A Twitter account using the handle “Amy Mek” gained hundreds of thousands of followers online for posting disgusting anti-Muslim content, like an image of a pig roasting a Muslim man over a burning copy of the Quran, while remaining anonymous for years. When HuffPost reporter Luke O’Brien reported that the person operating the account was a 45-year-old New York woman named Amy Mekelburg, right-wing activists made O’Brien and his employer the center of a harassment campaign.
Yesterday, HuffPost published a report that revealed Mekelburg to be behind a large Twitter account that spread hate online for years. Fox News host Sean Hannity and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have followed the account, and President Trump has retweeted it.
Mekelburg had also been working with other anti-Muslim activists to try to launch her own organization called “Resistance Against Islamic Radicals” and made a website where she posted photos and contact information of people she believed were “accomplices” to jihadi terrorists. HuffPost reports that the qualifications for being a supposed accomplice were astonishingly low:
“If the local garbage man was seen going into a mosque, you could submit that information to the site and she would post it,” said [Tina] Galasso.
Soliciting denunciations from members of the public had a Gestapo-Stasi stink to it, and RAIR’s roster of “accomplices” included city council members, rabbis, police chiefs, mosques, newspapers and other businesses. It looked like a target list. (During the reporting of this story, the contact information for the “accomplices” was removed from the RAIR website.)
Janet Lyness, the county attorney in Johnson County, Iowa, made the list because she donated to the campaign of Mazahir Salih, a Muslim woman who became the first Sudanese-American elected to public office in the United States when she won a city council seat in Iowa City last year.
After O’Brien’s report, far-right figures ignited in a fit of rage that feels reminiscent of the harassment campaign waged against then-The Daily Beast reporter Taylor Lorenz, who still receives harassment on her personal social media accounts months after she reported that a pair of teen social media celebrities had hidden the fact their mother was anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller and had echoed her anti-Muslim sentiment.
Far-right social media figures often use their highly toxified audiences to intimidate and threaten journalists who apply scrutiny and accountability to the right-wing beat. Online right-wing media stars will often threaten lawsuits and utilize their audiences to harass company human resource departments, dig up personal information, and threaten violence against media workers who they believe have been too critical or unfair to right-wing figures. Doxing, death threats, and harassment is practically a given for reporters who cover far-right figures, who often band together and amplify one another to make their angry mobs as large as they can. The latest public outrage campaign targeting O’Brien is no exception.
Before O’Brien had even published his article, Mekelburg had fired up the hate mob.
ALERT! I NEED YOUR HELP – This is SHOCKING!
Contact the @HuffPost and demand reporter Luke O’Brien stop endangering me and my family. He has threatened to reveal my identity putting me and my family at great personal risk. But it’s MUCH worse than you can imagine…
— Amy Mek (@AmyMek) May 31, 2018
Anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller compared HuffPost to “Nazi Germany” and wrote that O’Brien was “identifying and defaming Amy solely for the crime of having a different political viewpoint”:
The left destroys human lives. The @HuffPost smears, defames, libels anyone who dissents. @AmyMek isnt a public figure. She’s a patriot who tweets and has amassed a huge following. So they will shut her up, destroy her and her family.
Soviet Russia https://t.co/bWehkWx97p
— Pamela Geller (@PamelaGeller) June 1, 2018
Another anti-Muslim activist, Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch, called O’Brien and others like him “fascists”:
As far as fascists such as @letsgomathias and @lukeobrien are concerned, @amymek did commit a crime: she opposed jihad mass murder and Sharia oppression of women, gays and others. https://t.co/Vvu4nI5nRX
— Robert Spencer (@jihadwatchRS) June 1, 2018
Conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim “reporter” Laura Loomer, who made headlines for her anti-Muslim Twitter meltdown, directed a vague but ominous threat at O’Brien:
Be quiet Luke. You don’t know anything about the #LasVegasShooting.
The only thing you know how to do is harass people and doxx innocent people who you disagree with.
What if I told you I know a lot about you too? https://t.co/5Gwza5S4cl
— Laura Loomer (@LauraLoomer) June 1, 2018
Extremist conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza said the article about Mekelburg was “the left’s modus operandi now.” Alt-right YouTube personality Paul Ramsey said that HuffPost should “lose their domain name for inciting hate and violence.” Jenna Jameson, a former pornographic film actress turned conservative pundit, wrote that HuffPost has “zero boundaries” and that it was “dangerous to be a conservative these days.” The Twitter account Far Left Watch, a discount-bin conservative answer to our website, wrote that HuffPost was “doxing the family members of people they have found guilty of wrong think.” An account linked with a popular pro-Trump Reddit forum “r/The_Donald” tweeted a fake Twitter bio for O’Brien depicting him as an MS-13 gang member. The teenage alt-right YouTube personality Lauren Rose encouraged her fans to contact HuffPost and complain about O’Brien.
Pro-Trump pundit and “Pizzagate” truther Jack Posobiec claimed that O’Brien was spewing “toxic bigotry and peddle bizarre lies in the face of all the love spreading in America”:
Disturbing to see people like @lukeobrien spew their toxic bigotry and peddle bizarre lies in the face of all the love spreading in America
Every time they have the chance to choose, they choose the politics of hate
Really makes you think
— Jack Posobiec🇺🇸 (@JackPosobiec) June 1, 2018
Self-labeled “New Right” pundit Mike Cernovich claimed that “HuffPo is truely (sic) evil” and highlighted death threats that people had left in the comments section of the website.
HuffPo’s own readers believe the decision to dox a woman’s brother (because of her Twitter, which he had no connection to), was too far.
In addition, there are many death threats in the comments.
HuffPo is truely evil. pic.twitter.com/ZlVhSJYW7v
— Mike Cernovich 🇺🇸 (@Cernovich) June 1, 2018
Debased conspiracy theorist and “pedogate” activist Liz Crokin told her followers it was time to “rise UP and FIGHT BACK!”:
This is outrageous!
Chrissy Teigen’s followers have threatened and doxxed me too.
We’re at war & we can’t lie down & allow these evil people to destroy us.
— LIZ ThesePeopleRSick (@LizCrokin) June 1, 2018
Jim Hoft of The Gateway Pundit wrote that Mekelburg’s case was “a warning to ALL CONSERVATIVES!”:
Do Not Be Fooled — This is a Warning to ALL CONSERVATIVES!
If you speak out against the left – You will be destroyed. Your job will be targeted. You will not work. Your family will be targeted.
Let this be a warning!
One Twitter user documented some of the harassment and threats of violence that were aimed at O’Brien as a result of his reporting, which include threats of being violently beaten with weapons, promises to “track him down” and calls to publish his private information. O’Brien told Right Wing Watch that since he published his article that “every 30 seconds [his] phone buzzes with a new nasty voice mail.”
“I’m getting a lot of death threats. People are on security alert here. They’re trying to go after my family, they’re trying to go after people I have tangential relations to, they went after another Luke O’Brien that they thought was me,” O’Brien said. “I expected some backlash. I didn’t expect these people to start threatening my life before this story even came out. The mission is truly to silence journalists. They hadn’t even read my story. They didn’t even know what they’re responding to.”
He added, “It’s happened before, I’ve dealt with it before, but this is a different level in terms of volume and hostility, and I think stupidity. It’s actually easier to deal with Nazis, I’ve found, than this whole MAGA horde. I’ve found that the Nazis are so steeped in the politics of this, that they tend to be a little bit more astute about politics so you can actually have these conversations with them, and there’s more of a chance to break through with them. The MAGA trolling is mostly, ‘Fuck you, you liberal piece of shit,’ over and over again. They have no interest in having a conversation.”
Far-right social media users justify their threats and intimidation efforts toward journalists under the belief that they are merely avenging the “doxed.” But what makes O’Brien’s work different from what is commonly thought of as “doxing” is that he did not publish personally identifiable information such as an address, which could put Mekelburg in potential danger. Rather, O’Brien reported objectively about the identity of a Twitter user who was attempting to organize with anti-Muslim activists tied to the Trump administration while hiding behind anonymity, meaning that now Mekelburg can be held accountable for the hate she incites and whatever influence she gains.
Or as O’Brien puts it, “What’s happening on the Right is this conflation of anonymity with First Amendment protections. You have to be responsible for what you say.”
Trolls online in the far-right ecosystem are, however, digging up the personal information of O’Brien and fantasizing about violent acts against him and his family. On Gab, the Twitter knock-off popular with Nazis for its purely ornamental community guidelines, users fantasized about giving O’Brien “a baseball bat massage” and doxing “his sorry ass” because he “needs to be personally ruined.” An account identified as a donor and investor to the site wrote: “If Huffington Post Senior Writer Luke O’Brien and/or his family and friends were to meet with some great misfortune, I’d not complain.”
“I’ve been a journalist for over a decade now and I never thought that I’d have to fear for my own safety in my country and fear that Americans would want to do me harm for their political bias, but that’s the country we live in now,” O’Brien said. “It is impossible for it to not to come back to Donald Trump’s rhetoric and what the Right in this country has become and how they view academia, expertise, and reporting. Anyone in the truth business is a threat to these people at this point and they’re making it very clear.”