Kamala Harris Has A Vibrant Online Fan Club. But It Also Has A Toxic Side.

Johnny Nguyen 08:55

The KHive aims to amplify and support the Democratic vice presidential nominee, but some of its members have crossed the line from ardent fandom to overt harassment.

Luverta Jeffrey’s son used to be on Twitter all the time. The 19-year-old was a big Kamala Harris supporter and loved discussing the then-presidential candidate online last year with fellow fans. But, after some research, he decided Harris was no longer his candidate. 

We don’t need you fags anyway,” a tweet popped up on his phone from someone identifying themselves as a member of Harris’ digital army of fans, dubbed the KHive. The loosely organized fan group is an online community of ardent Harris supporters who backed the Democratic senator from California first during her presidential run and now as Joe Biden’s pick for vice president. 

Jeffrey came to her son’s defense, thinking that she was up against a few online trolls ― nothing she hasn’t seen on Twitter herself. But things quickly got ugly. 

Self-identified members of the KHive started replying to and retweeting Jeffrey’s tweets about her son, Jeffrey said, which led to her getting swarmed — when anywhere from several to dozens of accounts start tweeting at or retweeting one person at the same time.

They used her past tweets about being a victim of sexual assault and domestic abuse to harass her. Multiple people also told her she should try to kill herself, citing prior tweets in which she discussed having suicidal thoughts.

“They spent time retweeting my posts and calling me a white supremacist, a coon and all sorts of derogatory names, fueling others who began to DM me telling me I was a sell out because I was Black and I should’ve killed myself when I had the chance,” Jeffrey said. “I was mocked and harassed for being a sexual assault survivor, a domestic abuse survivor, and was told by the KHive that it was good for me and they hope it happens again, since I don’t support Harris.” 

Members of the KHive, which one member estimated is made up of 50,000 to 60,000 Twitter accounts, see themselves as defenders and boosters of Harris, particularly as she faces an onslaught of racist and misogynistic harassment as the first Black and first Asian American woman to be nominated for vice president by either major party. Harris and her allies have shouted out the group multiple times. 

It’s not surprising Harris has such a devoted group of supporters and defenders, given the historical significance of her candidacy. And the inevitable vitriol faced by women, particularly women of color, in politics helps to explain why some supporters are passionate in their defense of her reputation online. But, according to nearly a dozen people who spoke with HuffPost, some members of the KHive have crossed the line from ardent fandom to overt harassment and threatening language. 

Nearly a dozen people said accounts identified as part of the KHive often kicked off or instigated harassment campaigns against them for originally backing Democratic candidates other than Harris. Often, after the harassment began, self-identified KHive members and other accounts swarmed them on Twitter.

The harassment included slurs about people’s ethnicity, including calling Black people “house slaves” for backing other Democrats. One Elizabeth Warren supporter, who identifies as gay, said he was told that all “Warren gays should be chemically castrated,” after he was the target of a harassment campaign kicked off by a KHive member. A recent high school graduate who supported Bernie Sanders said a volunteer organizer for Harris’s presidential campaign tweeted that he “hoped I would be raped in a gas chamber by MAGA nazis” (the teen is Jewish). The Harris supporter deleted the tweet minutes after posting it, according to the teen.

Multiple people said their personal information was published online, forcing some to move their families to a different location temporarily for fear they were in physical danger. Two women said KHive members made veiled threats toward their children. One of the women said she received a call from child protective services about her 17-month-old child after an incident with the KHive.

This behavior is not reflective of Harris as a candidate or Harris supporters as a whole. No politician or celebrity is responsible for every tweet by a supporter, nor is every member of an online movement responsible for its most aggressive element. 

And it can be difficult to cleanly sum up the behavior of loosely organized political fan groups that form, often online, around our most popular political candidates, like the Yang Gang or the Bernie Bros. 

A former aide on the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, who experienced the fallout from the sometimes harmful behavior of the Bernie Bros, said he believes the toxicity in political fan groups is a reflection of the nature of online fandom, not the politician or celebrity themselves.

“Between 2016 and 2020 we’ve seen this happening on the internet much more. Politics is only one sphere of where this [online fan culture] happens,” said the former aide. “You see it with celebrities who have stans who can be extremely hostile, like [fans of] Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift.” 

But Harris could be one of the most powerful politicians in the country come January, and her rise has in part been shaped by her online image.

“Obviously, politicians cannot be held accountable for an individual’s behavior, but they can certainly influence it and make it clear that they denounce that sort of behavior,” said one Warren Democrat who asked to remain anonymous since they have received death threats from KHive members.

In response to a HuffPost inquiry about this article, Sabrina Singh, press secretary for Harris, said: “The campaign does not condone doxxing, derogatory language or harassment of any kind.” 

Harassment Moves Offline

Some of the KHive’s highest-profile members have said the group is close-knit and has led to lasting friendships, often between Black women and other people of color who are excited to see a Black and Asian American woman have a chance at the office.

“I’ve seen a lot of situations where people who are KHive were going through difficult things ― medically, financially, emotionally, whatever the case might be ― and a lot of us will rally around them and support them,” said Chris Evans, a KHive member with over 55,000 followers on Twitter.  

Julie Zebrak, KHive member and co-founder of Joe Mamas 2020 and Mamas4Kamala, said there’s “a lot of love on a personal level” for Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff. “The KHive has been there both to support her, to support each other in our support for her, and to connect with each other,” she said. 

Reecie Colbert, another member of the KHive with a large profile, added that the KHive’s mission to defend Harris was born in response to the intense scrutiny she’s faced.

Harris had one of her strongest moments during the last round of the Democratic debates in late June when she criticized Biden for his record on busing. Although she was widely applauded for her standout moment, Harris immediately received an onslaught of attacks on Twitter, including that she was a fraud and sellout, as well as racist birther accusations that she was not authentically American or Black.

“It’s really important that the KHive is out there fighting for Kamala,” said Colbert. “That’s something I think people are very unaccustomed to, particularly when it comes to a Black woman.”

The KHive has made its mission clear: amplifying and celebrating Harris while defending her against the onslaught of harassment and misinformation she faces online. But, as with most loosely-organized online groups, it does not have a unified set of tactics, and bad actors are hard or impossible to control. 

While many self-identified KHive accounts tweet praise of Harris and criticism of her detractors, some veer into abusive and threatening language. Some of the online harassment reviewed by HuffPost appears to be from smaller Twitter accounts that self-identify as part of the KHive. In other cases, it came from accounts that did not identify themselves as KHive members in their profiles. 

One alleged bad actor, in particular, stands out. Bianca Delarosa, who has a large following and multiple Twitter accounts, claims to be the founder of the KHive. Nearly all of the people HuffPost spoke with said much of the harassment they experienced started with Delarosa. 

“She definitely encouraged the harassment,” one former Warren Democrat said of Delarosa. “She was constantly trying to bait Warren Dems into interacting with her by tweeting about us from various accounts with our Twitter information so that her followers and fellow KHive members would tweet and message us.”

The KHive has made its mission clear: amplifying and celebrating Harris, while defending her against the onslaught of harassment and misinformation she faces online. But, as with most loosely-organized online groups, it does not have a unified set of tactics, and bad actors are hard or impossible to control.

Evans and Colbert both disputed Delarosa’s recent claim that she’s “the only one who speaks for KHive.”

“She absolutely is not the only person who speaks for the KHive because there is no spokesperson,” Colbert said. “She has a faction of fans who consider her their leader, but a vast majority of KHive is simply people who support Kamala.” 

“No one person speaks for the KHive ― including myself. Regardless of what they might claim,” Evans added.

Delarosa has amplified harassment against almost all of the people HuffPost spoke with. She has also encouraged harassment, they said, and called non-Harris supporters “Nazis,” “leader of the Lynch mob,” and “Stephen from Django” (Samuel L. Jackson’s character in “Django Unchained”).  

Delarosa denied accusations of doxxing and harassment in a comment to HuffPost. “I admit to being a deliberate pain in the ass, but nothing I ever did went beyond basic overzealous championing, and perhaps a bit of ridicule,” she said. (Delarosa tweeted after receiving the request for comment that she was being targeted by an “anti-Bianca smear campaign.”)

Alex Lawson, a Warren supporter who says she was harassed and later doxxed by KHive members, told HuffPost that Delarosa instigated much of the harassment she experienced. After Lawson reported one of Delarosa’s tweets in which Delarosa claimed she was going to write a blog post on “Warrenites that will explain how what they’re saying is white supremacy,” multiple accounts lifted and doctored Lawson’s profile image.

The doctored photos showed Lawson wearing a fake Ku Klux Klan hood, with big letters spelling “white supremacist” and “KKKunt” across the images. Lawson said Delarosa retweeted the image, which was created by another KHive member. 

Delarosa confirmed it was a friend of hers who photoshopped the image of Lawson and wrote “white supremacist” on it. Delarosa also said she immediately blocked Lawson after the initial “Warrenites” tweet. Lawson said that Delarosa did not block her until August. 

Multiple accounts lifted and photoshopped Lawson's profile image to show her wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood with the words "KKKu
Multiple accounts lifted and photoshopped Lawson's profile image to show her wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood with the words "KKKunt" and "white supremacist."

Lawson filed a copyright removal report to Twitter to get the photoshopped images taken down. But the Twitter account that originally doctored Lawson’s profile image released all of her personal information included in the copyright removal report.  

Delarosa also shared Lawson’s full name, which was not available on Twitter. Other Twitter users tweeted out the name of Lawson’s employer and her work address. A fake Twitter account was created in Lawson’s name, she was signed up for dating websites, and people continued to label her a Nazi and white supremacist. 

In response, Lawson hired an attorney who sent a cease-and-desist letter to Delarosa. Delarosa made the cease-and-desist letter public, which Lawson said only continued the harassment campaign against her.  

Someone contacted Lawson’s ex-husband at his place of employment and said Lawson “does not seem stable at all,” so he should check on their 11-year-old daughter. A few self-identified KHive members made veiled threats toward Lawson’s daughter, tweeting: “Take care of your daughter, Alexis.” 

Lawson bought a security system and moved her daughter out of her house as a safety precaution. “I was scrambling because I thought some crazy person was going to think I’m a white supremacist and come kill me and my daughter,” said Lawson, who added that she’s still experiencing harassment. 

Any online stan group is going to ― at its most extreme end ― have some people who are bad actors. I’m sure the KHive is not immune to that. Chris Evans, KHive member with large Twitter following

“Considering Bianca had a high visibility account I would say her promoting tweets like the one showing Alex with a KKK hood on or with the words ‘white supremacist’ across her photo was the very reason the harassment campaign against Alex was started,” said another Warren supporter, who asked to be anonymous for fear of further harassment.   

Delarosa denied doxxing Lawson. “Twitter rules, in fact, do NOT consider it doxxing to say someone’s NAME; this also applies to their profession, where they work, or any publicly available [information],” Delarosa wrote in an email. (Twitter rules state that “You may not publish or post other people’s private information without their express authorization and permission,” but that it may not treat information as private if an individual has shared it elsewhere online.)

Erica, a Navy veteran who originally supported Sanders, said she had under 1,000 Twitter followers when the KHive swarmed one of her tweets that was critical of Harris (she asked to withhold her last name to prevent further harassment).

Erica said she was added to multiple Twitter lists by KHive members, including Delarosa, which is how she suspects some KHive members target and harass non-Harris supporters. She said nearly a dozen accounts, including KHive members and non-Hive members, swarmed her, retweeting not just her tweet about Harris but all of her past tweets. 

Over the course of a few days, people tweeted out photos of Erica and her son (which she believes they took from her Facebook page before she made it private). Her naval command at the time received at least 15 calls trying to get her fired, and multiple accounts tweeted out her old address. 

Eventually, someone filed a false report with child protective services alleging that Erica was abusing her 17-month-old son. She suspects someone used her past social media posts about her struggles with PTSD to file the false report. Erica believes the report was from someone in the KHive because she saw tweets alluding to the incident from someone who had participated in the harassment.

“I was legitimately afraid, mainly for my son. Going after our children is a new low,” she said. “I was always terrified that someone was going to show up to my house or my command.” 

Albert Molina, a Warren supporter, told HuffPost that the KHive repeatedly said he was white and accused him of being a white supremacist, even though he identifies as Hispanic. In other instances, some KHive members have attempted to counter people of color who back other Democrats by accusing them of using “digital blackface” to fake that they are Black.

“They ignore all people of color by blocking them, and then just attack the white people,” Molina said. “It was working really well for them, actually, because it was silencing a lot of people, especially white supporters because what are they gonna say?”

Delarosa tweeted an image of a raccoon with the caption: “What’s the Latin version of this? Cause it’s y&rs
Delarosa tweeted an image of a raccoon with the caption: “What’s the Latin version of this? Cause it’s y’all.” "Coon," when used by white people, is a derogatory term for Black people; when used by other people of color, it's often defined as a Black person who is ignorant of white supremacy.

Several people who spoke with HuffPost said that Delarosa uses multiple accounts to harass non-Harris supporters, and has been suspended from Twitter multiple times. Two of Delarosa’s main accounts were suspended at least once during the reporting of this article. (Twitter told HuffPost the company could not comment on personal account information.) 

This week, Delarosa tweeted that she’s “holding online virtual campaign rallies” on one of her Twitter accounts with the profile name “Official KHive for Biden-Harris.”

“I need to use this account for business after today,” she tweeted. “So, I’ll probably be deleting everything and starting fresh.” The rallies do not appear to be sanctioned by the campaign.

In a follow-up email, Delarosa said much of the harassment came from others who are no longer part of the KHive. “As a Black woman, I have tended to be blamed for anything anyone does who was KHive,” Delarosa said.

‘A Fraction Of Her Support’

Colbert, Evans and Zebrak cautioned that the behavior of a few KHive members is not representative of the entire fan group. All three KHive members denied accusations that the stan group would dox non-Harris supporters.

“I know that there’s this narrative that particularly people who support Bernie, and some Warren supporters as well, have tried to put out there that the KHive is toxic,” Evans said, adding that he himself has witnessed very little toxic behavior. “Any online stan group is going to ― at its most extreme end ― have some people who are bad actors. I’m sure the KHive is not immune to that.”

Colbert added that anyone doxxing and harassing people in the name of KHive is not doing so in the spirit most KHive members abide by. “Anything that’s not focused on supporting Kamala is not KHive even if that person considers themselves KHive,” she said.

The former 2020 Sanders campaign aide also cautioned not to paint a picture of Harris’ online fans with such a broad stroke. Similar to Sanders’ supporters, the people doing this type of online harassment are most likely “a fraction of her support,” the aide said.

It’s also important to remember who Biden and Harris are up against, he cautioned: “[Trump] has the most hostile online supporters of any politician ever,” he added. “Their leader and their media leaders continue to egg them on.”

Asked what he would tell these toxic fans ― whether of Sanders or Harris ― if he had the chance, the former Sanders campaign aide responded: “On a personal level, I’m as passionate about this stuff as they are but this is not the way to build power for us. This is not the way to win.”

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