KCRA television reporter Mike Luery runs away from members of Antifa Sacramento, who staged a counter-protest against the Traditionalist Worker party and the Golden State Skinheads, in Sacramento, California on 26 June 2016. Photograph: Paul Kitagaki Jr./AP
Recently, a significant part of the HuffPost newsroom had their private details released by far-right trolls.
This came in the wake of a story by the HuffPost beat reporter Luke O’Brien about a hyperactive Twitter account, @AmyMek, which offers its 231,000 followers a steady diet of anti-Islamic invective and conspiracy theories. The piece says that @AmyMek had been retweeted and promoted by a range of rightwing luminaries, including Trump.
O’Brien’s story detailed @AmyMek’s promotion of Islamophobic memes and conspiracy theories. It also exposed the identity of the person behind the account, Amy Mekelburg. In seeking to confirm his story, O’Brien contacted the WWE, the then employer of Mekelburg’s husband, Salvatore Siino. WWE fired Siino before O’Brien’s story was published.
Before O’Brien’s story dropped, Mekelburg asked followers to contact HuffPost, which she accused of “viciously harassing” her and “endangering me and my family”. The first tweet in her thread pre-empting the HuffPost story was retweeted 16,000 times.
Various rightwingers online felt that O’Brien had “doxxed” Mekelburg by revealing her as @amymek’s author. What followed was a concerted harassment campaign against O’Brien and his colleagues, where he and other journalists were actually doxxed, with their addresses and phone numbers published for the use of far-right trolls.
O’Brien’s and others’ details were disseminated on 4chan, Twitter and a neo-Nazi podcast. HuffPost journalists received threats, including death threats, on social media. O’Brien’s Twitter account was itself reported for abusive behavior, and he was briefly suspended.
Some tweets were explicit – one of hundreds sent to O’Brien read: “You take my job, I’ll take your life.” Other users tweeted marginally more oblique messages, like images of the Islamic State’s execution of US journalist James Foley.
Several HuffPo reporters also got threats over the phone. A voice message instructed a reporter to “kill yourself” before the callers could find them. Another threatened to send people to a reporter’s house so they could be “gang raped or gang murdered”.
Meanwhile, writers with connections to mainstream conservatism also appeared to promote the campaign against O’Brien and HuffPost.
On the anti-Islam website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer wrote a column inviting O’Brien to compare his actions to those of Nazi brownshirts, who were part of a movement known for attacking and shutting down what they called the “lying press”.
In Spencer’s comments, readers made veiled threats. One wrote, “His victims, perhaps, are better people than he is, but I feel confident that there is someone out there with O’Brien in his sights.”
Though previously banned from entering Britain, Spencer is a bestselling author, a regular commentator in conservative media, and last year he delivered a speech at Stanford University.
‘Day of the brick’
The response to O’Brien’s story ballooned into a more generalized campaign of threats against journalists. The so-called “day of the brick” campaign, which ran for about a week from 2 June, mobilised far-right resentment at O’Brien’s reporting, and encouraged people to scale up the threats. First promoted on a rightwing podcast, which foreshadowed O’Brien’s doxxing, the meme was inspired by the racist novel The Turner Diaries, a key text of the far-right movement.
The book, which inspired domestic terrorists including Timothy McVeigh, envisages a “day of the rope” where “race traitors”, including journalists, are publicly hanged from lampposts in American cities. On social media and rightwing forums, posts with the #dayofthebrick hashtag depicted shootings and other forms of violence.
As part of that campaign, a number of journalists received emails reading “all journalists will be hanged on the day of the rope”, accompanied by an identikit sketch of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, altered with a half-face skull mask. The mask is the same kind favored by neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen Division. That group is associated with a range of violent crimes, including several murders.
One of the reporters who received such an email was Kenoyer. It came just a day after her tangle with the protester in a Portland park. After she tweeted out a screenshot of the email, she says that other reporters got in touch about having received the same email, some from the same email account.
As Kenoyer’s experience suggests, the vitriol and threats from the far right are disproportionately targeted at women, and anyone else whose identity departs from the alt-right’s ideal type – white men.
Ellerbeck, the CPJ coordinator, says that gender identity, ethnicity and sexual orientation are all factors that affect a reporter’s “risk profile” for attacks.
‘Bullies choose particular targets’
David Neiwert has covered the far right since the 1990s, beginning at newspapers in the Pacific north-west, and continuing now with the Southern Poverty Law Center. He chronicled the long history of the radical right in a recent book.
He says that in the rightwing upsurge of the 1990s, threats tended to be more isolated, and rightwing activists then were not staging confrontational protests in urban areas.
“It was never like this in the 1990s,” Neiwert says, adding that protests like those in Portland are a more recent innovation. “A lot of the ethos of the current far right is taken from the Tea Party movement, who tried to disrupt anything they saw as a liberal proceeding.”
The new willingness to engage in street protests is related to the changing demography of the radical right, Neiwert says.
“In the 1990s they were not recruiting young men, they were mostly going after middle-aged guys. This movement is very much geared towards young men, and the anger that comes with youth.”
And young men, he says, are better at using the internet to further their goals and attack their enemies. “The big difference is social media,” Neiwert says. “It’s a tool for harassing people with, and they use it.”
Neiwert says that the far right “are bullies, and bullies choose particular targets”. He adds that while he has had equipment interfered with by leftwing protesters in the heat of protests, nothing on the left corresponds with the right’s targeted harassment.
He says that ameliorating the heightened danger for journalists might require the profession’s “lone wolves”, like beat journalists and freelance reporters accustomed to working alone, to find ways to ensure one another’s safety.
At protests, he says, “it would be helpful for journalists to cooperate to make sure we have each other’s backs”.
Kenoyer, meanwhile, says she will continue to cover protests. In the wake of her experience in Portland, her main questions are professional and ethical.
“How do I write about being attacked without becoming part of the story?”