were thousands of tweets and retweets and favourites and comments now. My phone rang with unknown numbers, and strangers (men, all of them) added me to Facebook. A local restaurant wrote a heart-breaking open letter: “How many young Filipino kids will be ridiculed at school because of stories like this?”

While I’d gone numb to every “F–K. YOU. RACIST.” sent my way, other comments, such as this one from Linda, haunted me: “It’s different, though, when you live all your life here, grow up with white kids taunting you about your yucky food and bullying you about so many aspects of you not being white,” she wrote. I was part of the problem. I understood that, and felt sickened by it. And yet I knew I was certainly not the whole problem. #IckGateTO wasn’t all about me, yet it was all mine to bear.

I did find a handful of supporters on Twitter: “Didn’t say anything disrespectful nor racist about the Filipino people, just the food. No offence taken.” “Am I a racist Pinoy for also finding balut & manok pwet icky?” “In my eyes, racism lives more in spirit than the letter of the message. I saw no meanness or bigotry in the article.”

Every time those people spoke up, however, the outraged mob would turn on them. They’d be similarly sworn at and bullied and belittled, and then they’d disappear. Though they couldn’t say so publicly, some sent me private notes. “I just want to thank you on your article about Filipino delicacies and I’m happy that you were brave enough to try them,” said a note from “Non-offended Pinoy.” “Please keep writing about your experience with our food. It was not offensive at all, just to a few sensitive people.”

How many, exactly? I wondered over and over. Was this all 100,000 Filipinos in the city, as some said? Or was it the same six furious people stirring the same pot? That I couldn’t tell the difference, and that there was no way to really tell, was mystifying. Was I the next Justine Sacco or would this end within the hour? There were more and more signatures on the professor’s petition at the same moment—9:13 p.m.—my tour guide’s email arrived. “I read your hot article and would like to tell you that I found it hilarious and non-offensive at all,” he wrote. “Thanks for writing about it.”

It was 9:13 a.m. in the Philippines, and I was bracing myself for reaction from the other side of the world. One Facebook post: “Let’s see if the Philippine Interweb is just as offended as Filipino Canadians. #grabspopcorn #icamehereforthecomments.” My stomach ached; my jaw was sore from grinding my teeth. Then my brothers wrestled the phone from my hand and replaced it with a bottle of red wine. We got drunk and watched Spaceballs.

After midnight, tucked into bed with the room spinning just a bit, I broke. The messages continued to come in, most of them negative, including a tweet from a so-called friend (“Hahahahahahahah!” it read, with a link to the petition). But buried in the stack was feedback from the Philippines, almost none of it negative. “What’s wrong with the article?” asked one writer. “Not offensive & she didn’t ‘slam’ Filipino food. She seemed to enjoy most of it,” read another. “She tried them all. More than I can say for myself.” And my personal favourite, “I’m offensive and I find this Filipino.”

I slept just barely and awoke late to more of the same: demands that I retract the article, rage that the article wasn’t retracted already, suggestions I donate all the money I was making on ad clicks to victims of typhoon Haiyan. Ad clicks? Me? For all the day’s happenings and the irreversible damage to my career and reputation, I’d banked a paltry $300.

Meanwhile, the professor’s petition had snowballed overnight, doubling its signatures with no signs of slowing. By 2:32, I got a note from the editor saying the people had spoken and the paper would issue an apology. If I wanted to say anything further, publicly or privately, I was free to do so. Or not. As I reluctantly drove myself back to the city, I carefully chose and practised my words.

To the professor, at 6:08 p.m., I sent an email. Subject: Personal Apology. I wasn’t malicious, I wrote, but I was insensitive, flippant and condescending. I had no excuse except my own carelessness, and I would do better. I meant it.

The professor answered immediately, thanking me for reaching out. He said he understood how this had happened, that we’d all learned something in the last two days, and that he could tell I was sincere. He asked if I’d like him to post my apology publicly, but I politely declined. I was sorry, deeply and entirely, but I had nothing left for the faceless mob.

Of course, as fast as they arrived, they all moved on. As I was writing this, Nicole Arbour—the Canadian comedian who posted a YouTube “Dear Fat People” video that misfired and cost her her job—was getting the mob treatment, and far worse than I ever did. But I won’t be heedlessly jumping into her social media takedown.

The professor respected my wishes and my privacy and, just minutes later, added a note that my apology had been received—in addition to one from the paper and another from the unfortunate travel company that sent me to the Philippines in the first place—to the last of his eight Facebook posts on the incident. “I do think that the apology is heartfelt and thoughtful,” he wrote. “In the end, this is a teachable moment for all of us, and I do sincerely believe this will not happen again in the future.”

We’d all learned a lesson, I most of all—about hasty jokes, and the impact they have, and the ever-present possibility of backlash, and just how it feels to land in the eye of the passing storm. Otherwise, all was well again in the Twitterverse. About this, I got zero notifications.