A woman’s lawsuit against a neo-Nazi’s “troll storm” could change how to fight back against online harassment
Tanya Gersh says this is the sentence that upended her life: “Are y’all ready for an old-fashioned Troll Storm?”
Gersh, a Jewish woman living in the small Montana town of Whitefish, had never heard of a troll storm before reading the words last December on the Daily Stormer, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls the United States’ leading extremist website. Its publisher, Andrew Anglin, was allegedly calling on his hordes of followers, or “fam,” to launch an online harassment and intimidation campaign against Gersh. And it appears to have worked.
“At last count, Ms. Gersh has received more than 700 instances of harassment against her family as a result of Mr. Anglin’s troll storm,” says a lawsuit Gersh filed against Anglin in Montana on April 18. The suit paints him as the leader of what Gersh’s lawyers say has been a torturous, monthslong campaign that devastated her and her family.
“This has become a new weapon of hate, and we want to eventually remove this weapon from the arsenal,” said David Dinielli, one of Gersh’s attorneys and the deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is handling the case. “This is not OK, and it’s subject to legal sanctions.”
Whether that’s really true will be decided in court. While Gersh isn’t the first person to sue for online harassment, hers is the first lawsuit to go after someone for inciting a troll storm, in which an individual purposefully mobilizes an online mob. Right now, the legal system’s approach to combatting online harassment and hate is murky and uneven, often failing the victims.
But Dinielli hopes this lawsuit will become a “blueprint” for fixing that.
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“Online harassment has been around for about as long as the internet itself,” said Brittan Heller, director of technology and society for the Anti-Defamation League. Forty percent of all adult internet users have experienced some form of harassment, according to the Pew Research Center. Of that number, 18 percent have endured what the Center calls “more severe experiences,” including prolonged harassment, physical threats, stalking, and sexual harassment.
Anglin isn’t the only prominent American extremist connected to Gersh’s case. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist credited with coining the term “alt-right,” is a sometimes resident of Whitefish, and Anglin allegedly launched the campaign against Gersh after she angered Spencer’s mother.
Shortly after a November video of Spencer declaring “Hail Trump!” went viral, Whitefish residents debated protesting a building owned by Spencer’s mother, Sherry. She in turn reached out to Gersh, a real-estate agent, for help and, Gersh says, ended up asking her to sell the building. A few days later, however, Sherry Spencer emailed Gersh saying she would handle the sale on her own, according to the lawsuit. Gersh was amenable, and the two ended on what Gersh thought were amicable terms.
But Sherry Spencer has a different version of events, which she detailed in a December 15 Medium post accusing Gersh of sending her “terrible threats” and pressuring her into selling.
“She even shamelessly suggested that she act as my realtor!” Sherry wrote. She also published what appear to be screenshots of Gersh’s emails and social media posts, though without access to both sides of the exchange, it’s unclear who initiated the conversation about Gersh serving as Sherry’s real estate agent.
“A judgment against Anglin could deter other people from engaging in this kind of conduct.”
One day after the Medium post, Anglin launched his alleged harassment campaign, posting what would become the first of 30 articles related to Gersh, headlining it, “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion — TAKE ACTION!” He also published several ways to contact Gersh and her family, including her cell phone number and her husband’s work email address.
As soon as the article went up, Gersh says she faced an onslaught of threatening and anti-Semitic emails, phone calls, and even Christmas cards. People sent her husband’s law office letters bearing the German words “Juden Raus” — a Nazi slogan meaning “Jews out” — and her 12-year-old son was terrorized on social media. At one point, Anglin combined photos of Gersh and her son with an image of Auschwitz on a poster for a planned armed “March on Whitefish.” The march, however, never happened.
“The calls that most disturbed Ms. Gersh consisted only of the sound of guns being fired,” the lawsuit reads.
Anglin did not respond to multiple VICE News emails seeking comment.
Dinielli says that while Richard Spencer is not involved in the lawsuit, the case involves “a series of events and circumstances in which Richard Spencer is always a step or two away from the action. And certainly in the course of discovery, [we] will determine to learn exactly what, if any, role he had in this.” Spencer also did not reply to a request for comment.
The intensity and coordination of Anglin’s alleged hate campaign sets Gersh’s case apart from most online harassment cases, as does Anglin’s profile; rather than an anonymous tormenter, he’s a very visible leader in a rising extremist movement, which may make it easier to establish liability and make would-be trolls think twice.
“Any judgment against Anglin could potentially deter other people from engaging in this kind of conduct,” Heller said. “So I hope it’s the start of something new.”
Though hard numbers aren’t available, it’s likely that only a fraction of the people who experience online harassment turn to the legal system for help. Several federal statutes criminalize such behavior, but “it is difficult to determine the exact number of prosecutions that have been brought because the terms used to describe the crimes do not match up exactly with the federal criminal code,” according to a 2016 United States Attorneys’ Bulletin. For example, one law that addresses cyberstalking also criminalizes some types of offline stalking, so it can’t be used to measure solely the number of federal cyberstalking cases.
There are estimates, however. Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” says that of an estimated 2.5 million instances of cyberstalking between 2010 and 2013, federal prosecutors took up only 10 cases.
And though almost every state has laws against online harassment or stalking, researchers found in 2013 that several are not comprehensive, failing to “[fill in] the cracks created by the incorporation of the internet into everyday life” and leaving victims without legal remedies.
“When we say ‘trolling,’ it could mean so many things,” said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami School of Law professor who serves as the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s legislative and technology policy director. Tweeting insults often earns people the label of troll — but those people have a First Amendment right to be rude online. Threatening someone’s children on Twitter may also be considered trolling, but the legality of doing so is much more questionable. “Obviously there’s a lot in between, and so we have to get a lot more precise about what we mean by these forms of abuse.”
“That feeling of being unsafe, that gets worse before it gets better when you litigate.”
Law enforcement officials often lack the training and resources to understand and investigate online harassment, the Anti-Defamation League notes. Video game developer Zoe Quinn, who has been brutally harassed by mobs since 2014 in an infamous internet saga known as Gamergate, told reporters that she had to repeatedly explain what Twitter and doxing were to police officers and judges. The authorities often advise victims to just “turn off their computer,” Franks and Heller said, but for anyone whose livelihood depends on being online — in other words, vast numbers of people — that isn’t possible. And even if it were, it wouldn’t stop the harassment.
“We never got a good handle on [stalking and harassment] in the offline world,” Franks said, “so in some ways it’s not at all surprising that we’re making a mess of it now that it’s gone to the question of online interactions.”
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Another reason many people don’t seek help from the authorities: the fear of making the harassment even worse. Quinn dropped her criminal case against the ex-boyfriend who originally triggered Gamergate amid signs that a successful prosecution might actually heighten the online attacks against her.
“Even when you bring a lawsuit like this, sometimes nobody wins, because the victims should be prepared for a very long and hard process that may actually compound some of the harms that they’ve already complained about,” Heller said. “[That] feeling [of being] unsafe, that gets worse before it gets better when you litigate.”
Heller would know; she was a plaintiff in one of the first cases involving online harassment, which was settled in 2009.
“Since the troll storm, [Gersh] feels like a completely different person than she was before,” Gersh’s lawsuit says. “Ms. Gersh has experienced panic attacks, goes to bed in tears nearly every night, wakes up crying nearly every morning, startles easily, feels anxiety and discomfort in crowded places, has had trouble leaving her home, and fears answering her phone.”
Gersh told the Guardian that she is no longer working and attends trauma therapy twice a week.
The case against Anglin is in civil court, not criminal, and Franks worries that making trolls hand over money isn’t enough. In order to truly deter online harassment, she says, lawmakers need to specify what types of online behaviors aren’t acceptable — and then criminalize them.
“If we’re asking for legal remedies on any particular subject, then we have to be very specific about what problem we’re trying to solve,” she said. “We feel that lots of things are wrong with the way people are treated online, but we’re not very specific about what we think that is.”
Dinielli and his fellow Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers contend that “basic principles of law” have already specified what amounts to wrongdoing — it’s now simply happening online. The lawsuit, which is seeking more than $225,000 in damages, alleges that Anglin wrongfully and knowingly invaded Gersh’s privacy, intentionally inflicted emotional distress, and violated Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act, which penalizes harassment by extremist groups.
“It is not OK to harass people, it is not OK to intimidate people,” Dinielli said. “And that’s been the law for years and years and years. We’re applying these standards to an evolving set of circumstances.”