Last week HuffPost reporter Luke O’Brien published a story identifying the woman behind @AmyMek, a massively popular pseudonymous Twitter account followed by people like Sean Hannity, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Ryan Zinke and endorsed by people like President Donald Trump and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
O’Brien revealed the person behind the 220,000-follower account: a New York woman who also ran a website where she posted the names, photos and contact information of people and groups she believed were collaborating with terrorists. The story struck a chord. Hundreds of thousands of people read it in the days after it was published. It resonated because it’s shocking to realize that the person in the apartment next door (or your kid’s teacher or a consultant you met at a bar) might have a second life as an online hatemonger.
But the reaction to O’Brien’s piece revealed something even deeper and more disturbing about the way U.S. journalism and politics work in the age of the internet. He received dozens of threats via tweet, phone and email in the days after the story published. People published his family members’ addresses and phone numbers and those of at least five other HuffPost employees and seven of their family members. HuffPost’s editor-in-chief got calls on her cellphone from people saying racial slurs. Other people with the name Luke O’Brien had their addresses and phone numbers and pictures of their children posted online. Right-wing sites published stories falsely accusing O’Brien of violating journalistic ethics.
Some people even complained to executives at HuffPost’s parent companies, hoping to get O’Brien fired. He wasn’t. But this story could easily have ended differently. So we wanted to explain what happened before and after the story was published.
O’Brien had a good reason to investigate @AmyMek: Investigating influential people is part of his job. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook have made it easier than ever to become a public figure with enormous influence while remaining anonymous. One especially quick way to do this is to spread hate. Americans have a First Amendment right to spread hate speech anonymously without punishment from the government. But the identities of influential anonymous people are inherently newsworthy. So for months, HuffPost has been investigating the most influential anonymous Twitter and Facebook users that spread hate — and identifying the people behind them. O’Brien’s story about @AmyMek was part of that effort.
Before publishing the story, which I edited, O’Brien made multiple attempts to reach Amy Mekelburg, the woman behind @AmyMek, for comment. For days, she didn’t respond. Shortly before publication, she referred him to a lawyer — who told O’Brien he didn’t represent her. Then she tweeted out a string of accusations that O’Brien was “stalking” her and “viciously harassing me, my husband and my loved ones.”
That was not true: O’Brien was contacting Mekelburg, her husband and the other named subjects of the story to give them the chance to comment before publication. He was doing his job as a journalist.
But Mekelburg’s tweets — sent before O’Brien’s story went up — unleashed the torrent of threatening tweets, emails and phone calls directed at O’Brien and other HuffPost reporters. Prominent figures in the so-called alt-right and alt-lite, movements O’Brien has covered aggressively, piled on.
O’Brien hadn’t published Mekelburg’s address or phone number — an act known as doxing that HuffPost’s editorial standards do not permit. But people accused him of doing it anyway and then published the addresses and phone numbers of his family members, as well as those of several other HuffPost journalists and their families.
On Twitter and 4Chan, an anonymous online message board, people suggested throwing bricks at reporters. “Brick a Journalist” is a far-right intimidation campaign targeting journalists by threatening to attack them with bricks; O’Brien received at least a dozen images of bricks. Andrew Anglin, an American neo-Nazi O’Brien profiled in The Atlantic, even trollishly attempted to brand O’Brien as a Nazi ally (no, we’re not going to link to his site), encouraging his followers to support the reporter who had tracked him for months, even as neo-Nazis harassed O’Brien and targeted his family on Twitter.
“For months, HuffPost has been investigating the most influential anonymous Twitter and Facebook users that spread hate – and identifying the people behind them. O’Brien’s story about @AmyMek was part of that effort.”
O’Brien is a professional journalist covering political extremists. He’s not hiding: His name is on his articles, and his phone number is in his Twitter bio. He knows that receiving threats comes with the job. But what happened next shows exactly what sort of complaints platforms like Twitter take seriously — and which ones they don’t.
When one writer accused O’Brien of “going after” Mekelburg’s husband — because O’Brien called the WWE, where her husband is a vice president, to ask for comment — O’Brien, who had already received scores of threats, tweeted back to correct the record:
“Nobody went after his job, you insufferable stuffed shirt,” he wrote. “I called WWE to give them a chance to respond to info from a source who told me WWE knew about AmyMek. That’s EXACTLY how ethical journalism works. They fired him. I was shocked. Take it up with them, then go DDT yourself.”
Twitter decided to suspend O’Brien’s account — it has since been reinstated — saying his DDT suggestion amounted to encouraging self-harm. (He was referring to a pro-wrestling move, not to the pesticide.)
Many of the people who sent him threats have not been suspended. (Twitter itself uses the term “permanent suspension” to refer to a ban and “temporary locking” to refer to a suspension.)
That O’Brien was suspended but the people who threatened him are still on the site reveals a larger problem: Twitter (which provided a formulaic “taking this seriously” statement in response to questions for this story) relies heavily on its users to police the platform. The company says it has tools to identify content that violates its terms of service and remove the accounts responsible. But spending even a small amount of time on Twitter makes clear that those tools are not effective at making it the home for the “healthy conversation” the company says it wants.
Twitter matters: For all its faults, it is an essential tool for many people and the place where a lot of news breaks. That means it has a lot of users. But because Twitter is so huge, it would cost the company enormous sums to hire people to monitor all the harassment on its site. So it outsources a lot of the initial work of flagging threats, harassment and abuse to the victims of those attacks. That doesn’t work particularly well on normal days. And over the past few days, when thousands of tweets were spamming O’Brien’s account, it didn’t work well at all. No one person could have tracked and reported all the threats O’Brien received. There were too many, and they were blended in with all the rest of the crap he was getting. That means most of the users responsible for harassing and threatening O’Brien will stay on Twitter — or get new accounts if they’re suspended.
All of this gives brigades of trolls and extremists enormous power to dictate the tone and content of Twitter.
That complaint isn’t new. People have been making it for years. But Twitter is as toxic as ever. Maybe that’s because Twitter isn’t actually taking these problems seriously. Maybe the Twitter we have now — the one swamped by harassers, trolls and hatemongers — is exactly the one the company wants.
Travis Waldron contributed reporting.
Clarification: Language in this story has been amended to clarify whom O’Brien contacted.