Maybe you’ve already seen the tweet. It’s the one in which I attempted to critique former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s failed presidential campaign with some embarrassingly bad math. It’s the one that somehow made it onto network television without a basic fact check (but more on that in a bit). It’s the one I composed—as I have thousands of times before—late at night and shared with my modest 1,944 followers. Maybe it would get a dozen likes and retweets.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way.
Viral fame found me as it typically finds everyone it anoints: suddenly and without warning. I was picking up lunch with two colleagues last Wednesday when I began to get a flurry of Instagram notifications. My tweet from the night before was circulating—fast.
The only problem? I had deleted the tweet after a few people pointed out that my math was wrong. If Bloomberg had used his $500 million ad budget to write $1 million checks instead—the premise of my entire tweet—he’d help 500 individuals, not the entire U.S. population as I had suggested.
Of course, it was embarrassing to get called out. Initially, I had left the tweet up—glaring miscalculation and all—out of pride. Yes, I’d made a dumb mistake. But don’t we all? I typed up an addendum to the original tweet, which said something along the lines of: Yes, okay, my math is off. But the point is he—and any other multibillionaire, for that matter—could give a lot of money to a lot of people and never notice.
My argument didn’t stand a chance. I decided to clear the slate. After less than half an hour (which, to be fair, is an eternity in internet time), I deleted the tweet. At that point it had only a handful of likes and retweets, so I figured it hadn’t gotten around much anyway. Plus, I wasn’t interested in hearing more people tell me how bad I am at math. I messed up, it was beyond cringeworthy, and I wanted to be done with it. I went to bed with a slightly bruised ego, naively assuming the worst was behind me.
The internet—as we all know—never forgets. There I was, navigating the lunchtime crowd at Trader Joe’s, nervously scrolling through a sea of notifications from complete strangers. Screenshots of my tweet had made their way to Instagram meme accounts, like Baller Alert (5.2 million followers) and Barstool News (191,000 followers). I could feel the beads of sweat begin to pool on my forehead.
The trolls were swarming, tagging me in posts and sending me DMs on Twitter and Instagram. I immediately went into crisis-management mode, essentially acting as my own public relations and social media manager. I went private on both platforms.
One stranger angrily emailed me: “Unlock your tweets or relinquish your blue checkmark you hack!” I was called a “dumb bitch” and a “stupid gook.” I reported posts that fell into cyberbullying territory. I soon discovered Instagram was better at rule enforcing than Twitter.
Not even an hour had passed before the trolls got creative. They requested money through Venmo; one person charged me $10,000, saying I should “be able to cover this no problem.” Another charged me a (much more reasonable) $60 for a “math tutor.” They sent me taunting messages via my professional website, which I have since taken offline.
Everyone I spoke to said it would blow over. These things fizzle out sooner rather than later, usually within 24 hours given the state of the nonstop news cycle. I earnestly believed them, especially because as a writer in the digital age, covering viral moments is a key aspect of my work. I know how swiftly the conversation shifts, how furiously fast people move from one headline to the next. It will die down by tomorrow, I thought.
Sure enough, the backlash to my math flub started to stabilize. I was still receiving hateful messages, but the trolls seemed to be moving on as anticipated. By that night I was in a better headspace. After watching MSNBC for about an hour, I told my husband we should watch the Love Is Blind reunion. We’d devoured the series, and I was eager to see the final installment of that so-called social experiment.
Just as the reunion episode was wrapping up, my phone began buzzing. I was getting a string of notifications from Twitter. Although I had protected my tweets, I could still be tagged in random posts. In one, someone had shared a picture of their TV screen, which featured talking heads and a tweet. I squinted, trying to decipher what it read.
“Oh my God,” I said. “This can’t be happening.”
“What?” my husband asked, confused about why I had suddenly pressed pause. I was about to enter a new, far less entertaining “social experiment.” I switched back to MSNBC. Brian Williams’s show, The 11th Hour, was still on air. I began to rewind through the last 40 minutes of programming. I wanted to throw up, faint, or both.
“This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening…,” I continued to mutter under my breath as my husband stared at me.
I found the spot in the show where my tweet was featured. I pressed play. And—in a mixture of pure mortification and utter disbelief—I watched as Williams not only mentioned my tweet but proceeded to actually discuss it as though my math were correct. (Well, I watched some of the segment before burying my face into the couch in horror.)
“It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Williams said after reading a screenshot of my tweet to his guest pundit, Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board. “It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Gay responded. “It’s true, it’s disturbing.”
“No, no, no, no,” I kept repeating. I turned to my husband. “This can’t be real. Is this a nightmare? Can you pinch me?” He’s not a man who shocks easily these days, but he looked about as speechless as I’d ever seen him.
Needless to say, it didn’t blow over. It blew up. Several major news outlets, including The Associated Press and the Washington Post, covered the story. I was a punchline on the most recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. At its height, my tweet had permeated enough of the social discourse to enter Twitter’s top trending topics.
After the MSNBC segment, my mind was spinning. Williams ultimately read a correction on air near the end of his show, but the damage had been done.
I don’t know why the anger and vitriol I received surprised me. I’ve read many stories about people—mostly women—who deal with misogyny and online harassment, often on a regular basis. But as with all lived experiences, it’s just not something you fully understand until you go through it yourself.
When you go viral, all perceived boundaries between you and the rest of the world disappear. As an introvert with anxiety and depression, this is an extremely uncomfortable reality to face. I am very protective of my space and energy. I need boundaries to feel safe. Despite doing my best to put up some barriers to drown out the noise, people still found disturbing ways to break through. They tried hacking into my email, website, and social media accounts. One man, who claimed to be an alum of my alma mater, found my wedding registry site and sent $1.52 to my husband and me.
“I am contributing to your honeymoon fund on behalf of Michael Bloomberg,” he wrote. “Thank you for embarrassing the rest of us UNL School of Journalism grads.”
I know I messed up. That’s why I deleted the tweet: to prevent the spread of my miscalculation. It wasn’t just that it was personally humiliating—it was also plain wrong. I acknowledged it, and I tried to mitigate it. But the internet is not a place where you can have a brain freeze, make a dumb math mistake, and just live with the embarrassment. You must be shamed for daring to display your humanity. And if you’re a woman—especially a woman of color—that shame will arrive in the form of attacks on your identity and intelligence.
I lost count of the number of messages I received telling me to “go back to school,” as if one public math error negates my entire educational history and two college degrees. Many called into question my journalistic ability. “Look who she writes for,” one person remarked, aghast that I could have a successful career and have the audacity to be imperfect at the same time.
While the rest of the world may be shuffling onto the next viral moment, I am not afforded the opportunity to carry on as quickly. In this day and age—filled with an endless supply of memes and TikToks—we often fail to realize that the viral moment doesn’t end when we’re no longer entertained by it. Those who lived it must move forward in the real world, even if their viral persona remains forever frozen in time in the digital world.
After going viral, there is debris to pick up and clear. I still haven’t resurfaced on Twitter or unprotected my tweets, though that may change by the time this story is published. I have thousands of follower requests to sort through (I suspect many are trolls and/or bots). Eventually, I’ll need to put my website back up.
Every now and then I’m hit with a paralyzing fear: Will I ever live this down? I worry this one tweet will now come to define my legacy, that my tombstone is now fated to say, “Here rests Mekita. She could string words together, but boy, was she bad at math.”
I know that’s letting the negativity and noise get to me. And although this experience illustrated how terrible people can be, it also revealed how unbelievably kind they can be too. Occasionally, as I waded through all those antagonistic messages, I’d come across rays of sunshine. “Hang in there,” several people remarked. Another said: “I wanted to reach out to let you know two things: One, you’re not alone, and two, this will pass.” I nearly burst into tears.
Becoming a cultural talking point is bizarre. So much of it is out of your control. Once it happens, there’s no reset button. I thought deleting a tweet would prevent this whole debacle, but I was also severely underestimating my own reach. I will be much more deliberative about what I share and post online in the future.
But chief among all the lessons I’ve learned is this: There will always be people who think they know everything about you, probably based on little to no information. But the only person who knows you best is you. And no amount of viral notoriety can change that.
Mekita Rivas is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She regularly covers culture, style, travel, and wellness.
Originally Appeared on Glamour