Dog Twitter Controversies and How Trump Turned Up Casual Racism

The situations with WeRateDogs and Racism Watchdog remind of a simpler time online.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a rally against the Iran nuclear deal on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol September 9, 2015 in Washington, DC. Thousands of people gathered for the rally, organized by the Tea Party Patriots, which featured conservative pundits and politicians.
President Donald Trump. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Monday, the wildly popular Twitter account WeRateDogs found itself at the center of a controversy about, of all things, the accuracy of its reporting.  The account, which has nearly 7 million followers and reposts photos that fans send in of their dogs with cloyingly infantilizing captions, has been altering the names of some of the dogs before sharing them, as a critic pointed out.

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If this all sounds rather inconsequential in the context of [broadly gestures to everything else going on], that’s kind of the point. It’s a racism controversy almost retro in its sensibility.

In the case in question, a dog named Kanan was run through the proprietary shareability-optimizing calculus and came out the other end with a new name: George. When a friend of Kanan’s owner called out the man behind WeRateDogs, Matt Nelson, on it, he dodged the question before blocking her, which only made things worse.

Soon others were dog-piling (not sorry) on Nelson, accusing him of white-washing dog names to make them more appealing.

Nelson denied that white-washing was his intent but admitted he regularly changes dogs’ names because he has found that people respond better to names they are familiar with. Kanan’s owner also clarified that he gave Nelson permission to change the dog’s name.

“George seemed like a good name, and I’ve learned that people really enjoy common ‘old man’ names that contrast a pic of an adorable puppy,” Nelson explained to CNET. “You’re more likely to engage and interact with a post when a dog shares a name with your own or you’ve encountered a dog with that name. Sometimes I change the name because it’s too common.”

This is, despite his protestations to the contrary, a succinct explanation of casual racism at work, centering common, white-sounding names as more relatable to a presumably white audience than a name like Kanan, which has Arabic origins. It’s the type of thing that, as studies have shown, plays a role in hiring practices, where candidates attempt to “whiten” their resumes to be more appealing to employers. Likewise, performers throughout the history of show business have felt compelled to change or de-ethnicize their names.

Depending on how sympathetic you are to the account, and there have been plenty of defenders waving the controversy off as much ado about nothing, this may seem like a woefully overblown instance of social justice warriors looking for something to be angry about. Nelson has certainly had his critics in the past, many of whom have objected to his attempt to monetize other people’s photos through merch and a book.

But this isn’t the first time Nelson has inflamed the anger of the internet for dipping his paws into politics. Last year, seizing on the Donald Trump typo meme, he added a “covfefe af” hat to his merchandise store. Once called out for that, he announced he would donate half of the profits to Planned Parenthood. Once called out for that, this time from the Right, he backtracked again, before ultimately re-tracking (?).

It’s honestly hard to keep up, which is, again, part of what makes this entire saga so intriguing from an internet culture perspective. While WeRateDogs is a supremely popular Twitter account, the parameters of the controversy seem comparatively small. You have to look closely to see what’s problematic about it. It’s not immediately and obviously odious and hateful. 

The affair harkens back to a more innocent time, when we had ire to spare for novelty Twitter accounts and could hector people for simply being desperate for approval or for trying to monetize disposable meme ephemera. We used to be on the lookout for everyday racism at work instead of deluged by a daily torrent of the stuff in its raw, uncut form, as we are now. There was a time, not too long ago, when the grifters in our midst were simply meme-recycling accounts and not blatant race-hustling bigots. This was when congressmen weren’t sharing memes from outright Nazis and suffering no professional consequences, and the president wasn’t comparing the immigrant children he’s housing in cages to vermin. There was a time when—and it’s honestly taking me a minute to remember his name—The Fat Jew was public enemy number one on social media for the crime of joke theft. 

Racism obviously wasn’t invented in the era of Donald Trump, and it shouldn’t need to be in the forefront of every news cycle. Systemic racism is something we should always be on the lookout for, both in others and in ourselves. But I do think it’s fair to say there is something different about the experience for everyone from an online cultural perspective under this administration. Now racism isn’t just the low, humming undercurrent tone of our culture, but the screaming lead, harmonized by millions of people regurgitating the xenophobic and cruel hatred of Trump and his agents of white nationalist propaganda in chorus, and doing so without even the duplicitous courtesy of making it less explicit.

Sniffing out less obvious forms of racism was the original intent of another novelty dog-related account, Racism WatchDog, which points out the dog whistle-style racism that doesn’t necessarily announce itself as such. “We trained our dog to sniff out racism and bark when he finds it,” reads the account’s bio. For over a year, things progressed mostly as planned, until two weeks ago, when the two people behind the account launched a Patreon. “Hahahaha holy shit I can’t believe @RacismDog set up a Patreon so people can pay them to type ‘woof’ on Twitter,” wrote one critic. “Of course RacismDog would start a Patreon,” wrote another. “It’s always about money.”

A few days later, apparently caving to a flood of right-wing trolls who were tagging them in instances of so-called “reverse racism,” Racism WatchDog shared a story about a black woman in Maryland who attacked two white women on a bus and allegedly said, “I hate white people.”

Setting aside the obvious fact that reverse racism does not exist (racism is a systemic problem that necessitates imbalanced power structures), the misstep was evidence to many that the people behind the account, who have said they are people of color themselves, didn’t understand the very idea — racism — that their cute doggie account was set up to push back against.

Feeling inundated with trolls, the account announced it was taking a few days off. “Running the account is an emotional labor that we’re not cut out to do every day. #selfcare is important,” they wrote, on Juneteenth no less.

This tweet was so thoroughly mocked it has since been deleted, with many pointing out the absurdity of equating emotional labor with typing dog noises above someone else’s tweet. Further compounding the problem is how emotional labor is often aligned with race—and with women of color in particular. In white institutional spaces, people of color tend to shoulder an unequal burden of emotional labor, not only from navigating exclusionary, discriminatory capital-R racism, but also micro-aggressions that the dominant culture doesn’t even recognize.   

The account owners have since taken down the Patreon and installed a button to donate to the Southern Poverty Law Center on their website with text that reads “send a treat.”

Speaking of, headlines on the SPLC’s site today should shake you to your core: Children Will Still Be Criminalized; Inhumane Conditions at Detention Centers; SPLC Statement on President Trump’s Call for Suspension of Due Process for Immigrants. The situations with the two dog accounts may be a reminder of a different climate online, but perhaps it’s better that we’ve been deprived of the opportunity to traffic in the frivolous.

Some of us, myself included, may not have always done a good enough job of maintaining our outrage when institutional racism was easier to tune out. Things have always been bad, but as nearly every day of the past two years has shown us, they can always get worse. It shouldn’t take a hacky dog joke account to remind us of that.

Dog Twitter Controversies and How Trump Turned Up Casual Racism