Catie Stewart has had a rough couple of weeks. As communications director for Scott Wiener, San Francisco’s State Senator, Stewart has been on the receiving end of tens of thousands of angry, and too often hateful and violent, social media comments, DMs, emails, and phone calls. Stewart estimates that the number of death threats alone is in the thousands.
“I’m trying to figure out if I should hire someone to read through all the death threats,” Stewart says, adding that interns have been taken off phone duty. “I try to triage to see how many of these threats are real, how scared I should be.”
Wiener’s offense? Spearheading a bill, SB 145, that eliminates a discrepancy in the way LGBTQ people are treated under the law. Currently, adults found guilty of having willing anal or oral sex with a minor are automatically placed on the sex offender registry. In the case of willing vaginal sex, if the adult is within 10 years of age of a minor over the age of 14, it is up to a judge to determine whether the adult should be placed on the sex offender registry. SB 145, which passed the legislature on Aug. 30, during the chaotic home stretch of the 2020 legislative session, applies these same standards to cases involving oral or anal sex. It now awaits Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature by the end of September.
“It’s still statutory rape and punishments still apply,” Stewart says.
The bill was brought to Wiener by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office in response to the sex offender registry growing too large to be useful. Too many people — especially LGBTQ people — in consensual relationships with a small age difference were being automatically added to the registry, a lifelong sentence with profound implications for housing, employment, and other opportunities.
Imagine this scenario: If a 17 and 19 year-old gay couple have consensual sex, and the former’s parents find out and press charges, the 19 year-old will automatically be placed on the sex offender registry. For a heterosexual couple in the same situation, the 19 year old’s placement on the sex offender registry would be up to a judge’s discretion. SB 145 would eliminate this discrepancy.
But take a quick tour through the right wing media ecosystem and you’ll hear some variation of a highly incendiary (and false) talking point: “California just legalized pedophilia.”
What Senator Wiener and staff members like Stewart have been going through is a product of this ecosystem’s interconnectedness, from the fevered swamps of QAnon to some of the most influential lawmakers and media personalities in the country. As misinformation travels upstream to ever more trusted and legitimate sources, hate-filled trolls are being joined in the State Senator’s DMs by well-meaning people, disturbed by the sensational and inaccurate things they’ve been told.
Sorting through this mess of violent and mundane responses, and tracing the misinformation to its various sources has recently become Stewart’s job. Her experience provides valuable lessons about who buys into the QAnon narrative, where they access that information, and what they choose to do in response. So much about this strange new world remains hazy, even to people like Stewart who are now intimately familiar with it. What the SB 145 saga makes clear, however, is that the lies coming from places like QAnon, when legitimized by trustworthy sources and popular figures, are incredibly dangerous.
Conspiracies For The ’Gram
Dealing with angry, obsessive, and violent individuals has always been a part of life for public officials and their staff. The internet has only exacerbated this problem by making it easier to both disseminate false information and to send menacing messages. Making matters worse is QAnon — a prominent conspiracy theory which purports that a shadowy cabal of elite, Satan-worshipping liberals is running a global pedophilia ring that only President Donald Trump can stop.
Batshit crazy on its face, QAnon has nonetheless garnered a significant following in recent years, especially in the wake of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. It has gained credence from a wide array from prominent figures, from health and wellness Instagram influencers, to members of Congress, to the president himself, who refuses to disavow it. And now, San Francisco’s State Senator has become its latest obsession.
Though understandably stressed out by the whole ordeal, Stewart has also taken this opportunity to study the flows of false information across the internet. In a tweet thread last week, Stewart laid out some of the surprising things she has discovered. SF Weekly asked her to elaborate.
While hashtags and pizza emojis clearly link some commenters directly to QAnon and its posts on the dark web, most angry commenters and callers appear to be getting their information from mainstream sites. The biggest source is Instagram stories, Stewart says, though Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have also provided people with false information about SB 145. (All of the major social media sites have been painfully slow to take down false and hateful posts, but Twitter has been “less bad,” Stewart says).
“I was surprised by how many of them were young women, and even some young women who identify as LGBTQ.” In fact, the woman who doxxed Senator Wiener (leaking his personal information online) identifies as bisexual.
“She also identifies as a pedophile huntress and an arms dealer,” Stewart adds. “There are lots of people with ‘arms dealer’ in their bio, so I’ve got to assume that they’re not all arms dealers.”
When people comment, message, or call without using profanity or making violent threats, Stewart makes an effort to respond to them with the correct information. A lot of these people are getting their information not only from right wing influencers but also from “mommy bloggers” and Gen Z YouTubers who are parroting false claims about the bill — the most common being that it would legalize sex between an eight and an 18 year old. More often than not, Stewart has been able to demonstrate that the caller or commenter has received misinformation about the bill, using one of the many, many mainstream media reports and fact checks that have been published since these conspiracy theories started going viral.
“Anyone who seems like they would be an appropriate person to engage with, who’s not going to say violent things or act in a really extreme and hateful way, I’ve had really good luck with,” Stewart says. Most of these people are not constituents, and are often from out of state, according to Stewart. And of those who are constituents, she has a perfect track record of convincing them of the bill’s merits.
‘Easy to Find the Truth’
In such a confusing, distributed media ecosystem, it’s hard to know where false information originates, whether on QAnon threads or elsewhere. But one thing the SB 145 saga makes clear is that extremely influential people and organizations are either choosing not to fact-check their statements or are blatantly lying. During his show on Aug. 30, hours after the bill passed the legislature, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “Pedophilia is now legal in California. Now a 21 year old can have sex with an 11 year old, and not be listed on the sex registry as a sex offender.” Both of those claims are demonstrably false, as Politifact pointed out.
“These people know what they’re doing. It’s easy to find the truth,” Stewart says. “They can just look at the USA Today article or any other article. It’s not hard.”
Other mainstream conservative figures, including Charlie Kirk, Donald Trump Jr., and Senator Ted Cruz all tweeted about the bill in remarkably misleading terms. Kirk called it a “pro-pedophile” bill; Cruz wrote, “CA Dems believe we need more adults having sex with children;” and Trump Jr. accused “Joe Biden Democrats” of pandering to “the wishes of pedophiles and child rapists.”
Kirk and at least one vile, anti-Semitic meme-maker also attempted to tie Wiener to Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who has endorsed Wiener in his re-election campaign. It’s a particularly ironic move, since Harris was at her least merciful as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General when it came to child sex abuse.
These public figures are abetted by partisan media outlets like the California Globe, which uncritically publish statements like, “Many lawmakers saw the bill as legalizing pedophilia,” and headlines like, “CA Democrats Author Bill to Protect Sex Offenders Who Lure Minors.” The Right Scoop, whose article Cruz retweeted, contains the quote, “They laughed when we warned the next big left-wing cultural assault would involve normalizing pedophilia. Oh, how they laughed.”
Other posts tie right back to QAnon. In another article, ostensibly about the abuse Wiener received, the Globe refers to QAnon as an “anti-child-sex-trafficking activist group.” In two tweets referencing SB 145, State Senator Shannon Grove used #SaveOurChildren, which is known to be a nod to QAnon.
The name of the game in the post-Alt Right conservative media landscape is reading between the lines; the author conveying a meaning without saying the exact words. Some of the aforementioned articles are almost totally composed of excerpts from other texts, expressing views that might be too extreme for the author or the publication to fully claim. One YouTube monologue with nearly 100,000 views accurately describes the bill in an extremely caustic tone, warning opponents “you don’t have a leg to stand on.” It ends with the words, dripping with sarcasm, “I’m glad. I’m all for equality. I don’t know about you. Maybe some of you guys are bigots or something.”
And then there are the photos: that article from The Right Scoop managed to include a picture of Wiener with a Chanukiah in the background. Other publications ran photos of Wiener in leather at the Folsom Street Fair. “Scott is the face of the degradation of the moral character of America for these people,” Stewart says.
Really makes you wonder if being a gay, Jewish man from San Francisco has anything to do with all of the violent threats Wiener has endured.
“We live in a city where Harvey Milk was assassinated 40 years ago. It’s really scary to be a gay elected official,” Stewart says. “We think [homophobia] is over and everything’s fine, but it’s not.”