Troll for the ‘lulz’? A target of online abuse isn’t amused
One morning near the end of her long-shot congressional campaign, 25-year-old Erin Schrode rolled over in bed, reflexively checked her cellphone — and burst into tears.
With mounting horror, she scanned a barrage of anti-Semitic emails from anonymous trolls. “Get out of my country, kike,” read one. “Get to Israel to where you belong. That or the oven. Take your pick.”
Included was a photograph of Schrode digitally stamped with a yellow “Jude” star, the badge that Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.
Schrode, a Democrat who would come in third in the June primary in her Northern California district, had become the latest target of The Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi website known for orchestrating internet trolling campaigns.
After the site published a post about the “Jewess” and her candidacy, a reader posted Schrode’s contact information in the comments section. Over the past 10 months, her email and social media accounts have been polluted with a torrent of slurs and disturbing images.
“Every day, I’m reminded that I’m Jewish,” said Schrode, co-founder of an environmental nonprofit. “It’s not normal to wake up and hear that people want you dead or in another country.”
Trolling is a calling card of the “alt-right” — an amorphous fringe movement that uses internet memes, message boards and social media to spread a hodgepodge of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and xenophobia.
Troll tactics edged into the mainstream with the 2014 birth of GamerGate, an online campaign against feminists in the video game industry. GamerGate arguably provided a blueprint for some white nationalists and other extremists who rallied around Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, flooding the internet with “Pepe The Frog” cartoons and other hate symbols.
The Daily Stormer’s founder, Andrew Anglin, published a primer in August that attempted to define the “alt-right” and explain its origins. At the core of the movement is a “trolling culture” bred on the 4chan.org website, he wrote.
Andrew Auernheimer says he isn’t one of the faceless trolls who tormented Schrode, but he applauds their vitriolic spirit and chuckled at the mention of her name.
A notorious computer hacker and internet troll associated with The Daily Stormer, Auernheimer scoffs at the notion that anyone can be harmed by “mean words on the internet.” For him, anonymous trolling is a modern form of a generations-old, “distinctly American” political tactic.
“Being offensive is a political act,” he said. “If something pushes up against polite civilization, it’s for a purpose.”
Auernheimer said he trolls for the “lulz,” a slang term he defines as “the joy that you get in your heart from seeing people suffer ironic punishments.”
“The reality is internet trolling is entertaining. People love to watch it. It’s become a national sport,” said Auernheimer, who is known online as “weev.”
Other targets of The Daily Stormer’s trolling campaigns have included prominent journalists, a British Parliament member and Alex Jones, a radio host and conspiracy theorist whom Anglin derided as a “Zionist Millionaire.” More recently, Anglin published the personal information of Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, where white nationalist Richard Spencer has a home.
Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Anglin and his website have fueled a surge of trolling activity by far-right extremists over the past two years.
“He’s very good at manufacturing outrage,” Hankes said. “He tends to pick his victims for calculated reasons.”
Anglin’s initial June 3 post on Schrode — the first of at least six about her — linked to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report on her bid to become the youngest women ever elected to Congress. A commenter posted Schrode’s cellphone number, email addresses and links to her social media accounts.
The initial post called her a “hissing weasel.” Today, a photograph of Schrode is the first image returned by a Google search for that term.
Schrode noticed other spikes in her harassment after she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in December and after The Huffington Post published an article she wrote in November about her trolling experience.
In November, Schrode posted a video on Twitter of her getting shot by a rubber bullet while she interviewed a man at the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. One of the responses to her post was a crudely fabricated image of her bloodied body in front of armed police officers wearing swastika armbands.
The Twitter user who created and posted that image responded with a “lol” when an Associated Press reporter inquired about the message via a tweet.
“I sent her some memes that were ‘offensive,’ I guess,” the anonymous user wrote.
Online harassment can be a crime, but Schrode learned how difficult it can be for victims to get help from law enforcement. She says an FBI agent told her that the messages didn’t communicate a “true threat” to physically harm her and therefore didn’t rise to the level of a hate crime.
Schrode blocked some of her repeat tormentors, but never considered abandoning social media. She needs it to maintain her personal and political connections. And speaking out about her harassment has become fodder for her political activism.
Some days, she can it laugh off. More often, a single nasty tweet can compound a bad day or ruin a good one, making her feel lonely and suffocated. A question nags at her: Why me?
“You read about these things in the news,” she said, “but it’s so unreal when it targets you.”