“Are y’all ready for an old-fashioned Troll Storm?”
Andrew Anglin, white supremacist and follower of what has been branded the alt-right in American political thought, wrote those words on his blog The Daily Stormer on December 16, 2016.
With that, the hate messages and death threats to Tanya Gersh and the people around her starting coming in — by email, by phone, on Twitter. Life for the Jewish real estate agent from Whitefish, Montana, her family, even her friends and co-workers, suddenly turned upside down.
“Merry Christmas, you Christ-killer.”
“You are a disgusting, vile Jew. You filthy & depraved Jews never learn; it is your people’s behavior responsible for our resentment of you, which pales in comparison to your hatred for us.”
“We are going to ruin you. … You will be driven to the brink of suicide. We will be there to take pleasure in your pain and eventual end.”
“If I was you I would suck the barrel of a shotgun.”
“The holocaust is coming.”
And, to her 12-year-old son’s Twitter account:
“WTF is wrong with you freaks?!”
He was also tagged in a tweet saying, “psst, kid, theres a free Xbox One inside this oven.”
There were calls to her workplace. There were calls to her husband’s workplace. There were calls to their home. The most chilling calls contained only the sound of gunshots.
The whole thing caught Gersh by surprise. Soon after Anglin published Gersh’s contact information, she came home and found her husband “in a completely dark house” with suitcases packed, she told a reporter for The Guardian, a British newspaper. When asked why, he showed her Anglin’s post.
Since then, the Gershes have received more than 700 hate messages. Last week, Gersh and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued Anglin.
“We knew Andrew Anglin had an online army primed to attack with the click of a mouse,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said in a statement. “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.”
This lawsuit is different from any other that the SPLC has pursued before, Cohen said, because it specifically addresses online harassment. For the Gershes, the fact that many of the threats are online makes them no less real.
The lawsuit — a civil one, meaning the defendants face fines rather than criminal charges if convicted — cites invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act. They are asking for damages greater than $75,000 on at least three of the counts.
The conflict behind the messages started with an investment property owned by Sherry Spencer, the mother of Richard Spencer, a white nationalist said by himself and others to have coined the term “alt-right.”
Richard Spencer’s mission is to capture the imagination of the online generation. He runs an Alexandria, Virginia, organization called the National Policy Institute.
Richard Spencer was caught on video in November at a Trump rally in Washington, D.C., giving the Nazi salute and saying, “Hail, Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” Since then, he has called for war on Jews, blacks and anyone else who doesn’t fit his profile.
Residents of Whitefish, uneasy with Spencer’s notoriety, discussed protesting in front of Sherry Spencer’s Whitefish property — a mixed-use building housing small businesses and vacation rentals, nestled between a yarn shop and a youth hostel on a residential street.
Stories about the investment property differ: Tanya Gersh said she accepted a request from Sherry Spencer to help her sell it. Spencer, in a December 15, 2016, post on the website Medium, said Gersh tried to intimidate her into selling. Spencer accused Gersh of extortion.
Gersh’s lawyers say they think Richard Spencer may have ghostwritten his mother’s post, but no there is no verification. Anglin published his declaration of war the next day.
Since his initial post, Anglin has written about the Gershes at least 30 times, in a blog with hundreds of thousands of visitors each month.
He put photos of Gersh, her son and the leader of a local activist group on a flyer advertising a white-pride march he planned to hold in Whitefish in January. Anglin boasted that attendees would come from all over the world. He said there would be people carrying baseball bats, swords and machine guns. He said they would march right up to the Gershes’ door.
Eventually, he was forced to admit he had been denied a permit for the march. It was because of “some alleged technicality,” he wrote.
While Anglin’s rhetoric may sound like the rantings of a melodramatic teenager, its effect has been deadly serious.
Gersh has stopped working and taken down all social media accounts. She says she struggles with how to explain to her children why this is happening. Most nights, she says, she cries.
Experts debate whether the online culture has sparked more hate or only makes it easier to spread.
Jeffrey McCall, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana, says the anonymity of online communications makes it easier to “engage in angry messaging from hidden locations with virtually no worry of repercussions.”
If the SPLC lawsuit is successful, that may change.
“I know I’m not the first person that Andrew Anglin has victimized,” Gersh told The Guardian last week. “I’m filing a lawsuit against him because he and his white nationalist followers terrorized me and my family for months, and my life is forever changed. My sense of safety is forever changed.”