Journalists have always faced angry feedback from those who don’t agree with their work. But modern internet culture, combined with a vitriolic political environment, has exposed reporters to a new level of scrutiny and harassment.
No known tallies exist on the scope of the online abuse, but the rise of President Donald Trump, fueled by an ever-loyal, often-threatening social media horde, has brought the issue of virtual harassment to the fore. And the line between online threats and real-world safety concerns is increasingly blurred.
The effects of this trend extend beyond discomfort, influencing the news itself. CJR spoke with journalists who acknowledge that they have started to think twice before taking a stance that could be controversial, and they occasionally opt not to publish anything rather than deal with the abuse.
“The internet is real life, and things that happen on the internet have real-world consequences,” says BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel, who has become an expert on the pro-Trump media environment. “That’s been true for years, but the toxicity of the current political climate combined with the speed and volume at which things are happening makes it especially volatile right now.”
The best recent example is CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski, who published a July 4 story on the Reddit user who created a video of President Trump wrestling a figure with CNN’s logo superimposed over its face. Soon after Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, and Jack Posobiec—pro-Trump figures with large online followings—posted negative comments about Kaczynski, the CNN journalist’s home address, phone number, and other personal information were posted on social media, as was information about his family members. The Daily Beast reported that Kaczynski’s parents and wife received about 50 threatening phone calls each in the day after the story went live. Since the Reddit user story was published, Kaczynski’s prolific Twitter feed fell silent for more than a week, and he published just one coauthored story between July 5 and July 18. CNN sources told CJR that Kaczynski’s low profile was not coincidental.
— Joe Bernstein (@Bernstein) July 5, 2017
Elie Mystal, an editor at Above the Law, faced similar attacks after he penned a passionate column in December asking black jurors to consider nullification as a way to fight back against unfair charges. The following day, his story was picked up by Breitbart’s Warner Todd Huston, who pulled provocative quotes from the piece in a way that Mystal felt mischaracterized his argument. Huston wrote: “As far as Elie Mystal is concerned, a few murdered white people who never get justice and their killers allowed to walk free, is a small price to pay to satisfy the Black Lives Matter agenda.”
“It came at me from all directions. I was called every word you could think of and I got death threats,” Mystal tells CJR. Given his education and experience as a lawyer, Mystal knew it was difficult to get police involved if the threats didn’t include specific details (like when and where a person planned to strike). He turned to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which offered advice and pointed him towards its “Trolls and online abuse” resource guide.
Mystal also reached out to Cernovich, whom he knew through a mutual acquaintance on Facebook. “I basically private messaged him and said you’ve got to call off your dogs. This is ridiculous,” says Mystal. About an hour later, Cernovich wrote a post arguing for engagement with all views, and just like that, the messages died down.
What’s most troubling about Mystal’s story is the impact it ultimately had on his work. If he chooses to write a column, he will write honestly about how he feels. But he acknowledges that sometimes he chooses not to write at all. “If I don’t feel like I can take the heat, I don’t even try. I don’t even engage,” says Mystal. “I don’t put myself in a situation where I’m writing about something and I’m feeling like I can’t really write about what I think on this issue because I’m too afraid of what the critics or the trolls or the harassers of the alt-right or the white supremacists will say.”
Warzel says the process by which those trolls and harassers pick their targets is fascinating. “You have Donald Trump, who I’ve described as the assignment editor for the trolls,” Warzel tells CJR. “He tweets something or says something to no one specifically—his views about fake news or his views about coverage—and then that floats down to the Cernovich, Posobiec, and, now, Donald Trump Jr. crowd. They parrot that, maybe go a little more extreme, maybe assign it to a hashtag. They’re not breaking any rules by Twitter’s standards, but then you have their followers, a lot of whom either have accounts with 30, 40, 100 followers, or they have burner accounts [anonymous accounts that users create with the understanding they might be banned]. They’re the ones who will probe deeper, they’re the ones who will threaten to dox journalists. Those people can get banned and they don’t care, they’ll just create another account later on or they’ll wear it as a badge of honor. There’s no stakes for them.”
Cernovich, who first came to prominence during the Gamergate controversy and has pushed debunked conspiracy theories about a pedophilia ring led by Democratic politicians, tells CJR that he disavows tactics like posting personal information and notes that he has also been a victim of doxxing (posting personal information, including home addresses and telephone numbers, online). But when asked if he feels responsible for the actions of his social media followers, he pivots to blaming those on the left. “Call-out culture, which started on the left, has moved to the right,” he says. “As to my role in it, I have to push back.”
Kaczynski’s Reddit story provides a case study for the digestive system of abuse Warzel describes. Cernovich wrote a hyperbolic blog post that mischaracterized some of Kaczynski’s previous tweets, Yiannopoulos falsely claimed that Kaczynski had driven a man to suicide, and Posobiec worked to get the hashtag #CNNBlackmail trending. Soon Kaczynski’s personal information was making the rounds on social media, and threats were pouring in to his family members.
Kaczynski declined to comment in detail for this piece, citing ongoing security concerns, but he did offer that Turner (CNN’s parent company) “has gone above and beyond in everything they’ve done in regards to my safety.” Journalists at places like CNN or The Wall Street Journal can rely on experienced security experts that their companies employ, but for freelancers or those at smaller outlets, getting support can be difficult.
Of course, online harassment isn’t just the media’s problem. According to Pew research, 41 percent of Americans have been harassed online. And the abuse Kaczynski and Mystal faced are not isolated examples. Going back at least to the Gamergate controversy of 2014, internet trolls have employed tactics like doxxing; spreading hashtags and memes around social media to draw attention to a campaign of harassment; and making prank phone calls directing everything from pizza deliveries to tactical police units to someone’s home. Journalists, especially women and people of color, are familiar with the pattern.
“It’s always been a thing faced by women online,” Jezebel’s Anna Merlan tells CJR. “But now we’re seeing it as part of an environment of vitriol, distrust, and anger against journalists. That gives it a different tone than it used to have.”
When journalists face social media threats, they often struggle to convince law enforcement to take the issue seriously. Several writers who spoke with CJR cited confusion and indifference on the part of law enforcement when presented with cases of online harassment. Jezebel’s Merlan covered the problem in detail in a 2015 story about her personal experience as a victim of doxxing.
Columnist Bethany Mandel opposes Donald Trump and writes controversial columns around Jewish culture, but since trolling attacks against her peaked last year during the presidential primaries, there is one topic she avoids: Jewish conversion. “That’s already something in my personal life that I’m sensitive about, and I don’t need to expose myself to that,” says Mandel, who converted to Judaism before marrying her husband.
The worst situation she faced came in response to a story Mandel wrote about the transgender bathroom debate in North Carolina. She received a Facebook message from an angry young woman who threatened to kill Mandel’s baby. “It was super graphic. Said she was going to come to my house and chop his head off,” says Mandel.
Because she was dealing with a college-aged woman, and likely had her real name as the message was on Facebook, Mandel decided to look for the young woman’s father. She found him, and told him she would go to the police if he didn’t handle the situation. The woman ended up apologizing, but Mandel was spooked. “That night, I pulled all my kids into my bed and was up all night listening for sounds. I was really freaked out,” Mandel tells CJR. “I was lying there really cursing myself for not having a gun.” She had always wanted a gun, but it wasn’t until the online threats piled up that Mandel got one.
Journalists are not eager to accept the idea that harassment is having a chilling effect on their work. But when targets of internet abuse are being forced off social media, seeing their families targeted, and even arming themselves, it’s past time for a more open conversation about the real-world impacts of online abuse.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the exchange between Mystal, Breitbart, and Cernovich.