When internet users find themselves the victims of trolling campaigns—for tweeting something objectionable, for writing a blog post disagreeable to certain elements—convention is to unplug. It is easier to simply disengage from social media for a few days than to surf the deluge of negative comments, ranging in severity from low-key indignant to downright threatening.
It is overwhelming, emotionally draining; and when the bridge from under which these odious little creatures spring forth is of the fascistic variety, it can be pretty terrifying.
When Montana real-estate agent Tanya Gersh found herself on the receiving end of a coordinated neo-Nazi trolling campaign, she was especially frightened. Gersh is Jewish, as is her 12-year-old son, and both were peppered with hundreds of threatening, anti-Semitic messages on social media, email, and via phone after users of the Daily Stormer, a white-nationalist website, encouraged readers to initiate a “troll storm” against her.
The Daily Stormer has 31 chapters established throughout the United States and Canada, and has been designated a neo-Nazi hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SCPL). It apparently takes its name from a Nazi-era propaganda paper called Der Stürmer. Its users have included Dylan Roof, who murdered nine black Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, and Thomas Mair, the neo-Nazi who assassinated British MP Jo Cox in 2016. It, along with other “alt-right” media platforms, have enjoyed a resurgence of sorts under the right-wing populist presidency of Donald Trump.
But why Gersh? She lives and works in the same town, Whitefish, Montana, as Sherry Spencer, mother of the notorious American white-nationalist provocateur, Richard Spencer. Sherry Spencer owns a building in town that has been picketed by critics of Spencer’s racist philosophy, and reportedly discussed the possibility of selling with Gersh’s help. According to Reuters, she apparently changed her mind, posting an article to Medium accusing Gersh of trying to extort her.
According to the complaint, Gersh individually contacted commercial tenants in Spencer’s building to warn them about a protest that might take place outside it, concerning Spencer’s son. One of those tenants introduced Gersh to Spencer, at which point Spencer complained about the burden of owning the building and Gersh suggested she sell. At some point, wires got crossed, and Spencer walked away from the exchange believing Gersh was trying to lower the value of the property by talking up the presence of protesters.
She expressed her concerns via the aforementioned Medium post, and alhough it insists the conflict “has nothing to do with politics,” neo-Nazi fans of her son quickly convinced themselves of a vast Jewish conspiracy in Whitefish.
“Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda,” the site’s owner, Andrew Anglin, wrote in a post headlined “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion – TAKE ACTION!” The piece included Gersh’s contact information, as well as photographs of her and her family. “This is the Jews for you,” he wrote. “They are a vicious race of hate-filled psychopaths.”
The messages started to pour in. Gersh’s email and social media accounts were inundated. “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened,” one troll wrote. “You have no idea what you are doing, six million are only the beginning,” wrote another. “We are going to keep track of you for the rest of your life,” a third warned. Others encouraged Gersh to commit suicide, others directly threatened her son.
The references to the Holocaust may be stale to more experienced adventurers in the darker corners of the Internet. But such comments would drive any ordinary person to chuck their computer out the window. Gersh, however, isn’t unplugging. She’s fighting back. On Tuesday, Apr. 18, she filed suit against Anglin, in a Montana federal court. The suit accuses Anglin of invading her privacy, intentionally inflicting emotional distress, and violating state anti-harassment law. (Anglin’s campaign has caused Gersh panic attacks, according to her attorneys; has developed insomnia, substantial anxiety, and even physical symptons of severe stress, including joint pain and hair loss. The harassment has also affected her business, forcing Gersh to take down her personal website.)
“Andrew Anglin knew he had an online army primed to attack with the click of a mouse,” said Richard Cohen, president of the SCPL, which filed the suit alongside Gersh. “We intend to hold him accountable for the suffering he has caused Ms. Gersh and to send a strong message to those who use their online platforms as weapons of intimidation.”
If successful, Gersh’s suit would set an important precedent in the world of Internet speech. Other courts have previously ruled that targeted online harassment does not qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But this case will be among the first to hold platforms responsible for harassment campaigns emanating from their content. And that should have the folks at bigger social-media companies, like Twitter, perhaps the largest bridge under which Internet trolls dwell, a little worried. Or perhaps more amenable to some preemptive anti-troll measures.