The woman who shows how toxic America’s culture wars have become
- 12 April 2016
Why is a "happy wife" with "paleoconservative" political views a near-constant topic of conversation on Twitter?
Her name is Andie Pauly. She's an illustrated example of America's deep divisions, and the anger that flares up between left and right.
To her critics, she's a racist troll who harasses her opponents, and she offers rewards to those who dox - reveal personal information about - her enemies. To her defenders, she's a proud conservative standing up for free speech, and a victim of online abuse and harassment herself.
She has more than 18,000 followers on Twitter and there's a constant low-level hum of discussion about her on the network. Tens of thousands of tweets mention her every month.
So what do we know for sure about her - and how did she become such a divisive figure? Pauly tweets as @andieiamwhoiam. She lives in Joliet, a city of 150,000 people in Illinois about an hour's drive from Chicago, and is married to a Joliet police officer, Michael Pauly.
Her Twitter bio describes herself as a: "Happy wife. Homeschool mom. Proud police supporter. Paleoconservative. I block beta males & shrieking Godless harridans as matter of course." Her positions - as vociferously spelled out on Twitter - are mostly consistent with the culturally conservative American right. She defends gun ownership and the police, and criticises President Obama, abortion and the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of her tweets use blunt or vulgar language.
Among her more extreme messages are ones which call people "ferals" and a series of missives that called for the hanging of the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by police in Cleveland while playing with a toy gun.
Of course, the internet - and Twitter in particular - is full of armchair radicals, and the US Constitution strongly protects free speech. Pauly - who turned down repeated requests for comment and instead referred Trending to her Twitter timeline - would seem to fit into this category, just one of thousands of people with fringe views who have found a platform online. On her Twitter account, she denies using racist language and says her "feral" insults and others aren't aimed exclusively at African-Americans, but rather more generally at her liberal and progressive opponents.
But there's an additional dimension to Pauly's online activities. Her critics say she's taken her views way too far - that she has crossed the line to harassment.
For her part, Pauly and her supporters accuse liberal activists of targeting her for her views. Personal information such as her phone number and family pictures have been posted online, and she accuses her enemies of threatening her and her husband.
One woman who spoke to BBC Trending claims that she was fired from her job because of Pauly. Tara Dozier, a single mother who lives in Washington state, says she joined Twitter in late 2015. She befriended some Black Lives Matter activists - on the left of the American political spectrum - which led her to Pauly's tweets, some of which she re-tweeted.
"She believed that meant that I was stalking and harassing her, because I was re-tweeting her, and she blocked me," Dozier says.
It was an unremarkable internet spat - until people started calling her bosses at a local chocolate company, asking for her to be sacked. Dozier said that at first, the company's human resources department sided with her, and she deactivated her Twitter account in hopes of ending the online nastiness.
But the calls continued. In November, the company's Twitter account was bombarded by naked pictures of Dozier, pictures she says she was tricked into sending to another Twitter user. Not long after that, Dozier was sacked from her job. The company declined to comment about the incident, saying that their policy is not to discuss current or former employees.
"The second your picture is tweeted and out there it's a huge violation," Dozier says. "The stalking, revenge porn and the harassment - people kill themselves over this. There are not enough laws to prevent it and I'm still being blamed for what's happened."
Although there's no evidence that Pauly was behind the phone calls to her workplace, Dozier believes that she may have encouraged the campaign, and points to tweets where Pauly offers rewards in the form of Starbucks gift cards to people who post information about her enemies online:
And even though she has lost her job, Dozier says the harassment hasn't ended, and that she's had death threats as well as threats to report her family to local social service agencies.
Dozier's case and others kicked off much of the recent online chatter about Pauly, but in the course of reporting this story Trending received more than a dozen messages from individuals in several US states, claiming that they too had been targeted by her supporters.
"I said I'm writing this up - that's just awful," Kennard told Trending.
Kennard wrote a blog post revealing some of Pauly's personal details as well as posting examples of Pauly's extremist views and similar comments made in accounts under her husband's name.
After that post, Kennard says, Pauly's supporters turned their aim on her, sending her abusive messages and even maliciously editing a Wikipedia page about her late husband, who was a musician.
"Then I started getting angry calls and then a death threat," she says. She later posted a screengrab of a now-deleted tweet from one of Pauly's Twitter followers which says "Bang bang. You're dead!" followed by gun emojis.
Pauly has in the past claimed that her social media accounts have been hacked and that abusive comments have been tweeted by the hackers in order to ruin her reputation. In one online post she claimed that she was the target of anti-police trolls online: "They do it because their hatred of police is stronger than their sense of common decency."
It's hard to evaluate these claims. After BBC Trending contacted Pauly - who refused to answer any questions - some of the tweets were taken down. But many others are still available on Pauly's account.
Stuck in the middle
Those who are most aggressive in attacking Pauly online say she is fair game because she is the wife of a police officer. The deputy chief of Joliet Police, Tab Jensen, said that the force has been aware of Mrs Pauly's online activities for more than two years.
Jensen confirmed that Joliet Police had received "lots" of complaints about Mrs Pauly, but could not give an exact number, as the department only makes a written record of complaints by victims, not third parties.
"We have no proof of any type of crime having been committed," Jensen says, "She's claiming that her accounts are [hacked]. She's made a police report. She's said they've been threatened and harassed."
But despite Mrs Pauly's claims that she is the real victim of harassment and abuse, and personal information including her phone number and address has been posted online, none of her opponents have ever been arrested or charged.
One of Mrs Pauly's chief targets is the Black Lives Matter movement, which has arisen in response to the deaths of young black men shot by police. She champions the rival Blue Lives Matter campaign - "blue" refers to a common colour for American police uniforms - which is designed to back officers and highlight cases of police killed in the line of duty. However, there are signs that the Joliet's deputy chief is uncomfortable with some of her online interventions and finds them potentially unhelpful to police relations with parts of the community.
Jensen, who said that he had personally spoken to Andie Pauly about her online presence on "numerous occasions," hinted at the tensions between the mostly negative attention given to the wife of a police officer, and America's cherished principle of free speech.
"It looks bad for our police department and we don't want that," he says. "We do want to do the right thing, though, and if these are in fact her posts - she has the right to her beliefs."
BBC Trending contacted Mrs Pauly several times, but she refused to answer questions and instead repeatedly referred reporters to her Twitter timeline.
America's culture war - the fundamental and seemingly growing divide between conservatives and liberals - is of particular importance in this election year. Andie Pauly's supporters declare their support for the top Republican candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, while her opponents back Democrats. The two camps have little in common and if they have any common ground at all, they've failed to find it online. Both sides sling accusations of harassment and abuse. And both sides think their opponents are dead wrong.
Blog by Olivia Crellin
Editor's Note: After this story was published at least one fake social media account was set up in Olivia's name. The fake account looks almost identical to Olivia's genuine account and has been used to send abusive and misleading tweets to some of the people who have commented on this article on Twitter.
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