Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous

Last February I started a petition in Oregon supporting a bill that would have eliminated the non-medical vaccine exemption. I’m pretty proud to say the petition gathered almost 2,000 signatures. Unfortunately the bill was dropped (look for mention of me in that story) because the senators were unprepared for the onslaught from the anti-vax community. While I’m disappointed in the result, it was a strong learning experience for me. The reporter who covered the bill for the Salem-based paper wanted to interview me on why I started the petition, but as you all know, I don’t disclose my last name on this blog and the paper has a policy against anonymous sources. This was the one time that I really wavered on maintaining my anonymity. I was extremely tempted to let her use my last name and give her a great quote on why I feel so strongly about this issue. But, in the end, I’m glad I didn’t.  bleach screen shot closeupThat’s an actual comment from the petition page. Probably that crazy person won’t show up at my house and try to do any real harm. It’s one thing to write nasty things from your computer and it’s an entirely different thing to truly make an effort to hurt someone, but that doesn’t make that sort of thing easy to read. Thankfully, this is the only real example of a cyber threat that’s been directed at me. But I’m just small potatoes compared to some of my blogging/social media buddies. farmers daughter usa

That’s from my friend Amanda at The Farmer’s Daughter USA.

Mommy PhD - I hate youThat’s from my friend Mommy, PhDbomb monsantoThat’s from my friend Robert at Rationality Unleashed. There’s the example where an anti-GMO activist tried to take my friend Sarah’s nursing license away (at Nurse Loves Farmer). There’s also this example of someone who hates my friend Joni (Hawaii Farmers Daughter) so much that she bought her domain name and started a blog dedicated to why Joni is wrong on that domain. And then this:

combined MAMyths threatThat is from my friend Kavin Senapathy who received this threat for starting the March Against Myths movement. It’s really this last one for me that drives home why, even when I’m tempted to drop the anonymity part, I haven’t. Because it only takes one crazy person who wants to bomb Monsanto or stomp on your head or pour bleach down your kids’ throats. Yes, it’s unlikely those people would actually follow through, and maybe they’re just trolls trying to scare you for fun, but what if they aren’t? What if just one of those unbalanced, angry people decided to do a little digging and find out where my kids go to school? It’s unnerving.

When I decided to start this blog, my husband was initially against it. He’s a very practical, safe, and private person. He doesn’t do Facebook and even way before I started blogging he was always slightly uncomfortable when I would share stuff about our family on Facebook. So when I proposed that I start carving my controversial opinions out there in internet stone with our family’s name attached to it, he was very uneasy. It’s not just because I say things that a lot of people disagree with. I also used to work for Monsatan – the very “evil company” that the guy in the screen shot above wants to see bombed.  My husband stipulated that if I, a former Monsanto employee living in a city full of liberal minded hippies, was going to start blogging about things that get people all riled up, I was going to do it without using my last name. I agreed.

And so did my parents. After I started the blog, a long-time family friend of ours (who I’ll call Mary) told my mom I should be extremely careful. Mary should know –  at the time she and her husband (who I’ll call John) lived in Hawaii and John, who used to work with my dad at Monsanto, was kind of a head honcho at Monsanto Hawaii. I know this family well – I grew up with their kids, we used to have holiday dinners together, vacation together, the whole thing. I used to eat lunch with John and my dad in the Monsanto cafeteria on occasion when I worked there. Mary and John have been on the receiving end of more cyber threats and IN REAL LIFE threats than anyone I know. Does anyone know John's address

There’s someone asking for John’s address. time for bullets yetThat’s from a comment thread about John.

I could post more examples, but you get the idea. John was actually verbally assaulted in person while he was shopping for Christmas presents at Best Buy one time, which just goes to show that enough online anger does, in fact, sometimes translate to real, in-person threats. He’s not alone, either, there are plenty of other Monsanto employees who have been threatened as well. John and Mary have since left Hawaii, not necessarily as a result of the threats, but it certainly made the decision to leave easier.

And then there’s public scientist and recent media frenzy Kevin Folta who is being so disgustingly bullied by anti-GMO activists that someone created a craigslist ad using his own mother’s name to shame him. I don’t personally know Folta or I would have asked him for a few examples of violent threats that have recently been made to him, his family, and his laboratory. Folta is just the most visible example, but there are more than 40 scientists whose reputations anti-GMO activists are trying to smear by making it look like they get paid to do research, including Washington State University associate professor of nutrition Michelle McGuire who did a study debunking the claim that glyphosate (Roundup) shows up in breastmilk.

Then there was also the time that Mike Adams, who runs Natural News, called biotech supporters modern day Nazis, suggested that anti-GMO activists should consider murdering scientists and journalists, and then provided a hit list of scientists, journalists and news organizations to target.

While some of these stories are more extreme than others, these are not isolated events – the examples I’ve given here are not unique. This is the world we live in. Cyber bullying is not something that is limited to school-aged children, it happens all the time to adults, me included. I see it daily in online forums. Sometimes it’s as benign as simple name calling, other times it’s truly threatening, but it happens. A lot.

farmers wifeeThat’s from Krista, The Farmer’s Wifee, a dairy farmer and creator of Ask The Farmers.

I know I’m not Kevin Folta or a head honcho at Monsanto, or even a very influential blogger. But online conversations can quickly go from “I hate you” to “what’s your address” and “is it time for bullets yet” and “I’ll be watching you.” For a mother of two young kids, that’s kind of scary. I’m just not willing to make my family a target, even if the chances are extremely low that anything would even really  happen. I don’t even want my kids to see me get threatened, in person or online. I’m already taking a risk just by being outspoken about controversial issues, creating a blog, and becoming well known in online circles for my opinions. Not using my last name makes it just a tad harder for someone to  do something nasty, and that makes me feel a little more secure.

Anonymity is not always an easy position to take, though. Recently I participated in a #Moms4GMOs letter and was contacted by a journalist writing a story about the letter. He was challenging me on why I didn’t include my last name, implying that because I wanted to remain anonymous there might be something devious or underhanded about my participation. Anonymity limits me on how far I can take my advocacy, and there may come a time when it just isn’t practical to continue to be anonymous. But until then, this is why I do it. Not because I’m hiding something, or because I don’t want someone to find out that I’m getting paid to shill for Big Ag. I’m not shilling, I’m just a little scared of crazy people.

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11 Responses to Cyber Threats and Why I Remain Anonymous

  1. Amy

    Thank you for writing this. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ve only been at this for a week and a half and so far it’s been a nice experience but last night I was called a liar on Twitter by some angry veterinarian just for supporting Kevin Folta and it bothered me more than I thought it would. I can’t imagine how I would feel if someone threatened my kids.

    I don’t blame you for remaining anonymous. I’m tempted to follow your lead.


  2. Allison Hagood

    You have my sympathies. I have been stalked, harassed at work, doxed, and threatened because of my vaccine advocacy. My employer has been contacted by vaccine denialists demanding that I be fired. My home address was published on social media. I am very glad that you are able to hang on to your anonymity and protect yourself from the truly unhinged members of the vaccine denialist movement.

    Allison Hagood (co-author, “Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives”)

  3. Mary M (mem_somerville)

    I used to be cloaked because I was advocating for keeping creationism out of textbooks during the Bush years. We were also applying for government grants at the time, and we were worried about backlash.

    After that I was an advocate for stem cell research. Same deal.

    I’ve been around the vaccine wars. The alt-med deceptions. Climate.

    Turns out, the nuttiest of the nutfarm are plant science haters. And I used to worry about creationists! Heh. But that said, I uncloaked because each conversation was becoming “you work for Monsanto!1!!” which was false but unproductive anyway.

    And yes, I get harassed now by name. And body size. But I can also offer my science credentials, and my lack of ties to anyone in ag or food. So the net benefit was good. And way more good stuff happened than BS overall.

    That said, I can totally understand why it’s not the right way to go for everyone, and I have no problem with that.

  4. As Mary said “the nuttiest of the nutfarm are plant science haters”. The anti-vaccine crowd is also high on the hate scale. Oddly the anti-nuclear folks, while similarly misinformed, don’t come close on vitriol.

    I’m totally sympathetic to your caution. We all would lose if fear drove you to silence your voice.

  5. I can sympathise – I’m a very small-time blogger, but have blogged on vaccines and GMOs and have had hate-comments and tweets. I also keep myself anonymous – my primary reason is because I grew up in religious cult, which I eventually got out of, but I still live in the area where it has an HQ; also I have close family members that are advocates of various forms of woo. I have blogged against this cult and have had their minions looking into me. I have two small children and a job I love, and I don’t want them affected by this. I have also had the claims on my blog questioned because of my anonymity – if I don’t present my real name, then I can’t be taken seriously. That’s a shame, but not that important, at the moment my blog is more an outlet for myself rather than anything activist. Thanks for the great post – keep going!

  6. Dan Burr

    I am torn on this issue. On one hand the threats and rare actions can be pretty intimidating. On the other, hiding behind a screen name sometimes give you little more authority than the keyboard cowboys doing the threatening.

    I think it ultimately comes down to numbers. If everyone put their name to their opinions there would be too many for the morons to go after. By only a few having the courage to put their name out there, it makes them stand out and be easy targets.

    Look at the Mohammed cartoons (published 10 years ago) or the Charlie Hebdoo killings last year. By almost all major newspapers refusing to publish the cartoons, it just gives the Islamic fascists more power to silence those that do.

    I run an autoworker forum. I used to use a screen name to avoid backlash from the union. Since I have attached my real name to the screen name, I have found it more liberating while having no backlash after all.

    It is indeed a call each individual has to make for themselves though. Something to think about.

  7. Ville

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing but I’d be more carefull with revealing my identity in the US than where I currently live. The number of threats may not be fewer or less dramatic here, but violent crime is and the access to firearms is pretty restricted.

    And I wonder why anti-vaccers, anti-gmo and anti-abortion people are so eager to harm those who don’t share their ideas or view of the world. You could almost believe they are in a sect. ???

    Take care and be safe!

  8. Benjamin Lawrence

    Thanks for sharing. I hope you and your family can feel safe as you help to fight ignorance.

  9. Cullen Boardman

    It’s scary now to see how many incredibly ignorant and pathetic people blindly follow Facebook posts about that kind of GMO this and GMO that.
    The threats, though…. shhesh. I wonder if it’s worth it to start doing simple background checks, and approaching people in public with huge posters of what they said with cameras and what not. Really shine a light on these old bullies who never grasped the concept of growing up.

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