I was the target of alt-right death threats across the internet – here's what happened next

Shane Burley, Alexander Reid Ross

When you hear about a cryptic death threat directed against you, the first thing that hits is a feeling of morbid curiosity. “Is it serious?” you ask. An existential dread sits in, you look over your shoulder but it never feels fully resolved.

This happened to me and a number of other journalists after blogger Eoin Lenihan listed us in an article he published with the right-wing Australian commentary site Quillette. Lenihan claimed his article was a springboard to “further study”, but to us it looked like a clumsy attempt to discredit journalists by trying to link us to antifascist activists based on the accounts we follow on Twitter.

While we would not view being connected to antifascist organisations as discrediting, in general, for the right, those groups represent a threat to them, so they try to paint “antifa” as violent extremists.

Lenihan, a persistent internet troll who has gone under the name “Progdad”, appeared to present his article as some kind of groundbreaking study, based on deep research. But this idea was quickly dispelled. Lenihan has merely grouped journalists who followed at least 16 “verified antifa” accounts and combined that with his interpretation of some of their work.

Quillette’s founding editor, Claire Lehman, follows far more than 16 far-right accounts, including white nationalists like Richard Spencer and Steve Sailer; should we automatically assume affiliation?

In a tweet, Quillette contributor Andy Ngo attempted to identify us, and others, as covert “antifa ideologues” posing as experts for willing journalists, all of whom, apparently, have joined together in a plot to create some kind of media-antifa industrial complex. Ngo is known for saying that antifascist activists are a violent menace who are being aided by the right, and a look at his podcast and social accounts gives us the impression of a man set on discovering antifa-bias in the media. Lenihan’s article may have been limp, but it created a firestorm on social media that became impossible to avoid. After Twitter suspended his account, one poster commented on the hate-filled message board KiwiFarms, saying: "None of the work should be done publicly. Just compile dossiers and collect info, then drop cocks when the timing is right. Never put a name down or make any demands and definitely never take credit. Just drop your target and move on to the next."

A few days later, while at work, Alexander received a DM on Twitter from a journalist friend who was not mentioned in the video or Lenihan’s article: “Wow,” it read, I just saw that crazy death threat against you and the other journalists and activists Quillette has been targeting. Are you doing OK? Indeed, his name showed up on a hitlist called “Sunset the Media” amid images of Nazi violence.

The video was nothing to do with Quilette, but was posted to YouTube by a fan of the neo-Nazi terror organisation Atomwaffen Division. It featured the images of several journalists, suggesting we should be murdered. The video ended with a quote from Atomwaffen's neo-Nazi guru, James Mason, regarding lone wolf attacks: “I do not urge anyone to do anything like that, but when it gets done, I won’t disown them.”

The toxic situation online only intensified two days later when Lenihan’s article was posted to the fascist message board Stormfront, which has been linked to more than 100 murders.

These threats have increased our anxiety significantly. Important events slip by the wayside, as your sense of doom begins to loom over everything. Having to explain to partners and friends with children that they could be in danger if they are with you is heart-rending.

Then there is the fear of cyberattacks, hacking, identity theft all of which have been known to follow online stalking campaigns out of 8chan and other hateful online message boards. There is no real way of dealing with such events, other than waiting and trying to behave as normally as possible in a world that seems to be falling apart.

In the past two years there have been a string of white nationalist and alt-right killings, including the recent synagogue shootings and the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. While this is not the high point of white nationalist numbers, it is the peak of their recent violence, and so the threat felt palpable and real.

All of us mentioned and those on the periphery felt we had to take security measures: unlisting addresses, scrubbing online information, changing the locks, installing cameras, and, in some cases, buying weapons. The fear of a threat like this is visceral, yet this time there seemed to be nowhere to hide. The article was out there, and the ripples had begun.

It didn’t seem to matter that we are not “embedded” within antifa groups, nor are we members, nor has anyone provided any evidence that we are. Writing about antifascist activism without condemning it appears to be our main offence.

Both of us have written books on fascism, and between us, we have appeared at a number of academic conferences, published in peer-reviewed academic journals, and written for a number of journalistic publications. We believe in respectful and vigorous political debate within the parameters of our multicultural society. We oppose fascists who seek the oppression of those deemed inferior.

This has been, historically, an uncontroversial position, one held by politicians and journalists and citizens alike, even becoming the standard state policy of most countries. Yet to Quillette, and a host of similar media outlets, we are assumed to be “antifa” and to embody the negative connotations that they hope to attach to that word. Our professional credentials, our knowledge and our experience become irrelevant. We have now seen how a culture of explosive anger can be the result. Seasoned journalist David Neiwart characterises such rhetorical extremes as part of “exterminationism” which dehumanises political opposition so completely that it stimulates fringe adherents to target people for violence. “Good journalists connect with everyone they're going to be writing about.” Neiwart told us by email. “[Quillette’s article is] an outrageously spurious attempt to smear people doing solid work that essentially contemplates journalism as an entirely partisan affair.”

A range of popular reporters and authors, from Patrick Strickland, formerly of Al Jazeera, to Huffington Post’s Christopher Matthias, are presented as accomplices in Lenihan’s article. One author is criticised for quoting Mark Bray, a lecturer at Dartmouth who wrote the popular book, Antifa: The Antifascist Handbook. Of course, at no point does the article appear to recognise that Bray is a globally acknowledged and respected academic studying antifascist activism.

Jared Holt, a reporter for Right-Wing Watch, did a follow up story for the Columbia Journalism Review and tried to contact Quillette’s founding editor, Claire Lehmann, to ask about how the original story was written. She refused to speak to him, calling him an “activist posing as a journalist.”

Quillette is not alone in a broader movement that nudges the fringes of far-right thinking into prime time. Fox News, Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and so many more have ridden the wave of national populist fervor and have left a legacy of fear about ordinary journalism. The impression left is that there is a widespread left-wing terror plot. There is not.

It is hard to tell where the distortions end with some people, but it remains important to work to stop them. We must reject the tendency to discredit truth tellers, or we will forget history and muddle the present on our way to unleashing the worst qualities of the human condition.