WARNING: The themes of the following story are disturbing. The language includes religious, ethnic and gender slurs. CNET has preserved much of the ugly wording in order to present a clear picture of attacks on real people.
Tanya Gersh heard gunshots when she picked up her phone. It wasn’t the first time.
A real estate agent and mother of two, Gersh became the target of a barrage of hate last year for trying to help Sherry Spencer sell a property in Whitefish, Montana, and use part of the proceeds as a donation for a human rights group. That caught the eye of neo-Nazis, who were convinced Gersh was pressuring Spencer to sell.
Why were neo-Nazis enraged by a proposed real estate transaction? Because Spencer is the mother of Richard Spencer, a leader of the “alt-right” movement of self-identified white nationalists. They believed Gersh was extorting Spencer.
The hate directed at Gersh came in all forms. She got angry phone calls, hateful texts, intimidating emails and racist social media posts. People she’d never met urged Gersh to kill herself. A chunk of the filth was even directed at her 12-year-old son via his Twitter and YouTube accounts.
Gersh, who is Jewish, also received Christmas cards with messages such as “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened” and “You are surprisingly easy to find on the internet. And in real life.”
Now Gersh is taking on the man who started it all. In a federal lawsuit filed in April, Gersh accuses Andrew Anglin, who publishes the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, of invading her privacy, intentionally inflicting emotional distress and violating Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act by organizing more than 700 instances of harassment since December 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group, is representing Gersh.
“It would have been so much easier for us to lay as low as possible and let it all blow over,” Gersh said in an interview. “But it wasn’t an option for us because of the pain that was caused.”
In an email, Anglin, who bills his publication as “The World’s Most Genocidal Republican Website,” said he was exercising his right to free speech.
“Whether you agree with what I have to say or not, I think all Americans can agree I have a right to say it,” he wrote. “We’re going to put together the best First Amendment defense we can.”
Anglin’s attorney, Marc Randazza, sent a prepared blurb in the form of an image that read, “The wall that protects the First Amendment is not manned with pretty happy smiling thoughts and easy-to-love characters.”
Gersh’s lawsuit, if successful, could change the environment for hate sites, making it clear to trolls they can be held responsible for the repercussions of what they write, at least in US civil cases. The SPLC has used similar tactics against hate groups since the 1980s, according to its newsletter, the SPLC Report, though many of those cases occurred before widespread adoption of the internet.
Criminal cases are often hard to pursue, experts say, in part because law enforcement officials may not understand online harassment the way they understand stalking, for example, or take it as seriously as other kinds of intimidation. The situation is complicated by the fact that no one law enforcement agency goes after cyberharassment in particular.
US laws around hate on the internet date back to the earliest chat rooms and bulletin boards. By the ’90s, they’d begun to address electronic harassment. But the laws were narrow and generally addressed a method, say harassment over the phone, rather than a broad range of intimidating behavior, says Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.” And they aren’t used often, she says.
“We do have a suite of laws. We have been improving them over time, but we need to use them,” Citron said. “When we don’t use them, harassers just get to say ‘f— you’ and walk away.”
Federal and state laws have evolved since the era of dial-up internet and they cover crimes ranging from cyberstalking to harassing telephone calls. Cyberstalking is a criminal offense under federal law and roughly half the states have statutes covering cyberstalking and cyberharassment.
Prosecutors won nine convictions in 22 cyberstalking cases in 2014, and 11 out of 19 in 2015, according to the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (PDF).
Last year, the UK rolled out guidelines for prosecutors that detail the intersection of criminal offenses and online communications. The act of inciting a harassment campaign — what the guidelines call virtual mobbing or dog piling — falls under the Serious Crime Act 2007.
The trouble with trolls
Lawsuits, like Gersh and the SPLC’s, are occasionally filed. The first successful cyberstalking case in California dates to 1999, when a man named Gary Dellapenta was sentenced to six years in prison after he posed as his own ex-girlfriend online and invited people to act on fake rape fantasies. He even gave them her address, prompting six men to show up at her door.
But it’s hard to sue an anonymous troll, and big social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are protected by the Communications Decency Act. The act protects online services and businesses from being held accountable for what their users say or do on them.
Even if you know who to sue, lawsuits take time and cost thousands of dollars. In many cases, plaintiffs probably won’t recoup that amount even if they win.
In 1998, fair housing advocate Bonnie Jouhari sued Ku Klux Klan leader Roy Frankhouser and, in a separate complaint, Ryan Wilson and neo-Nazi group ALPHA HQ, after she was targeted for helping victims of discrimination take legal action. Jouhari, who is white, was labeled a “race traitor.”
The groups posted her picture and address online, an early example of a tactic now known as “doxing,” to encourage others to torment her. Jouhari and her daughter ended up moving across the country to escape the harassment.
Jouhari settled with Frankhouser, who agreed in May 2000 to an apology delivered on “White Forum,” a public access show, and 1,000 hours of community service.
She was also was awarded $1.1 million in the suit against Wilson. But she never saw a dime because Wilson said he had no money.
Legal experts say Jouhari’s case isn’t unusual.
“You might get the satisfaction of suing someone,” said New York Law School professor Ari Ezra Waldman, who founded the Institute for CyberSafety. “But you’ll spend thousands out of pocket that you’re never going to see back.”
David Dinielli, one of the SPLC attorneys representing Gersh, says her case is different. The goal is to send a message to people trafficking in hate online.
“One of our principal points in bringing this lawsuit is to make certain that people know that they can’t simply hide behind their keyboards in order to conduct their terrorism,” Dinielli said. “We want to send a message to people like Andrew Anglin and others who think they can wreak havoc on people’s lives, simply by calling on people to launch a troll storm.”
It’s unclear how many people read The Daily Stormer, which takes its name from Der Stürmer, a Nazi tabloid. In a July 4 post celebrating the fourth anniversary of its launch, Anglin, the publisher, wrote the site had become internationally recognized, adding “And last month, we had 4.3 million unique visitors.” ComScore, an analytics firm, says the Stormer had 83,000 unique visitors in May 2017 but that it often falls below the roughly 50,000 unique visitors per month the firm requires to qualify for measurement.
What’s clear is that the Stormer, which the SPLC calls “the top hate site in America,” uses its readers to project hate. Its readers have included Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a 2015 mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the man who last year killed Jo Cox, a British member of Parliament. Anglin also spearheads a “Troll Army” and has mounted numerous campaigns against people who fall afoul of his views. Targets have included Luciana Berger, a British parliamentarian, and Julia Ioffe, a journalist who wrote about First Lady Melania Trump.
Anglin initiated his attack against Gersh on December 16, 2016, the day after Sherry Spencer posted an article to Medium accusing Gersh of bullying her into selling her property. The property had become the focus of Whitefish locals because of negative attention the town was getting as a result of Richard Spencer, who initially owned part of it, according to the lawsuit. Sherry, who lives in Dallas, has said her son no longer has an ownership stake.
Anglin encouraged his readers to participate in “an old fashioned Troll Storm” and tell Gersh what they thought of her “Jew agenda.” He published her address, telephone number and Twitter handle, as well as contact information for Judah Gersh, her husband, and Love Lives Here, a local group that promotes diversity.
Anglin also included the Twitter handle of Gersh’s son, whom he called a “creepy little faggot.”
He encouraged them to visit Judah’s office, tell him what they thought of his wife’s behavior and “advise him to get a leash on that hoe.” In a subsequent post, Anglin directed readers to leave Google and Yelp reviews of the law firm where Gersh’s husband works, providing links to the pages to make it easier.
As in previous troll operations, Anglin cautioned participants against threatening Gersh. “NO VIOLENCE OR THREATS OF VIOLENCE OR ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE TO THAT,” he wrote.
Anglin may believe such disclaimers exculpate him, or clear him of responsibility, the SPLC lawsuit says.
Six days later, Anglin expanded what he now called a “MEGA TROLLSTORM,” asking readers to contact the Gershs’ employers and clients. He provided contact information for Tanya’s employers, plus phone numbers and emails for the parent company. He also included contact details for groups affiliated with Love Lives Here, as well as those for Judah’s clients.
It didn’t take long for the trolls to gather.
‘Tsunami of threats’
The complaint describes a “tsunami of threats” that came in voice mails, emails, phone calls and Holocaust imagery. One tweet directed at Gersh’s son included a picture of an oven with the message, “psst kid, theres a free Xbox One inside this oven”.
At one point, Anglin announced a march on Whitefish that he initially planned to end at Gersh’s house. The march was to be called the “James Earl Ray Day Extravaganza,” named after the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. Anglin “postponed” the event because he couldn’t get a permit.
On April 18, Gersh and the SPLC filed a lawsuit alleging invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of the state anti-intimidation act.
How the case will turn out remains to be seen, in part because SPLC lawyers can’t find Anglin. Dinielli, Gersh’s lawyer, said his team hasn’t been able to serve Anglin and he hasn’t stepped forward to receive the complaint. A November 2016 article in HuffPost said Anglin “appeared” to be in Berlin, while other reports have placed him in Russia and Ohio. This week, CNN reported that Anglin said he now lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
Anglin was born in 1984 and grew up in Ohio. He went to high school in a suburb of Columbus, where he listened to punk rock and cultivated the air of an outsider, according to a profile in Columbus Alive. He started to get interested in conspiracy theories and in his early 20s moved to the Philippines to teach English.
In 2013, Anglin started The Daily Stormer, which picked up from Total Fascism, an earlier website he’d created. In a biographical post from March 2014, Anglin says, “I ask myself what Hitler would do if he’d been born in 1984 in America and was dealing with this situation we are currently dealing with and also really liked 4chan and Anime.”
An article posted on April 27 and still on the site’s home page, which sports “Jewish Problem” and “Race War” sections, asks readers to donate to save the publication. The article’s headline reads “SPLC is Suing Anglin! Donate Now to STOP THESE KIKES.”
An Anglin supporter also started a campaign to raise $150,000 for Anglin’s legal defense on a far right crowdfunding site called WeSearchr. The fund-raising drive exceeded its goal in pledges after a little more than a month.
A victory by Gersh and the SPLC wouldn’t mean the end of trolling, but it might send a message. And it might raise a speed bump in the road for Anglin and other online hate sites.
“We have to establish what is right as we grow into this new online society and make a very clear statement to hate groups that they can’t do this to people,” Gersh said.
First published July 7 at 5 a.m. PT.
Update, July 11 at 11:12 a.m. PT: Adds more information on Anglin and the Daily Stormer.
Logging Out: Welcome to the crossroads of online life and the afterlife.
CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET’s newsstand edition.