What it’s like to be the target of right-wing harassment

Elizabeth Blackburn spoke at Worthington Kilbourne High School about her experience as a volunteer at Camp Shameless. She ended up in the crosshairs of Libs of TikTok, the Daily Caller and Fox News.
Elizabeth Blackburn, photographed in the outfit she wore while speaking with students at Worthington Kilbourne High School about her experiences working with unhoused residents at Camp Shameless.
Elizabeth Blackburn, photographed in the outfit she wore while speaking with students at Worthington Kilbourne High School about her experiences working with unhoused residents at Camp Shameless.Ellis Carswell

In late October, two days after Elizabeth Blackburn spoke to students at Worthington Kilbourne High School about her experience volunteering at Camp Shameless, a now-shuttered encampment for unhoused residents on Columbus’ East Side, her phone started to vibrate incessantly with incoming notifications.

“I was watching some chess strategy videos and I heard my phone buzzing, and when I picked it up, I saw that 30 minutes earlier Libs of TikTok had posted this thing, and I said, ‘Oh, no!’” Blackburn said during a late October interview at Upper Cup on Parsons Avenue, not far from where Camp Shameless once stood. 

Created by Chaya Raichik, the Libs of TikTok Twitter account rose to prominence reposting TikTok videos and social media posts, many taken from LGBTQ people and framed to spark outrage on the right. With 1.49 million followers, the account has rapidly grown into a cultural force, shaping narratives in right-wing media, influencing legislation and, increasingly, stoking real-world violence. In September, a Massachusetts woman was arrested and charged with making a bomb hoax against Boston Children’s Hospital, her threat following a weekslong campaign spearheaded by Libs of TikTok against medical workers who provide care for transgender children. 

“This is really starting to pick up into very scary territory, and [Libs of TikTok] is inciting that,” said Alejandra Caraballo, clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic, who also pointed to increased protests and the rising threat of violence directed toward drag queen culture – a favorite target of Libs of TikTok – including a recent incident in which a man firebombed an Oklahoma donut shop after it hosted a family-friendly drag event. “[Raichik] relies on tips from people in communities, and it’s often people associated with Moms for Liberty and other anti-LGBTQ groups, and it almost becomes this pipeline of privatized intelligence gathering about marginalized communities, and particularly the LGBTQ community. … It’s one of the most efficient propaganda accounts I think I’ve ever seen. … [Raichik] knows exactly what she’s doing, and then she revels in it and celebrates it. There’s a very sadistic element to it.”

Blackburn became a target of Libs of TikTok when Raichik posted a tweet on Oct. 21 containing images taken from two of Blackburn’s Twitter accounts. One screenshot contained the Twitter post Blackburn made immediately after meeting with the high school students on Oct. 19 – “I spoke to the Worthington Kilbourne Politics and Radicalism classes today,” she wrote – and the other cobbled together images of Blackburn's Twitter bio, in which she labels herself an “anarchist bimbo, fat activist [and] aspiring muse,” along with a nude photo advertising her account with ManyVids, an amateur porn site. Tagging the Worthington Schools Twitter account, Libs of TikTok wrote, “[Worthington] brought an antifa activist and sex worker who has public profiles containing pornography to speak with students this week. This is who they want students to look up to and learn from.” 

“Once I saw that, I went private on all my [social media] accounts and mostly kept my head down,” Blackburn said. “My heart didn’t stop racing the whole time, because you can see it happening, and you’re starting to think, okay, what weak spots do I have? Are they going to come after your family? Who do I have to tell? Who do I have to warn?”

Blackburn said that within hours she received notifications “in the hundreds,” along with dozens of private messages on multiple social media platforms. The messages, screenshots of which were provided to Matter News by Blackburn, attacked her weight, made false allegations that she had shared sexually explicit material with children, and harbored implied threats of violence. One message shared with Matter contained nothing more than a close-up photograph of a man pointing a gun at the camera. 

“There are different categories [of messages] you get,” Blackburn said. “There are people who barely read the article and don’t care all that much but wanted to say something directed at who you are or what you look like – the worst people in the world who just want to make you feel bad about yourself. Then there are those who are concern trolling, like, ‘I’m just worried about you, you know?’ And then there are the people who think you should be arrested as a pedophile, and, God, there were so many of those.

“Libs of TikTok and that subset of people [who follow the account], they don’t see you as human anymore if you’ve done anything they consider deviant or outside the norm. If you’re a queer person or a sex worker, you lose all of your humanity, you lose all of your rights. And I was a good soft target for them."

In the days after the post, according to Blackburn, one woman even turned up in person at Thomas Kilbourne to request a copy of Blackburn’s presentation, despite not having any children enrolled at the high school. (A second source with knowledge of the situation confirmed Blackburn's account.)

Crafted to spark maximum outrage, the Libs of TikTok post failed to mention that Blackburn appeared in the class solely as a representative for FIRST Collective and Camp Shameless to discuss the plight of the unhoused in Columbus.

“They take things entirely out of context,” said Caraballo, who referenced the burgeoning “groomer” discourse that has emerged within the right wing, and on Libs of TikTok in particular, stoking moral outrage often directed at members of the LGBTQ community based on a false belief they are targeting children. “And this sounds like the perfect recipe, where they have someone come and talk to a school, and then they dig up that she’s a sex worker and it becomes, ‘Oh, there are sex workers coming to speak to students at schools.’ And then it’s on Fox News and all of these other sites, and by the time any real journalist digs into what actually happened and the context of everything, it’s days or weeks later, and that narrative is already out there.”

Blackburn received a unique view into the machinations of this right-wing news ecosystem. Less than 24 hours after the Libs of TikTok post surfaced, she received interview queries from the Daily Caller and Fox News, the latter of which ran a feature under the headline “Ohio superintendent defends bringing 'anarchist bimbo' who posted about 'sex work' to high school classroom.” A screenshot of the headline currently doubles as the banner image on Blackburn’s Twitter profile.

“[Libs of TikTok] is just so central to this right-wing news ecosphere,” Caraballo said. “It’s incredible how one of those anonymous tips can go from a story sent out on Twitter to then be picked up by the Daily Wire, the Daily Caller, Fox News and then being featured, potentially, on Tucker Carlson. … It’s incredible how this random account has become a wire service of where to direct violence and stoke moral panic.”

The initial Libs of TikTok post directed at Blackburn also ignored the unique setting in which her conversation with students took place. Created in 1975 by teacher Tom Molnar, now retired, the course, dubbed U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism, or Poli-Rad, welcomes extremist speakers from across the political spectrum. Through the years, the course – available as an elective to seniors at Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne – has featured guests that include members of the Westboro Baptist Church, white nationalist Richard Spencer, and Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground, according to Reason

“Parents are well informed of what happens in the course,” Worthington Schools superintendent Dr. Trent Bowers wrote in an email in response to an interview request from Matter News. “No one has to take the course, and it has long been supported in our community. … We continue to support the class, and I am always disappointed when someone who has volunteered their time to speak is vilified for doing so.”

“One thing I saw over and over again in the terrible comments on the internet was people who were like, ‘Actually, this class sounds pretty cool,’” Blackburn said, and laughed.

Blackburn said she was invited to speak in Poli-Rad by David Strasbaugh, social studies department co-chair at Worthington Kilbourne, and her talk focused exclusively on her work at Camp Shameless and her advocacy for unhoused individuals, a point confirmed by Strausbaugh.

“It was hard to narrow down the presentation, because there’s so much that I wanted to say. I could talk for hours about what it’s like to live in [Camp Shameless] and to work with people and try to establish norms,” said Blackburn, who helped found Camp Shameless as part of FIRST Collective and later lived in the encampment after becoming unhoused when she separated with her partner in March. “I talked about the statistics around homelessness, particularly in Ohio. … And then I talked to them about what we built, what we wanted to build and what the city should be doing better.”

Blackburn said she was also able to share the collective spirit uncovered by those living and working within Camp Shameless, which became a hub not just for residents who needed a bed or to establish a connection to city resources, but also a safe space for the unhoused who needed a meal or simply longed to feel a greater sense of community. 

“It’s hard to find anything more satisfying than watching someone move through the steps they’ve been stuck in for a long time because they didn’t have anybody that reached out, that believed in them, that cared,” said Blackburn, whose experiences this year have served as a jarring reminder of how close many in “stable” situations are to finding themselves on the streets. “[Camp Shameless] was not just there to serve the people who lived there. It was there for the community. And that’s beautiful. One of our residents said it was the only place he knew was home when he wasn’t there. He could leave that spot, come back, and it would still be his, and he would still be welcome, and there would still be people there who cared about him.”

While Blackburn locked down her social media accounts during the initial firestorm directed at her by Libs of TikTok, she said she was heartened by the immediate support she received from her community, both online and elsewhere, and within a matter of days she turned the tables on the negative attention, even offering 50 percent off ManyVids purchases “in honor of the fascist moral panic.”

“The comments people were leaving, it hurt a lot of the people following me, my friends, more than it hurt me, because I’m comfortable in my own skin and there’s very little they can say to make me feel bad about myself,” Blackburn said. “I decided early on in my activist career that I didn’t care about what other people thought, so long as I was doing work that I felt good about, and I’ve stuck with that. … I would feel awful right now if I believed any of the things they said about me. But I don't, thank God. And I sold some videos, too, so hell yeah.”

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