Friday, March 25, 2016

The Hillarymen harassment campaign

This is what harassment actually looks like.

In the past few days, Peter Daou and Tom Watson - the founding "Hillary Men", known for their extensive ties with both the Clinton campaign and its media surrogates - have both dramatically escalated their efforts to intimidate and silence Clinton's critics. And the two aren't just keeping it on Twitter - both are openly invoking the threat of offline retaliation.

Daou, on his blog Tuesday, announced that he "plan[s] to pursue defamation action" against critics of his participation in the Lebanese civil war. He does not, in the post, say who has defamed him or what they specifically said that was defamatory - but over the past two months, he has made eleven direct accusations of libel in response to various tweets. I asked an attorney to take a look at them, and she replied with a four word email.

"That's not libelous," she wrote. "LOL"

Most journalists and editors are familiar with this gambit, though Daou may be hoping that his trolls are not. Political publications get harassed by libel threats constantly. It's something bullies and reactionaries do to try to silence speech that they don't like. By loudly announcing that he's lawyering up and using his multi-million dollar platform to endlessly hype (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X) the impression that his targets are engaged in a harassment campaign, Daou is leveraging considerable resources to suppress relatively young and poor critics.

Watson, meanwhile, sent this message yesterday:

Evidently Watson is responding to this joke from a parody account, which Matt Bruenig retweeted shortly before. The implication of "noting" this and referencing the Bruenigs and the publications that they write for is clear: Watson is threatening some kind of employment-related retaliation. The threat is particularly bizarre since it brings in Elizabeth Bruenig as a third-party to the whole affair; but even setting that aside, it should be clear what's going on here. Like Daou, Watson has decided to leverage his own considerable resources - in this case, his professional contacts - in an effort to intimidate relatively young and poor critics with offline consequences. (The Bruenigs aren't their only targets - here's one Clintonite alluding to efforts to get me fired as well, which I've mostly kept to myself.)

A few points:

1. Daou and Watson are both engaged in campaigns that function as harassment because they are backed with the threat of serious offline consequences. This is categorically different from the usual flamewarring and rhetorical sparring that, however rude and unwelcome, doesn't actually involve lawyers and pink slips.

2. Daou and Watson's harassment campaign only works because they have privileges that their targets do not. Daou's nuisance lawsuit tactic only works as a credible threat insofar as he could sink more resources into lawyers than his targets; Watson's threat only works insofar as he (thinks) he has a professional network that's powerful enough to make good on it. 

3. Daou and Watson are not just independent Clinton supporters. Daou was her Digital Media Strategist in 2008, and currently heads one of her dark-money communications arms; Watson has significant personal and professional connections with most of Clinton's major media surrogates. Their proximity to the Clinton campaign, and their tactic of using power and influence to try to silence even mild criticism of her candidacy with actual offline threats, sets some fairly disturbing precedents.

UPDATE: A point that only occurred to me during a later exchange with @MwinterH is that Daou, in his blog post, explicitly places his suit in the context of criticism of Hillary Clinton:

Daou is obviously correct: people are criticizing his participation in the Lebanese Forces as a way of criticizing Clinton. They don't think it reflects well on her that she would associate so closely with a man who they see as complicit in all kinds of atrocities. This is clearly consistent with the broader critique of Clinton as an amoral warhawk with all kinds of shady connections that her opponents have advanced for several decades.

What Daou doesn't seem to get is that this political context only further undermines his defamation case. These are not just ordinary claims - they are claims launched in opposition to a candidate for public office. The highest public office in the United States. And Daou is admitting here that he's well aware of this, simply because he thinks it makes his critics look cynical. He knows that his suit (and threats) would, if successful, silence what his opponents see as a legitimate political attack on Clinton.

Daou's opinions about his own complicity are already intrinsically political, but tying them to a larger debate over candidacy for public office makes this controversy absolutely radioactive. Suffice to say that courts generally try to stay out of the business of censoring debates over things like war and presidential elections. Admitting that he gets what's at stake, moreover, makes this sound awfully like a blatant SLAPP campaign, particularly in light of Daou's employment and employment history. I would honestly be thrilled to help fund legal representation for anyone who gets hit with one of his libel suits, just to see what comes out in discovery.