Like so many women online, I have become a casualty of the troll army.
Last week, radio host and YouTuber David Pakman wrote a blog post about me on this site. It was the most recent sally in a three-week-long feud that has robbed me of my sense of privacy and left me psychologically exhausted. This is my response, and with it I hope to close a disturbing chapter of my life and move on to better things.
The war began like this: I recently wrote an essay for Vice about how my father Terry Anderson was kidnapped and tortured by terrorists for nearly seven years. I wanted to use my family's experience as a lens through which to view Islamophobia in the media. I approached David Pakman for comment regarding his YouTube videos about Reza Aslan, a prominent religious scholar and Muslim commentator, in which he obsessively dissected Aslan's credentials, touted certain cherry-picked statistics and quoted unreliable sources in order to present the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) in a way that implied it was an Islamic custom. After spending half my life in the Middle East, I believe that to be an inaccurate representation of this problem.
When I approached Pakman, I was honest about the nature of the piece but sincerely asked for his perspective so as to include another side of the issue. Though it was a personal essay, as a reporter, I try my hardest to afford consideration even to people with whom I disagree.
Mr. Pakman eagerly answered my original query for an interview with Vice; then stopped responding once he was provided with more information about the story. I followed up with him twice before writing the piece. In it, I addressed a number of issues regarding Islamophobia in the media and its consequences for American Muslims -- such as the family of Rabie Ayoub, held at gunpoint by an assailant who threatened to kill Ayoub, his wife and four children simply because of their faith.
When I reached the part of the essay that briefly mentioned Pakman's attacks on Aslan and his commentary on FGM, I provided Aslan's quotes and intended to indicate that Pakman refused to comment. Because the essay was over 3,000 words long and the paragraph in which I referred to David Pakman was 166 words of that essay, I made a simple human error, stating that he "didn't respond" to my requests for comment instead of "stopped responding." As soon as that was brought to my attention, a correction was issued.
The same day the piece was published, Pakman released a YouTube video exposing my "lie" by airing our email exchange. In the video, he lied several times himself about the breadth and scope of his coverage of Aslan and his outrage seemed mostly focused on the fact that I called him a YouTuber instead of the host of a syndicated radio show.
With that, Pakman unleashed the first wave of lunatics. The notifications started popping up on my Twitter feed. "You're a disgusting liar," one of them shrieked at me via his keyboard. "Vice should never work with you again." "You lying Muslims make me sick," another charming gentleman remarked. Apart from the fact that while I am half-Arab, I am not Muslim, like most journalists, I take accusations of professional dishonesty quite seriously.
@SulomeAnderson Way to defend and minimize the problem of FGM in the muslim world. You must be proud of yourself. Get a real job.
— Devon Tracey (@TraceyRemix) May 27, 2016
During a heated Twitter exchange in which I (somewhat emotionally) expressed my unhappiness with the digital onslaught of insults and abuse, Pakman invited me on his show to defend myself. Rather naively, I decided to accept his invitation. The day of the interview, I had just arrived home from a refugee camp where I had been interviewing a suicidal twelve-year-old Syrian girl living in circumstances I imagine being quite alien to people like Pakman and his fans. I barely had time to prep and make myself look presentable, and so was somewhat unprepared for the scenario that ensued.
I won't get into how uncomfortable the interview was. You can read the YouTube comments for further clarification on that point, along with multiple requests for me to provide oral sex and much analysis of my appearance. In several ways, Pakman set the whole thing up to make me look like an idiot and misrepresented his original portrayal of the issue (FGM and Islam), which I was meant to be critiquing. I regret going on his show at all, but I did it for the right reasons. Because I mistakenly believed he would behave honestly and transparently, I ended up looking like a fool.
Since that interview aired, hundreds of his followers have harassed me online by insulting me, making sexual comments, telling me my father should be ashamed of me and calling me every name in the book. One artist added his own flair to a segment of Pakman's video:
— black - (@BLACKchTV) May 24, 2016
Some of his devoted fans even took time out of their busy schedules to personally email me through my website and share their thoughts on my career. I have included screenshots of these missives below. Out of unreciprocated respect for their privacy, I have removed all names and email addresses.
I've experienced some trolling before, but was unprepared for the level of cruelty and viciousness Pakman's fans -- with his constant encouragement -- have displayed. Following an email exchange, also provided below, in which I asked Pakman to stop encouraging this kind of behavior, he agreed to leave the matter alone.
Later that day, he released another video in which his fans called in to mock me and discuss how stupid I am. Another band of trolls emerged from under their bridges to torment me.
It's difficult to explain how excruciating the past two weeks have been for me. One particularly painful morning that involved clicking my block button more times than I can count, I could barely get out of bed to eat. I have my own reasons for being so sensitive to these attacks. I was three years old the first time I saw my father on a hostage video. He looked like a skeleton with a beard. When I was seven, I met him in person. After being chained in the dark and tortured both physically and psychologically for almost seven years, he was severely traumatized and through no fault of his own, an ineffective father. My family was destroyed. I never knew what safety was, or what it was like not to feel alone.
Twenty-three years later, I've finally managed to scrape together some sanity and find a career that I love. I tend to focus on other people's stories but wrote an essay about what happened to me because I wanted the world to understand that the handful of evil men who did that to my family do not reflect on the thousands of Muslims I've met in the Middle East who are simply trying to live, many times in situations so horrific they defy understanding. Because of one brief paragraph that irked Mr. Pakman, the entire message of the piece has been lost.
Two things have comforted me most throughout this ordeal. A friend of mine who has a prominent online presence gave me this advice, which I will never forget:
The other words that have helped me get through this are those of my father, who was working as a journalist for the Associated Press when he was kidnapped over 30 years ago.
"We used to say if you haven't pissed someone off, you're not doing your job," he wrote to me on Facebook. "Looks like you're doing great!"
I don't delude myself that this will be my last encounter with the repulsive underbelly of the Internet, but by writing this, I hope to fire one shot at the faceless guerillas huddling in their computer trenches, trying to obliterate my dignity and self-respect. I've learned that there isn't much in the way of armor that can shield me from the troll army, but at least I have people to lean on as I limp away from the battlefield.