“The devil works hard, but we work harder” is a phrase that TikTok creator Aunt Karen lives by.
Aunt Karen, whose real name is Denise Bradley, first heard it from her grandmother as a child. Today, it has become her philosophy for fighting against racism on her TikTok page, where she identifies people caught using racial slurs or engaging in discriminatory behavior.
She posts their names and publicly available info about their lives, such as where they work, and encourages followers to help her ID them and demand accountability. Bradley has developed a huge following for her activism — over 1.4 million followers and counting — but a cybersecurity expert warned that her actions could constitute harassment.
Bradley, a 32-year-old human resources representative from Michigan, doesn’t see herself as the star of her page but as a “vessel” for her community.
“It’s everyone who’s driving the bus,” she told BuzzFeed News of her followers. “If we’re exposing a company or person at a company — it’s not just my voice, it’s every single person that wants to call, wants to email as well.”
Bradley’s “Aunt Karen” alter ego first emerged just days after the 2020 US presidential election, although racism wasn’t her initial focus. She had been on TikTok for about six months when one day she spotted a young man attempting to remove a Biden campaign sign. Bradley began to film as she confronted him.
“I’m the type of person where if I see something, I say something,” she said. “I recorded the video, I put it on TikTok, and it went viral.”
In the encounter, which she uploaded to the platform in several parts, Bradley challenged the young man over his intentions to remove the sign before threatening to call the police as the two exchanged words.
One of the videos was viewed more than 4 million times. Bradley’s first brush with virality drew a mixture of reactions, with some users labelling her a “Karen.” The label, as we have come to know it, is typically applied to entitled white women who insist on policing situations that have nothing to do with them and whose actions are often rooted in racism.
“People started saying that I was a Karen, but people started saying I’m also a good Karen, and then I said to myself, ‘Why not be a Karen?’” she said.
Bradley soon changed her handle to @AuntKaren, the aunt title denoting that she is older than many of her followers. Under that name, she has redirected the energy typically associated with it into calling out racial injustice, bigotry, and other wrongdoings.
“I probably get about 50 emails a day. I’m probably tagged in about 1,000 posts a day too. Sometimes it’s just the same post tag maybe 50 times because people really want me to see it,” she said. Her followers send her photos, screenshots, and videos of people doing or saying racist things with information about them, such as their name or the city they live in.
Bradley routinely mobilizes her followers to crowdsource information for a segment on her TikTok she calls “racist of the day.” Her tactics have led to her followers being able to name and shame individuals within hours of her original posts, such as a white woman captured calling a Black Ross clothing store staff member a “monkey.” With the help of her followers, Bradley identified the woman (who has not responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment) and posted her Facebook for all to see.
“I do my best to never post something unless I’m 100% sure, and the great thing about TikTok is I have so many helpers, people willing to help look for information, verify information, so it’s a team effort,” Bradley said.
While Bradley’s distinctive brand of online activism has won her fans, in some pockets of the internet she has been accused of inciting harassment and doxing.
Doxing, a form of online abuse in which personal identifying information — such as a person's home address, phone number, Social Security number, or photos — is released in order to intimidate and harass people.
The HR specialist insists that her platform does not encourage doxing “because there really isn’t a need to” and because there are limits to the lengths she will go to find the personal details of an alleged racist.
“A lot of times people just don’t realize how much of their information is public,” Bradley said.
While some may consider her cause worthy, her content could fall under the banner of harassment, said Scott Storey, a cybersecurity educator and expert based in the UK.
“It’s kind of easy to understand why people do it,” Storey said. “They feel they’re doing it for a good reason: to out racists. The only people that would object to that generally are other racists, but it is still harassment. Doesn’t matter if it’s based on public information.”
The senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University also warned of the consequences associated with getting it wrong, citing the example of the Reddit community incorrectly identifying an innocent man as one of the two Boston Marathon Bombing suspects in 2013.
Bradley is motivated by several factors, among them wanting to remind her audience that racism is “alive and well.” Her activism is also rooted in her own experiences with racism, including a troubling encounter in her childhood.
She was 5 years old and her grandmother was walking her to school. “I remember this so vividly,” Bradley said. “I was holding her hand, and a white man in a pickup truck rolled his window down and said the n-word to us, and he just sped off.”
It wasn’t until she was an adult, Bradley said, that she fully understood the gravity of what they had been subjected to. Now, as a mother herself, she is committed to ensuring that such attitudes are called out and perpetrators are held accountable.
For Aunt Karen, accountability comes in various forms, whether it’s demanding a public apology or pushing for perpetrators to be fired or company boycotts.
In one of her latest campaigns, Bradley shared messages sent to her by a member of the public showing financial executive Eileen Cure allegedly telling staff at her firm that she had no interest in interviewing any Black people for a role at her company, Cure & Associates. The information was submitted by a follower who asked to remain anonymous.
In her TikTok, Bradley shared a screenshot of a Skype message in which Cure allegedly wrote, “I specifically said no Blacks. I am not a prejudiced person but our clients are 90% white and I need to cater to them. That interview was a complete waste of my time, please don’t second guess me or go against what I ask. Listen to me and give me what I ask for, please.”
Cure, who was an adviser with LPL Financial, was put under investigation as a result of Bradley’s post and subsequently terminated. In a statement to BuzzFeed News, LPL confirmed that it was “deeply concerned” about Cure’s comments and would not “tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
Bradley believes that more could still be done to ensure justice and is interested in pushing for a discrimination lawsuit against Cure & Associates on behalf of any Black applicants who may have been unfairly passed over for a position.
“It’s illegal to discriminate against someone because of the basis of their race,” she said.
Cure did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment. In a statement to Investment News, she called the allegations against her “false and defamatory” and claimed that a criminal investigation was underway following threats to her and her staff.
As the figurehead of a large and growing platform, Bradley acknowledges her power and the responsibility associated with it. She emphasized that she only shares submissions that can be verified and discourages her followers from real-world confrontations.
“I try to preach on my TikTok that we don’t need to approach anyone,” she said. “The best thing is what we’re doing now is holding people accountable through spreading the word.”
Spreading the word may constitute harassment, but Storey understands why activists such as Bradley use the snowball effect of an online campaign to demand accountability.
“It’s definitely quicker — it is an online walk of shame, like you see on Game of Thrones when you have to walk through the city,” he said.