‘It’s nothing new’: A mass politician’s battle against pandemic-fueled online hate

A few months later, on Holocaust Remembrance Day in January, Rausch wrote a Facebook post to honor his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, only to find it quickly hijacked by posters online. They called his tribute “insulting” and dishonest. Because of her support for vaccines and mask mandates, she was “creating yet another [H]olocaust,” they argued.

In some ways, Rausch’s experiments have been normalized in these pandemic times. Online trolls, shrouded in anonymity and fueled by the divisive nature of COVID politics, have stirred up streams of hate against people they dislike, often resulting in aggressive in-person encounters.

But Rausch’s story — that of a Jewish politician who supports vaccines and mask mandates — also reinforces an ugly truth: that members of minority groups in leadership positions are increasingly targets for online hate campaigns deeply rooted in anti-Semitism and racism.

“Jews have been scapegoats since the dawn of time,” she said in an interview. “It’s not new.”

“Jews have been scapegoats since the dawn of time,” Rausch said in an interview. “It’s not new.”Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Rausch was born in 1979 and grew up in the suburbs of Albany, NY From the start, her Jewish identity took hold. Rausch’s maternal grandfather was a Dachau concentration camp survivor, and although he died when Rausch was 9 years old, his journey left a lasting mark on his family.

Rausch’s mother co-founded a nonprofit to prosecute Nazi war criminals. The family maintained deep ties to their local Jewish community in New York. And until high school, being Jewish felt relatively safe for Rausch. But when she was 15, she found a swastika on her desk in math class, and that’s when things changed.

“It was a really formative moment in my life,” she said. “The first compelling thought that came to mind after seeing this image and freezing in my tracks was: I have to fix this.”

Soon she found her way to Massachusetts to attend Brandeis University, where she graduated in 2001. She stayed on at Northeastern Law School and graduated from law school in 2004.

She began working in health law, then moved on to a teaching position at Seattle University, only to return to Massachusetts to serve under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration as an attorney in the Bureau state health and social services executive. In 2017, Rausch won a seat on Needham City Council and almost two years later became a state senator.

Before coming to Beacon Hill, Rausch’s life was that of a municipal politician: managing a day job, attending city council meetings at night, all while trying to raise two children alongside her husband. But quite early in her tenure as a state senator, she began to incur the ire of the anti-vaccine movement, and once the pandemic began, she soared to new heights.

Most of the hate centers around a few things, most notably its signature piece of legislation – the Community Immunity Act. The bill calls for limiting the spread of deadly and preventable diseases through standardized vaccination policies in schools, preschools, daycare centers and summer camps.

Rausch has also supported masking mandates for children and fought to increase COVID vaccination rates statewide. She helped raise at least $250,000 in funding last year for the state health department to debunk misinformation around the coronavirus vaccine.

Nowadays, a visit to Rausch’s email inbox or Facebook account reveals a torrent of vitriol. “What a horrible woman you are,” read one Facebook post. “I hope their [sic] there will be new trials at Nuremberg and you will be found guilty. Another post called it a “self-indulgent racial hack”. Others are even more hostile and threatening.

Meanwhile, protesters tried to “zoom out” his public meetings. And videos on YouTube and Facebook have been uploaded where protesters show their attempts to relentlessly question her in public, often asking why she wants children to breathe against the law.

For Rausch, the hate she receives is disconcerting and confusing. She’s not the only Massachusetts politician to support strong vaccination standards or mask mandates, so why, she asked, was she more focused than her colleagues on both sides of the aisle?

“I am a woman, a mother and a Jew,” she said. “There is an inherent connection between the anti-vax movement and anti-Semitism and sexism. I am the person here who fits this bill.

“I am a woman, a mother and a Jew,” Rausch said. “There is an inherent connection between the anti-vax movement and anti-Semitism and sexism. I am the person here who fits this bill.Lane Turner / Globe Staff

Joan Donovan, a disinformation expert at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said Rausch’s experience was not surprising. Several research studies indicate that women and non-whites politicians bear the brunt of online harassment, especially when it comes to those advocating for vaccines. Anti-Semitism also has a role to play, she said.

“It goes back to old anti-Semitic tropes about Jews trying to control populations,” Donovan said in an interview. “There is a strong contingent of people who believe COVID-19 is a hoax. “It’s supposed to be population control”, and therefore they have a few different constructions of who they think is the “they” behind this plot.

Donovan added that the phenomenon will not diminish and that politicians in future elections must think about how to protect themselves. Those who identify as women, people of color, Jews, Muslims or who have a “minority identity” should be the most affected, she said, and will need to implement a security strategy to deal with the hate they might receive.

Experts note that politicians should ensure that their home address and phone numbers are not available online. Friends and family should be warned that they may be harassed and should also hide their contact details. In serious cases, politicians may have to request physical security.

Mental health is also a concern. Politicians facing inordinate levels of harassment need to figure out how to distance themselves from hate. Staff members may be deputized to control social media accounts and email inboxes.

“When the harassment gets really bad,” Donovan said, “we tend to see this seepage of online harassment into offline terror.”

Despite all this, regulating hate speech has been tricky.

Social media platforms do not enforce their content moderation policies consistently, critics noted, nor have any incentive to regulate it, as hateful content can keep users engaged and boost revenue of the company. In addition, the police are struggling to punish these hateful comments.

“A lot of people using the internet don’t think the internet is considered real harassment,” she said. “People get away with it all the time.”

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