Foy had less than 100 followers on Twitter, and made the joke because she was sympathetic to the whole Black Lives Matter movement and felt it was unfair how everyone in Texas goes into morning over the death of a cop while ignoring the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement.
The reaction to Foy's joke was swift and brutal. The website Breitbart, named after Andrew Briebart who never struck me as a particular nice person, declared Holy War and basically tried to turn Foy into the most hated person in America. Read the New York article linked above if you want to know about the details, but the reality is that death and rape threats are pretty common for women who cross what Jill Filipovic calls simply "The Right-Wing Hate Machine."
Anyway Foy got both barrels when it came to online harassment, and Jeet Heer asked the interesting question of why so many people pile into these things. I think it part of it is what you might call "Trumpism", that is the phenomena of many white heterosexual men being unable to deal with a changing society that is reducing their once sacrosanct privileges. This has been going on for a while, but it's important to point out that we really are living in a period in American history where gay marriage has been legalized and a black man is president.
A significant number of Americans really don't like these trends.
But let me suggest an alternative motive for people who join in on the whole right wing Twitter hate machine phenomenon. That is the need for people in an increasingly atomized and individualized world to find meaning and purpose. Social scientists have pointed out for a while now that many of the old social organizations and groups that people belonged to to find social structure in their lives are in decline. And so many Americans, especially white heterosexual men who where once the mainstay of bowling leagues, now find themselves in a world that no longer gives them the meaning and purpose of running society or defeating communism. Indeed it's not even clear if they are suppose to run their families, or even form families.
Hannah Arendt saw a familiar phenomenon when it came to the life and crimes of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust. Arednt was writing about totalitarian societies and genocide but some of the phenomena she documents are helpful when it comes to understanding what's going on.
Heer was baffled by the appeal of, "The pleasure a minion gets from service -- they joy of executing someone else's plan -- that's hard for me to fathom." And as he put it that way it is kind of baffling, who wants to be some sort of evil automaton? But as Arendt pointed out there is a certain joy, a sort of fulfillment in shrugging off your individuality and losing yourself in some great project far bigger than yourself. The Nazi rallies at Nuremberg where a classic example of this. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people would shrug off the individuality and lose themselves in the sea of their volk, their nation, their "Cathedral of Light."
Which brings me to Arendt's points on Eichmann. To be sure smearing some college student (or even issuing threats of rape or death as Foy received) for making inappropriate jokes on Twitter is astronomically less worse than the crime of actual genocide. But many of the political themes of Arendt seem to run through these disparate topics. As Roger Berkowitz put it when it came to Arendt's view of Eichmann:
In his own words, Eichmann feared “to live a leaderless and difficult individual life,” in which “I would receive no directives from anybody.” Arendt insisted that Eichmann’s professed fidelity to the Nazi cause “did not mean merely to stress the extent to which he was under orders, and ready to obey them; he meant to show what an ‘idealist’ he had always been.” An “idealist,” as she used the word, is an ideologue, someone who will sacrifice his own moral convictions when they come in conflict with the “idea” of the movement that gives life meaning. Evil was transformed from a Satanic temptation into a test of self-sacrifice, and Eichmann justified the evil he knowingly committed as a heroic burden demanded by his idealism.Thus the Twitter harassers who constantly threaten liberals and feminists with rape and death may very well see themselves are heroes. They do things they don't like to do in order to fulfill a higher mission and be able to be part of an online community, that while horrible, at least welcomes and values them.
You can see a similar phenomenon in interviews with people about why they join gangs. Gangs can be a family and purpose for people who have no other.
Rituals of mass hate might be morally wrong, but their not necessarily unpleasant for the participants: it's a lot of fun to throw Guy Fawkes on the bonfire. Thus these sorts of hate campaigns can be seen as a way of finding mean and purpose in a world that won't let you be in charge of everything anymore. This of course doesn't make it right or acceptable, but like Arendt's points about why millions of ordinary people supported things like Nazism, it at least makes it understandable.