Whatever Happened to Melania Trump’s Anti-Cyberbullying Campaign?

No one in the anti-cyberbullying world has heard from her. Not even Monica Lewinsky.

First lady Melania Trump on the campaign trail in NovemberPatrick Semansky/AP

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On November 3, Melania Trump gave a rare speech on the campaign trail for her husband, Donald. At the end of the speech, she made an announcement: If her husband were elected, she would focus on combating cyberbullying from the White House. “We have to find a better way to talk to each other, to disagree with each other, to respect each other,” she said. “We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media. It will be one of the main focuses of my work if I’m privileged enough to become your first lady.”

The announcement was met with derision by people who noted that her husband was perhaps the world’s most prominent cyberbully. Lady Gaga tweeted at Melania directly:

Three months later, Melania Trump is indeed first lady. But what of her pledge to take up cyberbullying? Mother Jones contacted a wide range of organizations and individuals who work on cyberbullying, and not a single one of them reported being contacted by Trump or anyone in the Donald Trump administration.

“No one has reached out to us as of yet,” says Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor at Florida Atlantic University. “People are posting unsolicited editorials in our space, asking Melania to do this or do that in an open letter on various sites, but her and her team have not reached out to us or anyone we know. And it’s a pretty small circle of experts, so you’d think we’d have heard by now.”

Not even Monica Lewinsky, who broke a decade of public silence in 2014 to become an anti-bullying advocate, has heard from the new first lady. Lewinsky might seem an obvious partner for Melania, given her history with President Trump’s campaign opponent. Lewinsky has even spoken up to defend Melania and Donald Trump’s son, 10-year-old Barron, from social-media trolls. But no one in the Trump administration has reached out to Lewinsky, according to someone who works with her on the issue. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Melania Trump’s cyberbullying campaign seemed ill-fated from the start. Over the past 20 years, anti-bullying efforts have largely been driven by advocates for LGBT youth, who are disproportionately represented among victims of bullying. The role of LGBT groups in anti-bullying campaigns has resulted in a widespread backlash against these campaigns among right-wing evangelicals, a large voting bloc that supported Donald Trump in the election. Religious right advocates see efforts to combat bullying as another way of spreading the “homosexual agenda.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama tapped Kevin Jennings to become the “anti-bullying czar” at the Department of Education. Jennings is a former teacher who founded one of the first efforts to reduce bullying against LGBT kids, called the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). When Obama appointed him, Fox News and other conservative groups viciously attacked Jennings, claiming that he had condoned child molestation and spent his career teaching children how to perform sexual acts. The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group that has supported Trump, launched a “Stop Kevin Jennings” campaign. Among those who joined was Mike Pence, then a congressman from Indiana and now vice president. He was one of more than 50 House Republicans who wrote to Obama demanding that Jennings be removed from the post, claiming that “Mr. Jennings has played an integral role in promoting homosexuality and pushing a pro-homosexual agenda in America’s schools.”

Right-wing evangelicals see efforts to combat bullying as just another way of spreading the “homosexual agenda.”

Given the religious right’s hostility to anti-bullying efforts, it’s not clear who might help the new first lady promote her cause. One of the most prominent anti-bullying advocates is Lady Gaga, who started the Born This Way Foundation. Susan Swearer, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Bullying Research Network, serves on the board of Born This Way. She says that neither she nor the singer has heard from the first lady.

Several advocates in the anti-bullying community say they would be eager to work with Melania Trump. “I certainly would, as I do not want us to go backward or lose any momentum that we have gained in the last two decades,” says Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor at the University of Florida and a prominent anti-bullying crusader.

But it’s unlikely that the White House will encourage Trump to forge a prominent alliance with any group that recognizes the unique issues faced by LGBT youth. “It is hard to know what Melania is even thinking or who is advising her,” Espelage says. “I wonder myself the extent to which she will take the ‘gendered’ lens, which is really needed to prevent bullying as a precursor to sexual harassment, homophobic name-calling, and teen dating violence.” 

If Trump doesn’t work with LGBT groups on the issue, who can she work with? Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, the founder of the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development in New York, has reached out to the first lady and offered the resources of her organization, which uses scientific research to combat cyberbullying. “I think we can do this in an apolitical way,” she says hopefully, though Trump hasn’t responded to her.

Perhaps the most likely candidate to help Trump is Donna Rice Hughes. People of a certain age will remember the National Enquirer cover photo of Rice sitting on the lap of Democrat Gary Hart, whose 1988 presidential campaign she helped tank. Since her days of traveling to Bimini with Hart on his Monkey Business yacht, Rice Hughes has found God. She has spent the last two decades working at Enough Is Enough, a religious nonprofit focused on combating internet pornography, child exploitation, and, to a lesser extent, cyberbullying.

Rice Hughes endorsed Donald Trump during the campaign, and he was the only presidential candidate to sign her organization’s pledge to aggressively enforce federal laws to prevent the sexual exploitation of children if elected. After Trump won, Rice Hughes issued a statement saying, “We applaud our next First Lady Melania Trump’s commitment to make cyberbullying her cause while in the White House, and look forward to supporting Mrs. Trump’s efforts to be an agent of change for Internet safety and responsibility.”

But even Rice Hughes seems to be getting stiffed. When I contacted her last month, a spokeswoman wouldn’t say whether Rice Hughes had been approach by the Trumps or the administration, only that “she stands ready to help.” And so far, Melania Trump has sent no signals—to the public or the anti-bullying community—that she is serious about the pre-election promise she made.


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