When the Mob Comes
An interview with author Talia Lavin about online harassment and what you can do about it
The first time the online mob came for me was in 2016. I was live-tweeting my caucus experience, which I was writing about for VICE, during the realignment period of the caucuses, which is basically when you try to get people to come to your group and vote for your candidate. That year, Martin O’Malley people were sitting ducks. During the process, things got tense between the Sanders and the Clinton supporters, and a Sanders supporter yelled at me that I was voting with my vagina. “So, America’s voted with its dick for the past 240 years,” I said. I tweeted part of that exchange. And the tweet got picked up by national news outlets, and I quickly became the center of a social media storm. In the middle of the usual, you’re-an-ugly bitch-no-one-would-even-rape-you kind of stuff, I received DMs telling me that I should die from cancer because my kids would be better off without me. I received emails saying my kids were going to be taken away.
So, in 2018, when I published a profile of Tucker Carlson, I thought I was prepared for what would happen. In the previous two years, I’d gotten a lot of internet hate and trolling. People told me I looked like I had a horse face, a drawerful of dildos, and a house full of cats. When I worked at AOL, I read an entire comment thread dedicated to analyzing why I spelled my name the way I did. The conclusion: My parents didn’t love me, and I needed attention. Which, fair. I’d even gotten a couple anonymous handwritten letters to my home that were just Bible verses written out on plain white paper.
But what happened next was nothing like that. My phone exploded. My Google number, which I used almost exclusively then, was doxed and I got message after message of alt-right memes. Facebook messages. Twitter messages. Instagram messages and comments. Emails. So many emails.
For an entire year, it didn’t end. Anytime I wrote something, the internet would regurgitate threats like a cow chewing a vicious cud. That year, I also wrote about Richard Spencer’s divorce and how I was never cooking for a man again. If people hated me before, they loathed me now. I locked down my Facebook. Ditched my Google voice number. It didn’t help.
I remember that summer sitting in my co-working space, rocking my friend’s baby in his little carrier, crying as I read tweet after tweet calling me ugly, worthless, a cunt, photoshopped pictures of Pepe the Frog raping me, and worse, so much worse.
Even stupid internet jokes were mobbed. I once joked about how a man unmatched with me on a dating service. “What’s he hiding?” I tweeted. The truth was, I didn’t even remember his name. It was just a stupid joke. The internet is still not over it. Screenshots float up every once in a while on Twitter or in my DMs. “Did you say this?” they’ll ask. The implication is somehow that I doxed a poor, poor innocent man. That never happened, but the truth doesn’t matter.
This all culminated in September 2019, when I co-hosted the LGBTQ forum and Joe Biden called me a “real sweetheart.” That’s when the bomb threats came.
People sometimes ask me why I got bomb threats, which is a ridiculous question. I don’t know. Ask people why they send bomb threats. And how can I answer that? As if something I did could ever deserve a threat to my life.
The reality is what gets you on the radar of the mob is nothing, a tweet, a joke, a comment, just existing as a woman, a person of color, a woman of color. Doing your job and doing it well. Sometimes all it takes is being successful.
People want to attribute the hate to one thing, one moment, one time I messed up, one story I filed. I think people do that because they want to feel safe. They want to think it will never happen to them. If you can blame me somehow, then you can distance yourself from it all.
Once, a man in town told me his teenage son had been receiving harassment for over a month. It was just a storm of hate. All because, why? He was a Black kid and he posted a picture of himself on Instagram once. That was all it took.
In September, the threats included pictures of a house where I used to live inside a crosshairs (I have these pictures in a file and I’m not posting them here because it’s a real home). “I’m gonna go bomb her,” a person said on Twitter. Pictures of that house filled up my Twitter replies. “You are not safe,” another person wrote.
I spoke with a friend in law enforcement and took a half-day off work to report the threats to the FBI and to my local police. “We don’t agree politically,” the FBI agent said, “but no one deserves this.”
I hadn’t said anything political to him except that I was a single mom and I was being threatened. I left more scared than when I went in.
Here’s what it feels like. You can turn your phone off. Your internet off. But you cannot escape. If the door knocks, you freeze. If a man on the street stares at you too long, your throat swells with fear and you wonder if you can kick him hard enough to get away. At the grocery store a man smiles and you wonder if he’s being nice or if he’s the plumber in town who wrote you an email about his dick. A lady says “hi” at the bookstore and is she the one who emailed to call you a “slut” because of the outfit you wore on television one time? Maybe she’s the wife of the lawyer, whose office isn’t far from you, who spent a lot of time talking about your clothes and your body on Facebook. The whole world becomes a dark small place of fear. That year, I began going to the movies alone. I’d sneak in some bottles of Sutter Home wine, buy a large popcorn, turn off my phone and hide. It felt safe there in the cool room, where no one could see my face.
I try not to live that way. I work hard to remember the good comments and erase the bad from my mind. I have a good therapist. But I still have moments of cold terror. I wake up at 2 A.M. and my small dog is barking and I’m worried. I have a big dog now too. My dogs sleep with me. My doors are locked. I switch up my running routes and run at different times of the day. If I’m home alone, which is often, I never answer the door. Not even for food delivery.
I’m grateful to the many journalists who have helped me in those moments. Especially the far-right reporters who work at the Huffington Post who watched out for me after the Richard Spencer story was published, who gave me tips and advice and who watched the videos of Spencer talking about me and let me know if I needed to know anything.
One writer who has been so helpful is Talia Lavin. Talia is the author of Culture Warlords, and she midwifed me through my first dark canal of terror. I interviewed her to talk about online hate, harassment, and how to survive a mob. This conversation is an attempt at nuance. Neither Talia nor I are claiming to be martyrs for a cause. My hope is that if we talk about the harassment we receive, we can have a better conversation about it.
Not all harassment is the same. Telling a NYT columnist his column is bad is different than telling a USA Today intern she sucks. But there is a line, when criticism slides into harassment, and so few people know when to stop. I’ve had people ask me for help when they were banned from Twitter for telling government officials to die, and you know what, good. Stay away. If you are making threats of death, you’ve gone too far. If you are a Maggie Haberman reply guy? Re-evaluate your life.
But harassment is something that happens to marginalized people in every job. A large account with troll followers, all they have to do is point someone out and the pile on begins. This conversation is about how Talia and I have dealt with the pile on, advice, and at the end of this article is a roundup of resources to help you protect yourself and a discount code for the online privacy service DeleteMe. I didn’t receive any compensation from DeleteMe; I’ve just used the service for a while now and really love how they help get my information off the internet, and after I tweeted about them, they offered everyone a discount code. I hope it helps. And I sadly, think this type of service is necessary for everyone.
Lyz: Do you want to talk about the first time you faced the online mob?
Talia: So, Ken Klippenstein at The Nation wrote a piece about everything. But basically, what happened was I tweeted a picture comparing a tattoo in a photo ICE had posted of one of its agents with the Iron Cross, a symbol with Nazi associations. When commenters pointed out that the cross could be the Maltese Cross, I deleted the tweet and issued a correction about 15 minutes later. It was too late. ICE seized on the correction and issued a press release the next day condemning me for “baselessly slandering an American hero.”
It just annoys me because it's one of those things that’s a perennial thorn in my side and people bring it up every time they are annoyed with me or just want to discredit me or call me a liar.
If I had done what I was accused of, I feel like I could own it more or deal with it better. Instead you, like, wind up constantly wanting to explain what had really happened. But it’s useless. Never get in the weeds, especially with the idiots who bring it up. Or the very serious journalists who are certain that such an error could never happen to them.
People do this. Because they want to believe that it can’t happen to them. And in believing it can’t happen to them, they believe, on some level, that you deserve what you are getting. But the reality is, it can happen to anyone.
Lyz: The thing I get harassed about the most is a joke I once made about internet dating. And it comes up so often people ask me about it, and it’s like, what do you want me to explain? It’s a dumb tweet; no one was hurt. I just don’t talk about it. There is no winning.
Talia: It is interesting because I think that there are legitimate uses of social media pressure. I think that, just talking about “the mob” does no one any good, especially when you add, like, the pejorative, when you say it's the “woke mob.” Like, I think that there are nuances that get lost when you just want to talk about pressure. For example, Andrew Cuomo is out here, claiming that he's being harassed because women have come forward with legitimate accusations. That’s not a mob.
I think with regards to journalism in particular, newsrooms have been exclusive, patrician, nearly all white spaces forever. And writing for similar audiences. And with the advent of social media suddenly there's a mechanism for people formerly unable to offer input into this closed system to get their voices heard. So you'll get critiques — even vociferous, collective critiques — on a disastrous headline, a racist or sexist column, on open or veiled bigotry from people whose job description is to present "objective" reality. I think there is room for that, and it's often a necessary corrective. It may sting to hear but it's an orthogonal issue in a sense. And newsrooms resent it, like plebeians are barging into patrician business. It's when that spills over into personal harassment of journalists — doxing, slurs, threats of rape and death, attacks on family — that the issue changes. I think it's important to retain that nuance, lest we always frame the issue of harassment as a blanket condemnation of the public and public feedback.
So I don't want to disavow the idea that large and impassioned social media campaigns can have their place. But there’s a distinction. And harassment is very real. And I think it’s about power. In my case, I was a low-level New Yorker employee being scapegoated in a culture war by a literal government agency.
And all of a sudden it was this giant, like, right-wing media scandal. Like I was the villain of the week.
It was like having the roof pulled off your life. I wound up issuing an apology to the ICE guy, and I resigned. I wasn't forced to resign, but my resignation was very gladly accepted an hour after I submitted it.
And I felt completely emotionally isolated, like completely, just totally shell-shocked. And I just remember sitting there crying at my desk typing up my resignation letter, just ’cause I didn’t feel like anyone was rallying to my defense, but also I felt really bad for what I thought I was doing to the magazine, which in retrospect, that wasn’t right.
Lyz: What did it feel like? For me it’s felt claustrophobic.
Talia: I got death threats. The Daily Stormer said they wanted to perpetrate another Holocaust because of how awful I was. And I began self-harming for the first time in years. I really cannot overemphasize how utterly alone I felt in that moment, how utterly and completely vulnerable, alone. And also, it was confusing because I did feel guilt, but I also knew that I hadn't done what they'd accused me of. They were lying. But how do you, how do you say, the government's lying without sounding crazy.
Lyz: You make a good point about having a conversation or criticism online and harassment. I always believe people are allowed to disagree with me and I don’t need to be part of those conversations. That’s what it means to have ideas in the world. But I think there is a huge difference between that and having someone tell me my kids should die.
Talia: It's a little like that old thing about porn: I know it when I see it. That said there is a big difference between, “I think your thesis is wrong.” And calling someone fat and stinky or a racial slur. I mean, I think it's a pretty clear line.
There are joke ad hominems that I don’t really care about. Like, I'm not that bothered if someone wants to call me, like, Lalia Tavin or say I look like a potato.
Lyz: I love it when people call me Lyz Lies. It is so silly. But if you're going to tell me you're going to call CPS, because you think I'm a bad mother and that my children should die because they would be better off dead than having a mother like me? That's when it bothers me.
Talia: Yeah, when a white nationalist blog doxes my parents, I would call that harassment. Anti-fascists have a code. They don’t dox families ever or home addresses. They'll say towns. And they'll say employers; they won't say families. I think that's a good code. That's a good line to draw. Like, if you're ever doxing someone's parents, you're in the wrong.
Lyz: And no death threats. I remember when you first started helping me. You had some really good practical advice that I really appreciated. ’Cause it wasn't just like, “Keep your chin up, girl, you'll get through this.” It was here's some actual things you can do to protect yourself and your kids and your family. I know I’m not the only one you’ve helped. What do you tell people now?
Talia: I never want anyone to feel as alone as I did in that moment. Like that was the worst part of it. Just feeling like I was the only person in the world against the tide of vitriol. And so, if I can help any other person, I will, and it's been women for the most part.
The first thing I say is to delete all your information off the internet using a service like DeleteMe. Even if you are doxed now, it makes it harder for them to find you in the future.
It’s expensive, but we have the promo code. And if you are having a hard time affording it, ask your employer, and if they won’t or you don’t have an employer, contact me; we will work something out.
Don’t expect your company or your colleagues to have your back. Everyone wants to distance themselves and basically tell themselves I couldn't end up that way. Have a trusted friend check for threats. Never go on Fox News. You will get a horrible email from some booker, but do not go on hostile media.
Lyz: Do not go on hostile media! When my first book came out, a lot of hostile media wanted me to come on. And I was like, no, I know it's a losing enterprise. It's set up. Maybe I’ll sell two more books, but the cost is living in fear. Even if you think you can game the system, you can't game the system because they'll just edit it to make you sound like an idiot. Don't go on. Just don't go on.
Talia: The house always wins. Avoid being a protagonist as much as possible in someone else's story and someone else's morality play. So that means lockdown. Even when it's incredibly painful to be silent. It’s actually one of the more painful things to just watch narratives play out about you in the public sphere.
Lyz: My agent told me once that the more successful you are, the more they come for you. And I think about that a lot too, because, you know, at some point it's like, it's tempting to think, okay, is this ever gonna end? Can I ever breathe? Can I ever be a human? And sometimes the answer is no, because if I'm doing the work that I love and I'm doing it well, it will never end. So, settle in.
Talia: It is absolutely crazy that we're at least a decade, if not more, into this kind of, like, pick them out and shoot them off the line approach to attacking people, especially journalists and women of color online and newsrooms have kind of just considered it an acceptable loss. They seem to rarely stick up for their journalists. So, okay, we'll just keep losing journalist after journalist after journalist. Which just shows how they think you can just replace one person with the next and, of course, it's disproportionately women, disproportionately gay, women of color, and trans women.
You have to be perfect. There is almost no room for error.
Lyz: I’m afraid to even have friendly messages with people online because what if they’re screenshotted. I told this to my therapist once, and I thought she’d tell me I was paranoid, and she was like, yeah, maybe keep things on lock now. She told me no more online dating.
Talia: I will say though for most people, in most cases, the first 48 hours of harassment are the worst.
Lyz: And don’t tweet through it!
Talia: If you want to eventually release a carefully worded statement that you've workshopped with some people in your life, yeah. Like, that can work, but yeah. Don't, don't tweet through it. Just lock it down. Shut up. Get off.
If you need someone to be checking for threats, which is totally reasonable, enlist a friend to do it for you.
Lyz: A couple of years ago, I would have told people to just block and delete and block and delete. But now, I would say take screenshots and save them in a folder. That sounds horrible, like pressing a bruise, but I’ve had people try to gaslight me about my threats. Tell me it’s not that bad. So, I’m happy I have my file of threats, which I went through before our talk and it’s bad.
Talia: One time I helped a woman, who was getting obsessive emails from one guy who just kept emailing with abuse. And I was like, let's just find him. It was really easy ’cause he was using his real name, like he worked through his wife’s dad's business. And with that information, I told her, you can, at any moment, email this guy's job and tell them he is sending these abusive emails. And she didn't wind up doing that, but just the knowledge made her feel more empowered. Just the knowledge that this is a real person. And so, sometimes, you can do that, like with the most persistent harassers. If you find out who they are, like, you get a little bit of your power back on that side.
Lyz: I agree, but also, I disagree. When I started working for the newspaper, I was getting some pretty upsetting emails and not just like, we hate you, we don't agree with you, but like a man describing his dick. I started Googling and just seeing who these people were. And it was terrifying. They were friends with my friends. People knew them. I could bump into one of them at the store. That made me not want to leave my house. I feel like in my community sometimes, because it's smaller than New York City, I get even more afraid. Because this person doesn't feel like they have to hide who they are to send me this kind of garbage. So what, what else are they doing?
But, I mean, but having that knowledge of knowing who a person is and where they work is empowering. Because you know that they’re human too.
If you go back and give yourself advice, what would you say to Talia of a couple of years ago?
Talia: Don't quit. Don't fall on your sword for anybody. Don't make any big sudden moves in the wake of this stuff. If they're going to fire you, make them fire you. I would advise newsroom executives not to make any sudden moves either, but, like, especially the people going through it. It’s a very traumatic event; you're in the middle of the trauma. Don't make any life-altering decisions.
Lyz: I wish employers knew that you can’t make the mobs happy by sacrificing one of your own every fortnight. Human sacrifice doesn't appease the angry gods. They’ll just come back for more.
Talia: If anything, it makes them more bloodthirsty. We have this profession that combines hypervisibility and precarity. There's no job in media that’s super stable right now.
And capitulating to attacks that are often directed at marginalized employees sends a message that we are disposable and interchangeable. And it's pretty bad for morale.
Lyz: I've heard this so often from people. They get more scared. When I wish the opposite was true. Honestly, it’s made me bolder. But yes, to see how people are treated, it can have a silencing effect. Because no one should have to live their lives like this, where every day you wake up to an inbox full of hate.
Talia: Essentially, journalism is the business of bothering people in power. People will be bothered by stories. When you make employees feel disposable, interchangeable, and that you'll throw them to the wolves, you make them less inclined to challenge the powerful. Maybe that's what you want, but if so, you're in the wrong business.
Lyz: I act pretty bold. But 10% of my life is projecting fearlessness. The other 90% of my life is spent crying alone in various rooms in my house.
Talia: No one needs to know how many panic attacks I have a day.
Lyz: I think the people who have panic attacks, the people who are trying to do good work and are getting attacked, they need to know. But yes, I do hide a lot of vulnerabilities because I don't want to show the whites of my eyes.
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The podcast Reply All did an episode on digital privacy that includes links and resources for managing your data online.
The NYT has a guide to doxing yourself.
This newsletter has been updated with some additional comments by Talia about the nature of criticism and the difference between an “online mob” v. pushback against racism or bigotry. I included her additional comments because they add to the nuance of the discussion.
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