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The Internet Saga That Followed A Tweet Comparing Bedbugs And A Columnist


This next story may offer a little perspective if it feels like you're having a crazy week. It's a story that starts with a tweet - specifically, a 10-word tweet that Dave Karpf tapped out on Monday afternoon. The tweet was about bedbugs. It was in response to news of a bedbug infestation in the offices of The New York Times. The tweet read, quote, "The bedbugs are a metaphor. The bedbugs are Bret Stephens."

OK. So Bret Stephens is a conservative columnist for the Times. He saw this tweet. He responded with a curt email to Karpf, who is an associate professor at George Washington University. The university provost was cc'd on that note. Karpf posted Bret Stephens' letter to Twitter, and that is when the story got - well, when it got legs.

Dave Karpf joins me now. Welcome.

DAVE KARPF: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: I want to start at the beginning. Monday afternoon, your initial tweet was, I gather, intended as a joke. Your initial tweet got how many likes? How many retweets?

KARPF: It got zero retweets. It got nine likes. I was a little sad about that. I thought was a pretty good joke. So I thought it would get maybe three retweets and 20 likes.

KELLY: All right. So to the response that Bret Stephens sent to you, which I can read because you posted it, he criticized you for a lack of decency. He invited you - come to my house and call me a bedbug to my face.

Bret Stephens has been ridiculed all over social media for this. He has deleted his Twitter account. That was yesterday. And what he said was this platform brings out the worst in humanity. Does he have a point?

KARPF: I would agree that Twitter is often not great for humanity, but I don't think this is a great example of it. The key here, again, is him deciding to cc my provost, which he discussed on MSNBC and he said that he wasn't trying to get me in trouble. He just wanted my bosses to know what I was saying.

Cc'ing the provost means that he's not actually inviting me over to his house. He's not actually calling for civility. He is trying to use his station in life to make clear to me at a lower station in life that I'm not supposed to make jokes about him.

KELLY: Why do you say you're at a lower station in life?

KARPF: Because he has the imprimatur of The New York Times behind him. He's got a massive audience. I'm pretty well known if you study digital politics, which is my area of specialty. But if not, you've never heard of me.

So I think he was reaching out to me to make clear to me I should fear upsetting somebody who stands above me. That's an abuse of authority that doesn't mean much to me because I happen to be a tenured professor. But I doubt he knew that I was tenured when he wrote that note. And if he had sent that to an adjunct professor, then I think that's a dangerous use of the social power that he has.

KELLY: You mentioned the interview that Bret Stephens gave to MSNBC. He says there's an ugly history of making analogies between people and insects that goes back to totalitarian regimes. Let me play a little clip of this.


BRET STEPHENS: I think that kind of rhetoric is dehumanizing and totally unacceptable no matter where it comes from.

KELLY: Dave Karpf, I just am curious what your response is to that.

KARPF: First, I find it odd being compared to a totalitarian regime when I'm just some random professor. That's very different than the ministry of propaganda because it carries different weight. It has different power.

And the other thing I'd point out is I don't think I'm asking for too much context for us to read all three sentences that are in that tweet. We have a headline about bedbugs in The New York Times newsroom. We have me stating this is a metaphor and then me stating this is Bret Stephens. I think it's kind of hard to make the jump to saying that I'm dehumanizing him.

KELLY: I do have to add that this has taken yet another twist. President Trump woke up and started tweeting and needling Bret Stephens over his response. Did you ever, Dave Karpf, in your wildest dreams imagine the president of the United States inserting himself into this bedbug controversy that you set off with a tweet on Monday afternoon?

KARPF: I guess the lesson here is that it can always get weirder. I also feel at this point like it's probably going to just keep on spiraling up until the point where Bret Stephens and I end up joining forces to tell Donald Trump that he's crossed the line. Like, Trump is somehow going to make this really strange and awkward.

KELLY: That is Dave Karpf, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Professor Karpf, thank you.

KARPF: Thanks so much.

KELLY: And I want to note we have reached out to The New York Times for comment from Bret Stephens. We have not yet heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.