As I’ve discussed before, for the better part of the last year I’ve been on the receiving end of on-and-off waves of harassment from members of a niche online subculture called onaforums.net. Ostensibly a forum for fans of Opie and Anthony, onaforums is more accurately a community of white supremacists and quasi-professional trolls. It’s filled with outright hate speech of every stripe, and its members make a game of subjecting various targets to all manner of harassment, sometimes quite vicious, online and in real life. They set their sights on me last fall when I reported on The Stand’s apparent disregard for New York’s Covid guidelines. The club’s co-owner, Cris Italia, posted on Twitter a request for comment I’d sent him; in a matter of hours, my entirely family had been doxxed by onaforums. I wrote in The New Republic a few months later about how I slowly uncovered compelling evidence that Italia, whose club has connections to the alt right, was one of the forum’s users.
In the near future, I am hopeful, you will read reporting in publications much bigger than this newsletter about other onaforums users. I’m not going to spoil that reporting. I will be very annoying and tell you I earnestly believe it’s going to be shocking. I’d hoped, perhaps naively and/or arrogantly, that my TNR piece might dissuade some of The Stand’s less racist regulars from performing there, and that it might even nudge along some greater reckoning with the New York comedy scene’s very real, very dangerous overlap with the far right. Now I’m hopeful these things might happen when the messenger is someone other than myself.
This post’s headline is a bit of a troll: sorry about that. Onaforums users are currently in the midst of a prolonged freakout over the possibility that the jig us up. The user who does most of the doxxing and harassment, who evidence suggests is a former law enforcement officer, is paranoid that the forum’s administrator, a person of color, has betrayed his identity. He’s in discussions with (“don’t sue me” language incoming) the user claiming to be Cris Italia about creating a new forum with an all-white moderation team. Since they’re sure to see the headline of this paywalled post, I’m trying to stoke that freakout further. I’m also curious whether any of them will be stupid enough to buy a subscription and find out what I’m saying.
The tricky thing with online harassment is that it’s often invisible to everyone who isn’t directly experiencing it, which makes it difficult to detect (let alone explain) its material effects on the world. Over the last year or so on Twitter, I’ve watched the same constellation of Legion of Skanks/Cum Town/Shane Gillis/Opie and Anthony fan accounts target a series of people whose only offense was criticizing one of their faves (usually Gillis, sometimes Louis CK or the Legion of Skanks). It generally starts with one of a few devoted accounts highlighting the target’s transgression, then others jump in, then this whole online world dedicates itself to terrorizing a stranger. They dox you, they dig up and edit videos of you, they demand your employers fire you, they send you death threats, rape threats, you name it. They come after you for days, they don’t stop, it’s not enough to log off because you know they’re there, and they find ways to harass you offline anyway. Oftentimes the comics they’re defending—whose attention they crave more than anything—acknowledge what they’re doing and encourage it. The goal is to teach you that you cannot call a racist a racist without jeopardizing your safety.
And they often get what they want! It’s very scary to know that evil, unstable people who know where you live are surveilling everything you do, frothing over real or imagined details of your life, and spending their leisure time brainstorming various ways to destroy you. I feel mostly jaded to it at this point, but if I think about it for too long it gets paralyzing. I don’t blame the people who’ve responded to these harassment campaigns by doing everything they can to avoid the trolls’ attention; I know it’s probably very stupid of me to poke the bear. On the other hand, I can’t help but remember how onaforums mostly stopped harassing me the minute I connected it to Italia. (They still periodically go after people they deem to be associated with me, i.e. people who retweet me or share my content.)
Sunlight may not be the only way to fight cyber harassment, but my experience suggests it’s a powerful weapon. One of those devoted accounts I mentioned above—a Gillis/Skanks superfan who I’ve watched incite many, many pile-ons—spent nearly two years harassing me, starting when I posted the video that led to Gillis’s firing in 2019. This account monitored every little thing I did and directed massive waves of trolls at me any time I criticized its idols, whether on Twitter or in my newsletter. They did the same to people who replied to my tweets, subjecting my friends and followers to genuinely frightening vitriol which I was often at a loss to explain: “Well, uh, you see, it’s this person who really, really likes Shane Gillis.”
Somewhere along the way, I won’t say how, I identified the person behind this account. She’s a middle-aged office manager in Texas, a white woman with a background in the oil and gas industry (whose professional bio says she enjoys a night at the comedy club). I kept this information to myself for a while, then finally got fed up last month and tweeted out her name and city—but not, I will stress, her Twitter handle. The account almost immediately acknowledged it was her, said I’d doxxed her, said she was afraid for her safety, deactivated for several days, came back, went private, and deleted scores of tweets about me. Her little corner of Twitter immediately rose to her defense, of course, and a number of users legitimately doxxed me in retaliation for me not-actually-doxxing her. But ever since that initial response, she and her buddies have totally left me alone. For now, at least, it worked.
Last month I spoke with a comedian about his decision to drop out of Skankfest, the Legion of Skanks’ celebration of everything horrible in the world. He initially thought he could go challenge the bigots on their own turf, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it. He told me how much it pisses him off when comics complain about wokeness and political correctness, which he thinks are good for the art form: more inclusive work leads to more inclusive audiences, which lead to better and more interesting comedy. He reminded me that as bad as everything seems now—the racism, the homophobia, the misogyny—it was so much worse when he started back in the ‘80s.
I don’t have all the pieces yet, but I think the broad strokes of what’s happening are pretty clear. It’s the same story I described in last week’s piece about abuse. In response to the last few decades of progressive gains, a powerful and committed subset of the comedy industry is brute-forcing the re-acceptance of open bigotry in comedy spaces. This time around, the movement’s leaders have a large infantry of anonymous enforcers eager to trammel anyone who questions their project. As we’ve seen, both this infantry and many of the comedians it follows are ideologically aligned with the far right, if they are not literally far right actors. As they go about their effort to create a world where you can’t safely say hate speech is bad—because it’s also a world where hate speech is good and the norm—they cry incessantly that they are the ones under threat.
I know reasonable people who think these elements of the comedy industry should be ignored and left to their own devices, but increasingly I struggle to see how this can possibly be a practicable solution. Their project is to build a more racist world. If our project is to build a world free of racism, we have no choice but to confront them.