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Solidarity with Alexander Cohen - 8/25/18
Some folks who read this blog will probably be familiar with Alexander Cohen - or rather, with DudeSlater, which was his handle on Twitter until about a month ago. Cohen maintained an utterly ordinary presence online: he had about a thousand followers and an even smaller circle of friends who he chatted with regularly. Like most people online, he joked in the currency of memes and references that are instantly recognizable within his little microculture (weird left Twitter), and that are utterly incomprehensible outside of it.

I'm writing this in the past tense because late last month, Cohen was arrested and his Twitter account was suspended. Most of us just found this out yesterday when an article about it surfaced online. Since Cohen is neither a journalist, a politician, nor a prominent public figure, I doubt that the media will bother to clarify what's happened to him; so here, I just want to lay out a few basic facts.


Cohen's suspension and arrest are the result of a by-the-numbers outrage campaign by the radical right. Within a matter of days, it made its way from Twitter and /r/The_Donald to signal boosts from Dana Loesch, Sarah Palin, Joe WalshTwitchy, and so on. Immediately, of course, their audience coordinated a massive retaliation campaign, which quickly escalated from mass Twitter reporting to tagging in cops and federal agencies to more aggressive measures. "Don't just tag. CALL!" one user tweeted. Another gloated on Reddit, "I called his work....he might be fired! Lmao". Others, of course, began to suggest more direct action:
If you have your concealed carry permit, and see this man walking towards you, you absolutely may use deadly force. Whether it's a bat, a knife, or any threat of physical harm, you are LEGALLY allowed and encouraged to "stand your ground" and fire.

So what was Cohen's crime? Two jokes:
1. First, Cohen tweeted out what appeared to be a selfie of a man holding a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. This, among Cohen's friends, was an instantly recognizable picture of another Twitter user, who submitted the picture for The Talking Dead's Ultimate Fan Search contest (the barbed wire bat plays a prominent role on the show.) Thus, while he captioned the photo by remarking that he was going "to greet the nice conservative teenagers," the joke was tweeted with the understanding that its audience would not interpret it as an actual threat. 
2. Second, Cohen tweeted out lyrics from Chief Keef's Faneto: "I'm ridin' through New York...Finna go and shoot New Jersey up...We gon' come and blow New Jersey up." Again, these lyrics would be instantly recognizable to Cohen's friends, as well as millions of fans (the track has 19 million views on YouTube alone). Thus, though Cohen swapped "New York" and "New Jersey" with "D.C." and "GWU", the joke was tweeted with the understanding that his audience would understand it as a reference to rap lyrics - not an actual threat.
In both tweets, the same dynamic is at work: guy tells a joke that depends entirely on the shared cultural references of his intended audience, and people outside of that audience misrepresent it by insisting that those references don't exist.


As Libby Watson noted in Splinter last month, there is a clear "proliferation of campaigns to get people fired because of ideological disagreements but ostensibly on the basis of tweets." Here, of course, we aren't talking about a New York Times columnist, and the outcome is far more draconian - but that's precisely why I think the case of Alexander Cohen deserves our attention. He's not a politician, or a celebrity, or an academic, or even a journalist; he doesn't have a big platform or any kind of formal political power. He's just some guy most of us knew as "DudeSlater", and now he's in jail.


UPDATE: I've learned that Cohen has been released on bail.