Unreal When It Targets You: Faceless Trolls Attack Online
By Michael Kunzelman. Updated April 22, 2017.
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 and activist 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.
Her tormentors are faceless. They hide behind screen names, in the shadows.
Andrew Auernheimer says he is not one of them, but he applauds their vitriolic spirit.
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, whose anti-Semitic rhetoric matches the swastika tattooed on his chest, chuckled at the mention of Schrode's name.
"Why should I have any empathy? What's she ever done for me?" he asked. "I don't feel any empathy for any Jew anywhere."
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.
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.
The attacks weren't limited to emails or tweets. She said somebody hacked her campaign website on election day, changing her name throughout to Adolf Hitler. She also said she received a voicemail from someone making a hissing noise.
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 experience as the target of trolls.
"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."
Some days, she can laugh it off. More often, a single nasty tweet can compound a bad day or ruin a good one, making her feel lonely and suffocated.
"I hate to admit that's the power these monsters have over me, but on some days that's the truth," she said.
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 user wrote.
Auernheimer is known online as "weev." 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," Auernheimer said. "It's something that anyone can jump into."
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 telephone numbers and other personal information of Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, where white nationalist Richard Spencer has a home. Anglin accused the families of engaging in an "extortion racket" against Spencer's mother and has vowed to lead neo-Nazi skinheads on an armed march through the town. He also posted a photograph and Twitter handle of a young boy whose mother is one of Anglin's targets in Whitefish.
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."
Auernheimer, 31, has served as a technical consultant for The Daily Stormer.
In 2014, he wrote a post for the site about his time in prison. A federal jury convicted him of identity theft and conspiracy charges in 2013 for his role in developing a program that exploited an AT&T security flaw to collect 114,000 email addresses of iPad users.
A judge sentenced him to 41 months in prison. But he was released in 2014 after an appeals court panel overturned his convictions, ruling the government improperly charged him in New Jersey when all of his conduct occurred while he was living in Arkansas.
Auernheimer subsequently moved to Europe and says he lives in Moldova.
Twitter suspended his account in December, possibly as part of the social media company's effort to crack down on hate and abuse.
"They're only interested in curbing abusive behavior of people whose political ideology they disagree with," he said.
Although he was amused by Schrode's trolling, he said he didn't participate in it or tamper with her campaign website.
"That's pretty funny, but that's probably a false flag and she did it herself," he said.
Online harassment can be a crime, but Schrode learned how difficult it can be for victims to get help from law enforcement.
Schrode said she received hundreds of hate-filled messages before she called her local police department in Sausalito on June 4. A police report says Schrode told an officer she didn't feel threatened by the "rude comments," but Schrode disputes that characterization: "I never would have called them rude comments. This was targeted hate speech," she said, citing one tweet that referred to gang raping her and bashing in her "bagel eating brains."
She also contacted the FBI in San Francisco. An agent, she says, told her the messages didn't communicate a "true threat" to physically harm her and therefore didn't rise to the level of a hate crime.
Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace," said some state and federal officials are striving to educate law enforcement on the laws against cyberstalking and online harassment.
"We have a lot of the tools. We just have to use them, and they're starting to use them," she said.
Citron became a trolling target herself after she began writing about online harassment in 2008.
"I was never confronted offline, but I'll be honest: It wasn't fun," she said.
The FBI encouraged Schrode to change her email address, but she hasn't. She blocked and reported some of her repeat tormentors on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but never considered abandoning social media.
"My mom would like it if I just closed my mouth about this. She's very worried for her daughter's safety," she said. "Backing down, recoiling, shutting up has never been an option for me."
That's not just an act of defiance. She needs Twitter and Facebook to maintain her personal and political connections. And speaking out about her trolling experience has become fodder for her political activism.
Schrode dismisses most of the trolls as "keyboard cowboys" and tries to ignore them, but a question nags at her: Why me?
"You read about these things in the news," Schrode said, "but it's so unreal when it targets you."
Editor's Note: Erin Schrode wrote on her blog, "Please take a moment to read and share this important piece of journalism, as we unite to denounce, combat and end hate speech, bigotry, anti-Semitism and division -- online and off -- against any people for any reason at any time in any place. Keep doing, keep fighting, keep loving, keep living."