US Election 2016

US election: Racist trolling for reporting on Trump

Donald Trump Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Donald Trump addresses the crowd in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

While covering a Donald Trump rally, BBC reporter Rajini Vaidyanathan received a barrage of online abuse, some of it racist. Here she explains what happened, and how it sheds light on an ugly side to the US presidential race.

From the frozen cornfields of Iowa to the sultry summer streets of Cleveland for the Republican National convention in Ohio, I've taken the temperature of Donald Trump supporters.

Around kitchen tables in Alabama, at bars in Texas, and over coffee in Michigan, I've listened as they've told me why they're voting for the billionaire businessman.

Each and every supporter I've met has been nothing less than warm and friendly, and my coverage has always been fair, which is why I wasn't prepared for what happened at a recent rally in Fort Lauderdale.

As is part of my job, I was live tweeting from the event, over the course of the evening. I'd spoken to several supporters to find out why they loved their candidate, and was sharing a flavour of the rally through a range of pictures.

As I sat in the press pen, I took some photos of the arena. The seats were filling up, but some sections by me were empty. I took four pictures and posted them on Twitter. I thought nothing of it. I do this sort of live coverage of events all the time.

But then, my Twitter account starting going crazy.

At first I thought the notifications were because I'd mistyped the name of the place as "Sunshine", instead of "Sunrise". I quickly wrote a tweet clarifying this.

But the sudden interest had nothing to do with a geographical typo.

A local talk show host had shared my tweet, insinuating I'd doctored the images.

I'd done nothing of the sort, but that didn't stop the torrent of abuse which followed.

"This is obviously an attempt to undermine Trump."

"Go back to sleep filthy journalist," read one of the messages.

I was accused of being a Hillary Clinton propagandist, of posting from my "ugly ass" and of being a "servant" of the mainstream media.

One person even suggested I should be arrested and tried for treason.

I carried on with my job, sharing photos and video of the speakers and supporters.

But the talk show host, and others continued to bait me online, accusing me of lying, which of course I was not.

Earlier in the night, my colleague had posted a video, also pointing out that 40 minutes from the start of the rally, the arena was "far from full", yet he was not subjected to the same vitriol.

"Propaganda whore." "Bitch." The insults kept flying.

It felt like a virtual mob was hurling toward me. The language was rude, some of it was sexist, and in one case racist.

"Go back to India," wrote a user who had Nazi imagery on his timeline. "Leave this country now," he continued, as he described me as "disgusting and degenerate".

That account has now been suspended.

A female Trump supporter contacted me online to say how horrified she was by the white supremacist insults. She and a few others wanted to make clear that this wasn't the sort of language they, or their candidate, would condone.

Yet, anger towards journalists comes from the top. At the same Florida rally, Mr Trump himself, proclaimed the media was "crooked as hell". As he did, the audience chanted "Lock them up".

It felt uncomfortable as we stood in the small press pen surrounded by a hostile, baying crowd.

More from the BBC

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption Trump re-tweeted cartoon of himself as the internet meme Pepe the frog, with the caption "Can't stump the Trump"

Trump's shock troops: Who are the 'alt-right'?

As a disparate, mostly online phenomenon that lacks a cohesive structure or any sort of central organisation, it's tough to pin down. But observers of the movement - both critics and supporters - agree on a few things.

The alt-right is against political correctness and feminism. It's nationalist, tribalist and anti-establishment. Its followers are fond of internet pranks and using provocative, often grossly offensive messages to goad their enemies on both the right and the left. And many of them are huge supporters of Donald Trump.

This sentiment has grown as the campaign has progressed. Supporters I've met in recent weeks have told me they are unhappy with a narrative they believe paints their candidate in an unfairly negative light.

For some, it's become a licence to bully and harass. At a recent rally, writer Jared Yates Sexton tweeted how Trump supporters there had talked about beating up reporters.

"Guy just said he thought Trump would lock up dishonest press after election," he wrote "'You got to do something' his friend says."

Earlier this year Julia Ioffe, a reporter with GQ magazine who wrote an article about Melania Trump, received online abuse, including death threats.

The tone of the abuse was anti-Semitic. Some of the tweets directed at her included superimposed images of her at a concentration camp, with the title "CampTrump".

At the time, Mr Trump was asked on CNN to condemn the threats. He refused to, saying he hadn't read the piece.

"I heard the article was nasty," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "I don't have a message to the fans. A woman wrote an article that's inaccurate."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Katy Tur wrote about the online abuse - and specific call outs by Donald Trump - she's received since she started covering his campaign

At a rally in December, Mr Trump described NBC's Katy Tur as a "third-rate journalist." He didn't hold back, as over a number of days, he called her a liar, and said her tweets were "disgraceful".

The response from his supporters online was more alarming for Tur, who at one point needed Secret Service protection.

Some of the tweets she received incited violence: "MAYBE A FEW JOURNALISTS DO NEED TO BE WHACKED," said one.


Mr Trump's distrust of the media has seen publications, including the Washington Post, banned from covering his events. His ire is somewhat ironic, given the oxygen of publicity he gets from all the airtime.

That strength of feeling towards the mainstream media, isn't unique to those who back Trump. Earlier this year, supporters of Bernie Sanders were accused of threatening behaviour on social media, after media outlets said Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic primary.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Supporters of Bernie Sanders were also accused of online harrassment

The strangest thing about my experience at the Trump rally was that a tweet I posted, showing crowds going wild as Donald Trump arrived on stage, was shared by nearly 700 people, and liked by more than 800.

Many of his supporters used it as a positive example of how the media should be covering Mr Trump.

One Twitter user even accused me of being pro-Trump. For the record, I'm neither pro or anti.

As journalists it's our job to look at all candidates with a critical eye, and evaluate their policies and statements for the benefit of our readers. Supporters who are loyal to a candidate might not always like what they see, but that should never give anyone a licence to use nasty or vicious language

I'll continue to be fair in my reporting of all candidates - and hope I don't encounter abuse or racism like that again.