Editor, Ricochet; Columnist, The Forward; Stay-at-Home Mother | New Jersey
March 30, 2018
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me: As a writer, what do you write and edit?
I am a political conservative, so I either write and edit for politically conservative publications or websites, or I’m the token conservative at liberal ones. I write about politics and culture-war issues from a conservative perspective.
Describe some of your experiences with online harassment. When did it first happen to you, and what kind of harassment did you experience?
So the way I see it, there are two types of online harassment. First, there’s the outrage mob. I think that this is actually probably a bigger issue long-term for journalists. Jon Ronson wrote an entire book about it [called] So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The risk of an outrage mob happening publicly when you’re a journalist is exponentially higher than for a regular citizen. Then there’s the “troll army,” which descended on Trump opponents like me during the [2016 presidential] primaries and general election—the kind of folks who were sending out photoshopped pictures of people in gas chambers. I wish that I had said out loud at the time that I thought it was a Russian troll army, but I was too afraid to say anything because I didn’t want to sound conspiratorial. I was deluged by this troll army after the South Carolina primary, when I referenced the anti-Semitic following that Trump had online. Suddenly I was getting 100 tweets a minute. I’d open my phone at my kids’ playgroup and see a picture of myself in a gas chamber. My biggest issue at the time was determining if [something] was actually a threat and, if so, what to do about it.
How did you go about determining if it was a threat?
I mean, how do you? Because I’m Jewish, I had access to the Jewish Federation’s homeland security arm, and they helped contact my local police department and local prosecutors office. The frustrating part—and why I think it is so pertinent to say I’m a stay-at-home mother—is that when I reported my online harassment to local law enforcement, they saw my kids and thought, “Oh, this is just a crazy woman with a Twitter account and someone was mean to her.” But I’m actually a real person. I’m a mother, and I’m a professional who works with her kids at home, and I’m getting legitimate threats. My local law enforcement just had no frame of reference whatsoever. So I applied for a gun permit. The police asked me, “Why don’t you just stop writing things on the internet that make people upset?” To which I was like, “Why don’t you stop being a cop?” It’s my job.
Did it help you to learn about the other journalists out there who were experiencing similar episodes of online abuse?
The biggest frustration for me was: How do I handle this? No one seemed to take it seriously. And then all of a sudden, when it started happening to mainstream journalists like Jonathan Weisman from The New York Times, everyone was like, “There’s this big issue!” Yes, welcome to my last six months.
Was this particular episode of online harassment the result of something you’d written or an ad hominem attack on your identity? Or both?
It was 100 percent ad hominem. I do get attacked for what I write, but in this instance, it was just that I was a Jewish woman who was conservative and didn’t like Trump. To be honest with you, I think it was a Russian troll army [coming after me]. I’ve read research that indicates that these particular trolls had Russian origins. If I had a time machine, I would go back and not remotely give this a second thought because it was not a real, homegrown threat. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Where were the majority of the threats against you taking place?
All over Twitter. I got one personal email and one Facebook message. The email was from a Russian server. I looked at the back end, and the server said “.RU.” A homegrown, anti-Semitic website also published my photo with a picture of a target on my back and what they thought was my home address, along with my actual cell phone number.
So you were doxed.
Yes. But they didn’t do it well. They found an old address. I did get a couple of phone calls. One was a “Hava Nagila” song about Trump. It was actually really amusing.
It’s nice to see your sense of humor has remained intact. Especially since this kind of invasion of privacy can take such a toll. How did all this online harassment impact your writing life?
It actually made me write about Trump more, because I wanted to make a point that I was not going to be silenced. Unfortunately, until I got the gun, I had a couple of sleepless nights. It created a lot of unpaid work for me. I spent a lot of time talking to law enforcement and documenting tweets and emails, and it was a huge time suck. I did not have hours in my day to spend documenting tweets. It was really frustrating.
Did you decide to take a break from online platforms for a period of time?
Not really. I didn’t really have a handle on my [Twitter] mentions for a couple of weeks because they were going so fast. I’ve since detached myself a little from Twitter, just because of its general toxicity.
Twitter released a new batch of policies related to online harassment a few months ago. Do you think the platform is getting any better?
No. It’s so much worse. But the problem with Twitter isn’t that people are breaking the rules. It’s that people are inherently assholes, and you can’t police assholery.
So who is responsible for fixing this problem?
Probably not the tech companies. Outrage mobs are just a manifestation of the anger that people are feeling in this country right now. Stopping the speech doesn’t stop the anger, and if anything, it probably makes it worse.
How about editors and publishers? What should they be doing to help improve conditions for writers like you who are exposed to online harassment?
I think it would be helpful [for publications] to have contact with law enforcement. Some of that burden should be taken off the writer. Having law enforcement connections helps writers to be taken seriously. If a police report is coming from the editor in chief of an established institution rather than the freelancer who has been targeted, officers are more likely to take it seriously. Employers should be able to help answer a targeted writer’s first, most basic question: Who do I turn to and where do I go?
Do you have any advice for other writers who might find themselves in a similar position one day?
It’s important to establish a balance between calling attention to the fact that online harassment exists and not turning yourself into a victim. I also think that you shouldn’t ever back down or apologize to the outrage mob—even if you’re wrong. It’s just giving them what they want, and it sets a dangerous precedent.