I have receipts.
As the first African-American columnist at the newspaper, I began receiving racist, violent hate mail for my writings almost as soon as I started finding my voice in the lifestyle section of the newspaper.
All told, I’d received more than a dozen letters and packages from the same letter writer. The writer would send clippings from newspapers and other print newsletters from all over the Eastern seaboard of the United States, pointing toward Black people as criminals and stupid and at risk.
“N*****S, GOD’S ONLY MISTAKE,” he wrote. “THERE WILL BE A RACE WAR AGAINST ALL YOU N*****S,” he warned.
At the time, I was writing a weekly column called “Chasing Rainbows” in a regional newspaper. My first column was written the evening after the NASA Columbia shuttle explosion as I sat in the newsroom, looking at photographs and stories of the catastrophe. I was struggling with how to tell my young children about death as we watched America’s astronauts vanish in the smoke. In the face of the loss of the shuttle crew, I struggled to hold it together.
“They are lost. There’s nothing NASA can do,” I said. Behind my stoic face, I was stunned. Another shuttle explosion? I had worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a young girl, spending five summers learning to code and working with scientists and engineers in the space program.
I’d always wanted to be an astronaut. And so I wrote my heart that evening in the newsroom –about death and loss of innocence and shattered dreams. From then on, I wrote my heart – what it was like to raise my young family in a Southern town or stories of teaching my children to ride their bikes. My columns were little fly on the wall stories, a peek into my life and my family. My stories invited these neighbours and readers into my life to share the most mundane and the most joyous events with my family.
Readers wrote to me as if they were friends. I received letters from readers who were moved by stories of my pets and comforted me in my grieving. And now, this intimacy had been violated by this hate mail I received for sharing my most personal details and bringing my readers into my home.
Via email, then online and often by mail, the hate mail would come. Sometimes it was a critique, finding me guilty for a whiff of privilege detected in one of my columns. Sometimes it was a racial epithet hurled across cyberspace. But oftentimes, it was one particular letter writer.
He sent persistent hateful missives, letters, manifestoes, pictures and threats in all block letters, shouting at me with every cutting word. Or he joked…
“HOW DO YOU GET A N***** OUT OF A TREE? CUT THE ROPE!”
He had several “jokes” like this that peppered his writings.
Every few months, he would send another package addressed to me at the newsroom. I went to the local police after the third or fourth letter. The police said they could do nothing until “something happened” to me in real life.
I’d been receiving threatening and racist letters from this letter writer for more than a year. I had been analyzing the letters, looking for similar phrasing or clippings across the material I’d received. I also used Internet searches to find the use of the same phrases and geographic data to see if I could find similar stories of letters or threats in hate crime records or in local newspaper reports.
I wrote down my growing suspicion that the tactics and the rhetoric in the letters I received fit a pattern of intimidation of white nationalist groups scattered throughout the Florida landscape and throughout the country. I was feeling the rise of an emboldened racist undercurrent in American society that was being whipped into action by the inauguration of the first African-American president in the United States. Ultimately, the goal was to silence my voice in the newspaper.
I felt exposed. I’d exposed my family as well. I had made myself and my family vulnerable through my writings. I began disguising myself when I traveled out of my home and altering my routines to avoid being a target. I became more fearful and reclusive, fearing the public appearances.
The last letter I received was filled with venom and rage. But the tone was different, more personal. He was mad, that was clear. His sentences were less coherent, more jarring and hesitant. He claimed that I was responsible for the conditions of his life – his lack of a job and the utter distain he held for me or for anyone with dark skin. He blamed me and I had to die.
I called my boss and told her “I quit.” He’d won. The letter writer had won. He had killed my voice in the newspaper, my column. I was devastated.
But in that moment, TrollBusters was born.
TrollBusters is online pest control for journalists, born out of my own experiences. I know what it feels like to be under attack. I know how these attacks can change your relationships with friends and family. I know what happens when suspicion grows on every face you see. I know how these attacks can change you and how you do your work.
Using machine learning and social media monitoring, TrollBusters provides just-in-time rescue services and coaching to journalists under attack online. When a target or a bystander sees online harassment or threats in their social streams, they report the activity to TrollBusters. TrollBusters will monitor their accounts, collect digital evidence and provide coaching on what to do next. We’ve intervened with social media platforms, worked to create impact ligitation, conducted international research with collaborators around the globe and created policy changes that impact journalists and their safety.
We’ve also worked with management and individual journalists to educate them about online harassment and how to armour oneself and one’s organization against online abuse. As someone who had experienced firsthand the devastation that can happen with online attacks, I was confident TrollBusters could provide the necessary supports to keep journalists and the free press online.
I recently conducted research with the International Women’s Media Foundation on women journalists and media workers. In the October 2018 report Attacks and Harassment: The Impact on Female Journalists and Their Reporting, 52 per cent of women respondents said they had experienced an offense within the past year. And the attacks are designed to discredit, intimidate, th
Seventy per cent of the women experienced more than one type of harassment, threat or attack in the past five years. More than one-third indicated that they had considered leaving the profession because of the online abuse and threats they received because of their journalism work.
And many journalists reported discomfort after the incidents, irritability when reminded of them, difficulty concentrating, or avoidance of people or places that reminded them of the incidents. Many journalists report either having abandoned their pursuit of specific stories or having difficulties with their sources as a result of the threats and abuse.
In the past four years, TrollBusters has assisted journalists in the United States and also overseas, helping them find resources in their countries. TrollBusters has helped to educate and provide training to journalists worldwide.
And I continue to fight for freedom of expression and freedom of the press for journalists worldwide.