Ten young players from the Broncos Bantam A hockey team of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, along with six coaches and other team staffers, died on April 6 when their bus collided with a tractor-trailer in Western Canada. Because young, prairie hockey players died, the awful tragedy unquestionably stirred Canadian national myths—enough to trigger the second-biggest GoFundMe campaign ever for the survivors and victims’ family, eventually topping CDN$15 million.
Any guess how this horrible accident could lead a troll army to attack a female journalist with rape and death threats—in the name of “respect” and “compassion”—as a national newsweekly that had published that journalist threw her under the Zamboni without hesitation? If your answer includes the words “Neo-Nazi” and “Trump,” you’re obviously no stranger to Reality 2018.
On April 8, only two days into the GoFundMe campaign, when the total raised had reached CDN$4 million, freelance journalist Nora Loreto tweeted: “This is a lot of money.” A lot, she seemed to be suggesting, in comparison to funds raised for the victims of other tragedies; for example, it took 14 months for GoFundMe to collect $402,173 for the 19 wounded and the families of the six people murdered by the Trump-loving Quebecois terrorist Alexandre Bissonette at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017.
I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.
— Nora Loreto (@NoLore) April 9, 2018
Loreto went on to make three more tweets:
- I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.
- I don’t want less for the families and survivors of this tragedy. I want justice and more for so many other grieving parents and communities.
- (If you’re responding to this thread to make this into a horse race, which it most certainly isn’t, go away)
A few angry responses followed. On her podcast Sandy & Nora (4/16/18), Loreto notes that someone tagged one of her tweets with the Twitter handle of some of the victims’ families, and says she told the tweeter that “this is not a message for victims’ families. In fact, giving this message to victims’ families is fucked up,” explaining that she made her comments for her Twitter audience only, and then challenged the re-tweeter: “Why are you trying to make this into something it’s not?”
@OutlawTory Patrick Ross (whose Twitter bio reads in part, “Pronouns: Go fuck yourself”) tweet-threatened Loreto that she would regret her comments. Within four days, her tweets had nearly 30 million Twitter impressions and thousands of misogynist, antisemitic threatening messages, some even “glorifying white supremacy,” combined with countless telephone calls and emails. Outlets that have printed her freelance work, she says, have been flooded by demands to fire her.
Among those threatening Loreto was CJ Lang (@Carl425), who tweeted, “Oh we will never leave you alone. This is your life now bish.” RiseUpCanada (@kathleentasha), in a since-deleted tweet, blew a neo-Nazi dog whistle: “Your comments about Humboldt make you the year’s dumbest bitch…. You are the type that jumps onto whatever retarded political bandwagon is popular at the time (ie, it’s okay to be white, you goof). Get fucked in the face.” Over several tweets, Alex Williams (@alexwilliams_2) wrote:
You should be dead…. I hope someone kills you. I’d fuckin’ pay to have it done…. Fuck, someone should kill your kids so u know what it feels like…. I’d love to see that happen so no one would help you…. Because you’re white.
One might expect media titans, including those who’d previously published Loreto’s work, to defend her—at least to speak against the abuse and threats. But Maclean’s (4/12/18), Canada’s biggest newsweekly, which had previously published Loreto’s work, said:
Contrary to misinformation being spread on social media, Nora Loreto has never been an employee of Maclean’s. She is a freelance writer who published one article on our website a few months ago. We had nothing to do with her extraordinarily inappropriate tweet regarding the Humboldt tragedy. We will have nothing else to say on this matter at the current time because we do not wish to distract from the tributes and grief being expressed on behalf of the victims of the accident, nor do we wish to feed into the torrent of abuse that Ms. Loreto has been subjected to since publishing her tweet.
Maclean’s would never stoop so low as to speak ill of the dead (not that Loreto did), nor would they ever want a freelancer to be subject to abuse. Robert Jago, one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous commentators, responded (Twitter, 4/12/18): “This from the people that asked me to write a hit piece on a dying Gord Downie,” citing the beloved settler Canadian rock star who engaged Indigenous issues. “I said ‘no,’” continued Jago, “because it’s obvious when you’re being set up, because it’s clear what these people are like.” He further tweeted, “It’s hard to look at that Maclean’s statement and not be embarrassed that this is our main news magazine of record.”
The Speed of Lies in the Internet Era
While journalists have always risked harassment, the near-instantaneity of the Internet age seems to have increased the intensity, range, duration and frequency of such attacks, which means that Big Media have an even greater responsibility to defend the people who create its “content.” Trolls can target anyone, for any reason, and their reach can extend beyond screens, as when they dox (publish addresses, telephone numbers and names of family members, along with other personal information) their victims. Increasingly their victims are women (Pew, 7/11/17).
The Wrap (7/17/17) recounts how Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, directed his “troll army” to hurl online abuse against realtor Tanya Gersh and two CNN staffers who covered her story (CNN, 10/07/17). Gersh, who is Jewish, was working to help Sherry Spencer, mother of neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, sell a building she owned in Whitefish, Montana; the business relationship soured after Gersh tried to convince Spencer to disavow her son’s views and thus help defuse tensions in Whitefish. According to The Wrap, Anglin “posted the CNN story on his site and didn’t specifically tell his followers to attack the journalists behind it — but he didn’t exactly discourage them, either.”
Apparently the trolls understood the implied marching orders and the legal line, because while they didn’t threaten to kill their targets, they targeted Gersh, her husband and her 12-year-old son with more than 700 messages, including “I hope you die,” “We will take pleasure in your pain,” and “Hickory dickory dock, the kike ran up the clock. The clock struck three and Internet Nazis trolls gassed the rest of them.” To reporter Sara Sidner and producer Mallory Simon, they sent messages such as “I hope you kill yourself,” “I hope you die” and “I hope you crawl into an oven.”
With the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gersh is suing Anglin for publishing 30 articles urging a “troll storm” to rise against against her. According to Sidner, Gersh “was in fear of almost anyone she met. Her old way of life had been washed away…. The thing that struck me, on the phone with her, was when she said, ‘I thought 1930s Germany was a thing of the past.’” Anglin, who has allegedly found refuge in Lagos, Nigeria, has used the fascist-friendly site WeSearchr to crowdfund $150,000 to fight the suit.
One $5,000 donor to Anglin’s fund is Sam Hyde, a former content creator for Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” programming bloc. According to the Los Angeles Times (6/6/17):
When contacted for comment, Hyde asked the reporter if he was Jewish and then boasted that $5,000 was nothing to him. “Don’t worry so much about money. Worry about if people start deciding to kill reporters. That’s a quote,” Hyde said in a phone interview, laughing, when asked why he donated to support the Daily Stormer.
Aimed by Trump at the ‘Enemy of the People’
Clearly many of these cyber-attackers are self-identified neo-Nazis, but how did they arrive at such politics? The Independent (2/17/15) reports that some psychologists label them as psychopaths or “archetypal Machiavellian sadists,” whereas the Committee to Protect Journalists (4/27/16) warns against applying “mythology” to trolls who are simply “the misogynists next door.” Either way, they’ve long been able to attack with impunity, and few Big Media companies appear prepared to do anything to stop them, especially during the reign of a US president who openly attacks the fourth estate as “liars,” “bimbos,” “absolute scum” and “the enemy of the people.”
The CPJ (5/18/16) describes Trump’s attacks as a dire threat; clearly, Trump doesn’t need to personally point a gun for his extremist followers to know where to shoot. Case in point: Within a day of publishing a GQ profile (4/27/16) of Melania Trump, reporter Julia Ioffe “picked up her phone to a recording of a Hitler speech, part of a wave of antisemitic messages targeted at the journalist, whose family fled to America to escape antisemitism in Russia.” The Guardian (4/29/16) reports that Ioffe “received another call from ‘Overnight Caskets.’ On Twitter, users posted photos of her face superimposed on a mug shot from Auschwitz. The Daily Stormer…attacked Ioffe in a blogpost titled: ‘Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!’” We Hunted the Mammoth (6/6/16) documents many of the more depraved images that neo-Nazis aimed at Ioffe.
It’s unclear how much corporate news even wants to stop the Nazipocalypse. Eight months before the 2016 presidential election was over, the New York Times (3/15/16) reported that Big Media had given Trump $2 billion worth of “free media.” Politico (2/29/16) was among many reporting the drool-tsunami from CBS chair Les Moonves: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Trump and his legions have. Mic (10/24/16) reported that on October 22, 2016, Trump supporters in Cleveland “railed against the media by chanting ‘Lügenpresse’ — a 200-year-old German phrase meaning ‘lying press’ that was used as a Nazi rallying cry.” Two days later, “the Nazi call made its way to Twitter. Trump supporters singled out journalists by scrawling a red X over their faces and telling them they’d been added to #TheList for ‘their crimes against the American people.’” Employing 8chan’s /pol/ forum, they listed journalists from the New York Times, MSNBC, CNN and more, especially Jewish writers, whom they tweet-branded with the (((echoes))) symbol to incite antisemitic swarming.
As New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman told NPR’s Terry Gross (3/19/18):
There’s one meme that they sent to a lot of Jewish journalists with the journalist’s face in a gas chamber and a smiling Donald Trump in Nazi uniform flicking the switch for the gas chamber. There were images of my face and other journalists’ faces superimposed on a victim of the Holocaust leaning over and about to be shot in the head by a Nazi.
One image of the gates of Auschwitz replaced Arbeit Macht Frei (“work makes you free”) with “making America great again.” On CBC’s The Current (10/27/16), journalist David French explained that after he criticized then-candidate Trump, Trumpists “viciously attacked his family.” As of eight months ago, The Current claimed that Trump trolls had cyber-attacked 800 journalists. The number is even higher today.
If Big Media Won’t Fight Trolls, Can They Protect Journalists?
So what can journalists do to protect themselves, especially when their employers and contractors seem to be doing so little for them? Besides letting evil win, hiding offline is impossible, because the modern job of journalism demands online engagement. So Michelle Ferrier, an associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism of Ohio University, founded TrollBusters, which offers, if not a cyber-shield, at least cyber-buttressing (The Signal, 11/10/16):
If a journalist has been trolled, they report it on the website and their social media page is then flooded with positive messages sent from the people at TrollBusters. Ferrier says this is an “emotional hedge of protection.” TrollBusters also sends out tips on how to fight trolls, with a focus of helping targets maintain their online presence.
TrollBusters can be particularly helpful for freelancers who don’t necessarily have a media organization to back them up. Ferrier suggests that freelancers not only negotiate things like pay, but also talk to the news outlet about how it deals with online harassment: “As journalists, our jobs are online.” Shutting down all social media accounts in the face of attacks is not an option.
If Big Media can’t do much but want to do something, one option is to moderate comment sections. The Canadian Journalism Project (12/12/16) examined a 2016 Guardian study focusing on gender, revealing the “water is wet” shocker that “female journalists received more vile forms of harassment” than did men. CJP noted that CBC has decreased trolling by removing comment anonymity. While cleverer trolls can work around such restrictions, Brodie Fenlon, senior director of digital news at CBC, says the network has seen a “better tone of comments.”
The profession of journalism—like democracy itself—is in great danger if female reporters flee to escape cyber-harassment and doxxing, and according to Freedom House (4/26/17), that’s what’s starting to happen. But Freedom House has good news: The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom created the Women’s Reporting Point. With it, female journalists can report misogynist cyber-attacks via encrypted messaging. Even better:
Trained female staff can engage with journalists in a confidential manner to provide them with support and potential legal options. In Pakistan, the Digital Rights Foundation established a Cyber Harassment Helpline in 2016 to document cases of online abuse. The helpline, the first service of its kind in the country, also provides legal advice, digital security support and psychological counseling. In its first four months of operation, it received over 500 complaints, roughly two-thirds of which were submitted by women.
At least in Europe in South Asia, there’s support for reporters. The more that North Americans learn how others are protecting fundamental freedoms and rights, the more they’re informed to force Big Media here to build a wall that actually can make (North) America great.