A novelist and literary agent has lost her job after an anonymous tip-off on Twitter. Her crime? Having an active account on a social network favoured by conservatives and extremists loyal to Donald Trump.
Colleen Oefelein has quite a resume. According to her website, the Alaska – based retiree from the US Air Force has a degree in chemical engineering as well as in German – she even teaches Goethe’s language. She also runs an Irish dance school, but her real area of expertise is literature. As author under the pen name CM McCoy, she is responsible for the teen fantasy novel Eerie, which came out at the end of 2015. But Oefelein mainly works – or rather “worked” – as a literary agent for other novelists for the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, a New York-based company that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
On Monday 25 January, this part of Collen Oefelein’s career, which one imagines to be more lucrative than her royalties, came to a sudden halt. “Well thanks Twitter and @JDLitAgency. I just got fired because I’m a Christian and a conservative”, she announced on Twitter. Her message confirmed a series of tweets from her ex-boss, Jennifer de Chiara, whose profile has now gone private after online outcry against her decision.
De Chiara wrote earlier:
“The Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency was distressed to discover this morning that one of our agents has been using the social media platforms Gab and Parler. We do not condone this activity, and we apologize to anyone who has been offended by this. The Agency has in the past and will continue to ensure a voice of unity, equality, and one that is on the side of social justice. As of this morning, Colleen Oefelein is no longer an agent of the Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency”.
It is therefore not for having written, pronounced or relayed possibly “problematic” remarks that Oefelein lost her job, but only because she had an active account on the Parler platform. This was until recently the case for 15 million other people (including the Reuters journalist to whom we owe the report below) according to the company cited by the Wall Street Journal, at least before the service was rendered inactive: since January 10, Amazon has broken its hosting contract with the social network “highly prized by conservatives, radicals and the extreme right in the United States for its lack of moderation” says Numerama.
The platform, which has had a sulphurous reputation since its creation in 2018, had been accused of having allowed the coordination of violent demonstrators who stormed the Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021. It has since been known that, according to the FBI, far-right militias have used Facebook Messenger to organise their actions within the official building (which obviously did not lead to action against Facebook 👀). Parler’s sinister reputation and its alleged involvement in the dramatic events on Capitol Hill (4 demonstrators and a police officer lost their lives there) shed light on the sensitive context surrounding the use of this platform, which was quick to lead to accusations by capillarity.
An anonymous account that “whispers”
But back to the case of Colleen Oefelein. The agent – now unemployed – owes her sad fate to an anonymous denunciation from an informant Twitter account called YAWhispers (YA being the acronym of “young adult”, a generic name for teenage literature such as The Hunger Games or Twilight).
This account created in September 2020 has less than 3000 subscribers. Shortly after its launch, it explained its objectives as follows: “My aim is to make info accessible that we can’t always tweet openly about for fear of being blacklisted in the [book] industry. My DMs are open for questions about agents, or information about publishing and agents in general. I’ll name-drop agents or editors known for bad behaviour. I don’t plan to name drop writers unless it’s someone who has been doing something really serious (harassing or abusing others)”.
In this case, as American author Thomas Chatterton Williams recalls, it all started with YAWhispers tweet posted on January 25. The account relayed a tweet with an indisputably professional form from Colleen Oefelein dated November 12, 2020 – well before the events on Capitol Hill – which said: “I’m now also posting on Parler. It’s a great platform with no censorship ! Giving away a few critiques there next week. Come find me! #WritingCommunity #Writer #AskAgent”.
Unearthing this innocuous statement more than two months later and in a different context, the self-proclaimed masked vigilante questions the company employing the agent, and asks:
“Does the @JDLitAgency know or care that one of their agents frequents alt-right social media like Parler and Gab?”
The reference to Gab, a social network created in 2016, with 3 million users and a reputation just as controversial as Parler’s, seems to come from a tweet by Colleen Oefelein on January 13 explaining in particular that her possible future departure from Twitter could be related to technical reasons:
This single denouncing tweet from the YAWhispers account, without a single screenshot of potentially contentious comments and not very diffused, led to the prompt reaction of Jennifer de Chiara who hastened to respond to the account: “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have taken swift action, and as of this morning, Colleen Oefelein is no longer an agent at this agency ”.
Extremist platforms or self-fulfilling prophecy?
Beyond the Oefelein case, this decision – which has no claim to be legal in spite of the “peculiar” American labour laws – illustrates the growing polarity in the U.S, which the election of Joe Biden has anything but settled. It can also be seen as the embodiment of what some denounce as the demonisation of the online platforms favoured by Conservatives (not all of which can decently be described as flippant schemers, racists, anti-Semites or seditists).
On January 17 The Guardian published an article entitled Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler. In this case too, no contentious issues were raised concerning the personalities cited: only the existence of their accounts on the said platform was pointed out. And not necessarily in a justified manner, since a footnote at the bottom of the article attests to an embarrassing error corrected by an update: the Member of Parliament Maria Caulfield, denounced as being active on Parler, did not in fact have an account, it was a fake created by a usurper 👹
The left-wing daily’s article had irritated British comedian Andrew Doyle, who had written a plea for freedom of expression to be published in February:
“The Guardian is now attempting to shame anyone who joined Parler. (…).First they smear any alternative platform as far right (usually based on selective examples which could be found on literally any platform)”.
“Note the emphasis here on Katie Hopkins [British xenophobic conservative, editor’s note], as though sharing a platform with her automatically means an endorsement of her views. The smears began as soon as Parler became popular. The tactic is identical whenever a credible rival to Twitter emerges. As a result, moderate voices do not join new platforms and the “far right” accusation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Doyle, whose Titania McGrath account (parodying “woke” activists) has been regularly restricted by Twitter, concludes :
“These burdened items are not to be taken seriously. They are based on guilt by association, ad hominem attacks, and uncharitable speculation about each other’s secret motives. When it comes to questioning the hegemony of the tech giants, sensible people should reject such childish tactics”.
Clearly, Doyle’s thread had eluded Jennifer de Chiara, with the result we know for Colleen Oefelein.
Progressives are not spared
While the public dismissal under pressure from a single anonymous person makes the Oefelein case rather out of the ordinary, it remains the umpteenth example of a company’s hasty sanctions against its employees after bad online buzz. And it would be wrong to think that only people known for being right-wing (or even far-right) of the political spectrum are concerned, as shown by the recent cases of journalist Lauren Wolfe, a former freelance who was ousted from the New York Times for a harmless tweet during the inauguration of Joe Biden, or Will Wilkinson, a progressive who was fired from the think tank of which he was vice-president after an ironic tweet about the lynching of former vice-president Mike Pence.
Before becoming its targets, Lauren Wolfe and Will Wilkinson had in the past joked about the notion of “cancel culture”, reduced to the rank of baseless moral panic. Fired from their respective jobs a few days apart last week, they have both since launched their subscription-based newsletter.