March 10, 2024
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The Bully Pulpit

by Jonathan Wallace

I got my first email address, 74666,, in 1984, and soon became assistant system operator on the Compuserve Legal Forum. I was an attentive gatekeeper, but I don't remember anyone behaving very badly. Due to my interest in Internet free speech, I was soon invited to join a Usenet list, run by a young journalist, in which well known law professors and other interested folk debated subtle and nuanced details of free speech doctrine as it applied to the online community. However, a new kind of personality, which I had never encountered before, began to surge up with some regularity: the Internet troll, often Libertarian in creed, fixated, stubborn and violent in rhetoric, who easily engaged in ad hominem attacks when losing an argument. Appeals to the journalist-founder to guard the content better, were unheeded: he was either too busy, or bemused by the anything-goes ethic. Within a few months, the list failed: the law professors, and anyone who actually knew anything, had left.

These were the forerunners of the trolls who dominate not just Internet but social discourse today. In our post-October 7 world, doxing, an outgrowth of the phenomenon I first encountered in 1984, has achieved epic proportions. People who are not activists, who work comfortably at private jobs, post one pro-Palestinian statement on social media, are targeted and their employer deluged with hundreds of scary emails demanding they be fired-- and they are within twenty four hours, because who wants to keep an employee who., for whatever reason, has become a lightning rod? At colleges, people shove their phones in demonstrator's faces, provoke them into saying unwise things, edit the video to remove anything sensible or compassionate, and post it to doxing sites, followed by information on the speaker's employment, co-workers, home address, and even quite distant relatives. As anonymous, sociopathic trolls pile on, the target receives emails stating his home address, the names of his wife and child, and concluding, "See you soon!" Distant relatives in foreign countries get hateful emails. A Hollywood comedian with a million followers, and a domestic violence conviction, sends an email to the personal address of a 24 year old, brownskinned woman graduate student: "Gotcha!"

In Sunday afternoons, I marshall a demonstration in Sag Harbor for a ceasefire in Palestine. Most participants are over seventy, the same people who over the decades demonstrated against the war in Iraq and for nuclear disarmament. People who know nothing about us come over, or roll their car windows down, to scream that we are "Nazi pigs" or "Jew haters"; strangers, some quite robust and much younger, put their bodies inches away from the elderly, scream in our faces, shove their phones at us.

In the pages of the local weekly paper, the mayor of East Hampton Village, having decimated the volunteer ambulance service via a hostile take-over apparently in support of converting it into a profit center, is now bullying the EMT's he drove out and fired, accusing them of being criminals, calling for their arrest and prosecution, obtaining take-downs of their GoFundMe pages. A couple of years back, the supervisor of the Town showed up at a meeting of an advisory committee at which I had been invited to speak on a controversial local development issue, and led a chorus of the robotic faithful, drowning me out and demanding I leave the stage. At the State of the Union address last night, Republican congressfolk again interrupted and heckled President Biden. Years ago, I wrote here about a then new tactic, Republicans hiring and organizing operatives to shut down health care town halls. I also wrote about the surprising discovery I made that Craigslist had saved money and maximized its profits by outsourcing its customer service to abusive trolls.

During Trump's original rise, Milos Y. pioneered the tactic of appearing on college campuses to show slides of transgender students in transition, naming and bullying them. Today, Accuracy in Media (which has long stopped caring about either accuracy or media) sends doxing trucks to colleges, schools and homes, flashing images of the targeted individual on the side, labeled a "Leading anti-Semite".

None of this is a mere glitch, an embarrassing intermittent side occurrence in our discourse; it is a central feature, raising the question of how to continue having a democracy in this environment.

"In Berlin, under the leadership of Goebbels, so-called Rollkommandos were organized for the purpose of disrupting political meetings of all non-Nazi groups. These Rollkommandos were charged with interrupting, making noise, and unnerving the speaker. Finally the Nazis broke up meetings by Rollkommando raids. In many cases, fights resulted, during which furniture was destroyed and a number of persons hurt. The Nazis armed themselves with blackjacks, brass knuckles, rubber truncheons, walking sticks, and beer bottles”. “Means Used by the Nazi Conspirators in Gaining Control of the German State”, A Teachers' Guide to the Holocaust,