Online Hate: Legal Action in the Digital Age

By Deanna Mudry

“Just make your opinions known. Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda . . .This is very important,” Andrew Anglin posted to the neo-nazi white supremacist Daily Stormer site that he’s editor of in December. “Calling these people up and/or sending them a quick message is very easy. It is very important that we make them feel the kind of pressure they are making us feel.”

What followed were over 700 harassing messages sent to Tanya Garsh, a real estate agent in Whitefish, Mo., as well as her husband and 12 year-old son. Anglin claimed that she was extorting fellow white supremacist Richard Spencer, Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The nonprofit has opened an unprecedented lawsuit against Anglin in response.

“The lawsuit in Whitefish, Montana is really the first lawsuit for trolling online,” Lecia Brooks, outreach director for Southern Poverty Law Center, said.

However, this is far from the first case of  a “troll army” being called to arms to attack someone online. In 2014 there was “Gamergate,” during which female game developers were sent insults and death and rape threats, and in 2016 actress Leslie Jones was the target of racist and sexist harassment and a leak of her private photos.

Though stories of similar, targeted online harassment such as this have gotten media attention and been the subject of discussion on forums in recent years, there is no “good data” about what is really going on, Brooks said. Advocacy groups like Southern Poverty Law Center tend to only monitor hate and harassment once it has made it into the real world, and many trolls work anonymously.

“Now we have seen an increase in the activity, chatter on these sites like the Daily Storm or the Storm Watch, but I can’t say that there is a trend in online harassment,” she said. “What we track are the actual activities of people.”

One entity that has the tools to track and regulate these trolls are the social media platforms to which they post. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have come under fire for not doing enough to curb hate speech, but some argue they’re just meant to facilitate free speech.

In her book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” law professor Danielle Citron said that the law should come down harder on internet trolls, but that any regulation must align with First Amendment doctrine. However, she said she doubts trolls are adding to the discourse for which the amendment was intended.

“Some may argue that a legal agenda will undermine the ability to discuss truths in our networked age,” she said in the book. “After all, if cyber harassers cannot speak their minds, certain ‘truths’ about victims will not come to light. The public may be unable to learn that people so dislike a blogger that they are inspired to threaten to rape and beat her.”

Ultimately though, these social media sites are private companies that can allow whatever they do, and do not, want on their platforms.

“They’re a private entity that said that these are the rules for accessing our platform that you can’t engage in hate speech, we’re just asking them to kind of hold themselves to their own rules,” Brooks said.

Legal Action

When hate speech does happen, there are several options for the victim.

“Talking to the media, blogging about victims’ struggles and fighting back online has taken us only so far,” Citron said.

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Therefore, she said victims’ best bet in a court of law is suing their abuser(s) under tort or copyright law. Tort is a body of law that requires defendants to compensate plaintiffs whose injuries they have wrongly caused. It includes libel and intentionally or recklessly causing emotional distress.

If there is a clear bias in the harassment, additional charges may be pursued.

“In the case of the Whitefish, that was clearly anti-Semitic, law enforcement adds the hate crime enhancement on the crime of harassment, so hate crimes would just be added to it if they believe the primary motivation for the harassment is based on the recipient’s identity,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that the chances an online hate or harassment charge will end with a ruling favorable to the victim are good as long as there is proof the hate was continuous and sent directly to them.
The the Southern Poverty Law Center has handled countless hate crime cases in the past, it said in a press release on the case, but “the legal strategy, however, has been adapted for the digital age.”

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