The harassment campaign against Boston Children's shows how fascist violence is crowdsourced online
From Gamergate to January 6, the far right has spent a decade perfecting this playbook.
By Noah Berlatsky
On the evening of August 30, operators at Children’s Hospital in Boston took a call from a woman who didn’t identify herself but who had a chilling message: “There is a bomb on the way to the hospital. You’d better evacuate everybody, you sickos.”
In a way, the bomb scare wasn’t a surprise. For weeks, Children’s Hospital had been on the receiving end of threats after right-wing social media accounts started spreading lies about the hospital, which boasts a pioneering pediatric adolescent and trans health program. For example, they claimed — falsely — that the hospital was performing hysterectomies on children as part of gender-affirming care. The hospital does not perform hysterectomies on people under 18.
Among the large social media accounts targeting trans health care are Brooklyn real estate agent Chaya Raichik, who posts under the name Libs of TikTok, Daily Wire contributor Matt Walsh, and right-wing activist Christopher Rufo. In a longstanding and deliberate media strategy, these false claims are picked up by other, even bigger, conservative outlets, like the Daily Wire and the Post Millennial. Eventually, in the case of Boston Children’s, they made their way onto Fox News, where they were amplified by Tucker Carlson.
Two weeks after the threat, the FBI made an arrest after tracing the call back to a western Massachusetts woman’s phone. According to the FBI, 37-year-old Catherine Leavy told agents that it had all been a hoax. She faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.
Hoax or not, the incident is just the latest in the far right’s deliberate, systematic, violent assault on trans health care. These attacks are intended most directly to terrorize trans children and their families. Powerful political figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have over the last months been attacking LGBT people as “groomers” and “pedophiles.” They claim that acknowledging to children that gay and trans people exist is tantamount to child abuse. They’ve also argued that providing gender-affirming care to trans youth is abusive.
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In response, many children’s hospitals, afraid that the online vitriol will lead to attacks on staff and patients, have started to remove information about gender-affirming care from their websites. This will make it harder for trans people in distress to find health care information. Such is the intended goal of the right, which wants to isolate trans people and force them out of the public sphere.
But there’s an even more sweeping agenda at the heart of these attacks: To build fascist power in the United States. Using the internet as an organizing tool, these operations establish and cultivate leaders, information networks, talking points, tactics, and shock troops. They create a blueprint for violent activism and give far right agitators a chance to practice and perfect intimidation and hatred.
A brief history of right-wing online harassment campaigns
The far right has been perfecting this playbook for at least a decade. Gamergate, an online misogynist harassment campaign from 2014 and ‘15, was thinly disguised as a consumer movement. Reactionary video game fans claimed their hobby was being hijacked by feminists and liberal media. They used tweets, videos, and blog posts to demonize video game designers like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, who received a deluge of death threats and rape threats, which in some cases forced them to flee their homes.
Gamergate was initially a fandom movement. But it was quickly picked up by conservative media. Milo Yiannopoulos at Breitbart wrote article after article siccing his large rabid audience on left women with moderate-sized social media accounts. He helped bully actress Leslie Jones off Twitter after she appeared in a female-led Ghostbusters reboot.
The right has also targeted university professors. The conservative organization Turning Point USA keeps an online watchlist of professors — especially professors of color — who are supposedly spreading “leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Teachers who show up on the watchlist can expect to get a flood of harassment.
Turning Point USA was a major organizer of the January 6 protest which led to the insurrection on behalf of former President Donald Trump. That’s not surprising, since Trump learned from and employed the right-wing model of outsourced, diffuse harassment himself on numerous occasions.
Most notably, Trump used his Twitter account to announce and promote the January 6 insurrection. He falsely claimed Democrats had stolen the 2020 election, and then followed that inflammatory lie with a call to action, encouraging his followers to show up for a protest in Washington DC.
“Be there, will be wild!” he said, as a way of jokingly-but-not-really-jokingly encouraging extreme behavior.
The January 6 commission provided extensive documentation of the way Trump’s personal call for help inspired his followers to gather to commit violence. The commission did not spend much time, though, discussing the milieu of extremist right wing organizing in which Trump operates.
Deplatforming works, but social media platforms are reluctant to do it
Conservative true believers are constantly spoonfed lies through social and right-wing media — lies which demonize individuals and groups as existential threats. They are primed to take action against those threats through vigilante action. That includes harassment, death threats, and even in-person physical violence in the case of the insurrectionists. Another example is Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old who consumed tons of right wing media and then went out and shot two Black Lives Matter protestors in Kenosha.
Harassment campaigns are central to right organizing and to building support for antidemocratic violence. But precisely because these campaigns and strategies are undertaken outside the electoral political process, Democrats and those on the left have had trouble coordinating a response.
Local elected officials will sometimes condemn bigotry, as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has done in response to the targeting of hospitals providing trans health care. But this does little to stop the right-wing attacks. National political figures, for their part, mostly stay quiet. Joe Biden hasn’t commented, for example, perhaps because he’s worried that to do so would bring more attention to the hospitals in question and lead to more harassment.
In some cases, deplatforming campaigns have been effective. Notorious harassment site Kiwi Farms doxed and terrorized trans people for years. Users would choose targets, hack their accounts, send them death threats, contact employers and family, and send false anonymous tips to police to get law enforcement to dispatch SWAT teams to their addresses.
Kiwi Farms ran its usual playbook on YouTuber Clara Sorrenti, aka Keffals, who was forced to flee the country. But Sorrenti had a large platform, and she decided to resist. She created a massive anti Kiwi Farms campaign on social media demanding that Kiwi Farms’ web security provider, Cloudflare, drop the site.
Cloudflare dragged its feet at first, but after the story got picked up by mainstream sites, and as Kiwi Farms’ harassment escalated to unprecedented levels, it backed down. Without a steady security infrastructure, Kiwi Farms collapsed. Sorrenti even got it removed from the Internet Archive’s WayBack machine, so the doxing material it collected is not available anywhere.
Activists have tried to exert pressure on Twitter and other social media platforms to block Raichik and others engaged in targeted harassment of children’s hospitals. Raichik has in fact been suspended multiple times from Twitter for violating their policies against targeted harassment, bigotry, and encouraging harassment.
However, she keeps being reinstated, which Harvard Law School Cyberlaw clinical instructor Alejandra Caraballo points out is unusual. It’s probably relevant that Raichik is much better connected than Kiwi Farms. She’s received support from the right-wing site The Babylon Bee, which has threatened to sue Twitter over permanent suspensions. Seth Dillon, the Bee’s CEO, has said he’s supporting Raichik with direct financial contributions. Elon Musk has defended her as well.
Intimidation is a core part of modern right-wing politics
Disrupting online harassment is difficult. But at least, as the Kiwifarms campaign shows, there are tactics for doing so and activists engaged in lobbying to deplatform those who spread hate.
In contrast, infrastructure to support people or institutions targeted by online right harassment barely exists. Crash Override, an organization founded by Zoe Quinn in 2016, was the most prominent. It provided a hotline to provide support to those targeted, offering personal advice on how to protect data, lock accounts, anticipate harassment tactics and reach out to law enforcement.
Carsh Override was small, though, and never had sufficient resources for its mission. It closed in 2018, and nothing has really taken its place. What resources there are tend to frame the problem of harassment in a nonpartisan way. The right has a political movement focused on organizing harassment. But there is no political response to provide solidarity to victims or to create resources and strategies to push back.
There’s not much mainstream left/liberal discussion of the need for such an organization, because there’s relatively little left/liberal discussion of the way that right harassment has become institutionalized and weaponized. The targets of right-wing harassment are often too low profile to receive much media attention. And when mainstream journalists like Taylor Lorenz do report on right wing networks and connections, they are themselves targeted for massive waves of harassment that tend to discourage reporting. (And yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if this article makes me something of a target.)
There’s no one clear path forward to confront right wing organizing and the way that it has used the internet to crowdsource fascist vigilante violence. But trans people, gay people, feminists, Black women, left professors, Democrats, journalists, and all the other people declared enemies of the right should not have to live under constant threat of doxing, harassment, and violence. Democrats and leftists, in office and otherwise, need to take these attacks more seriously, and need to do more to organize to fight them. If fascists are allowed to build power unchallenged, they will quickly grow too powerful to stop.
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CBS demonstrates how not to deal with election deniers
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