Brookings, South Dakota. A university LGBTQ+ group is hit with a flood of hate mail, culminating in a bomb threat that terrifies students.
San Lorenzo, California. A drag queen story hour is one of several Pride events across the country stormed by suspected members of the extremist street gang the Proud Boys. The men shout homophobic slurs and threats, and a performer hides in a back room, waiting for police to arrive.
Philadelphia. Boston. Pittsburgh. Washington, D.C. Akron, Ohio. Threats hit hospitals and medical clinics, and some temporarily evacuate their patients while law enforcement assesses the danger.
Then comes summer and fall 2023, at least two dozen public schools and libraries start receiving bomb threats. In California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, they cancel classes and evacuate students.
These cases, and many more, share a common link: The victim of each threat had also been targeted, in the days before, by the enormously popular conservative social media channel Libs of TikTok.
In almost every case, the perpetrator of the threat is unknown, and Chaya Raichik, the far-right influencer who runs Libs of TikTok, says she opposes violence, and that because there have been almost no arrests, there’s no proof the threats come from her followers.
But whoever is making the threats, the posts show a clear pattern. USA TODAY has confirmed dozens of bomb threats, death threats and other harassment after Libs of TikTok’s posts since February 2022, based on.
Numerous news reports have covered individual threats, noting the target had also been mentioned by Libs of TikTok. But the new analysis of years of tweets, including archives of many Raichik has since deleted, shows the pattern is more extensive and pervasive than has been previously known – and that threats, specifically against schools, have ratcheted up significantly in the past two months.
Media Matters used searches of published news reports to help identify more than 30 possible threat incidents. USA TODAY verified bomb, death and other threats in more than two dozen cases.
The research most likely undercounts the total number of cases. Other threats may never be reported to police or the media, and some targets are reluctant to publicize their plight for fear of drawing even more harassment.
As Libs of TikTok’s reach has expanded – the account now has more than 2.6 million followers on X, formerly known as Twitter – so, too, has the frequency and ferocity of the threats that follow Raichik’s posts.
Hospitals have been evacuated; schools and libraries have cleared classrooms and canceled lessons while police officers search for bombs. Bookstores, Pride parades, cafes, even a dog rescue center, have had to lock down for fear of reprisals – and violence.
“We can only insulate ourselves from what’s happening on social media for so long,” said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ+ program director for Media Matters. “In a country where so many people have the ability to take things into their own hands, that’s a very real worry.”
Libs of TikTok: A far-right force driving the conversation and fueling outrage
The @LibsofTikTok Twitter handle was created in April 2021 by Raichik, a former Brooklyn real estate agent who grew up in Los Angeles.
Raichik created the account to “raise awareness about the situation in America,” she told USA TODAY. “There’s a clear pattern of the sexualization of children going on in public schools, and I think that’s a problem,” she said. “I think it’s super harmful, and I want to call it out, and raise awareness to it.”
The account has become a creator of, and a force multiplier for, right-wing outrage, particularly on LGBTQ+ issues. On X it has been amplified by the platform’s owner Elon Musk, and a hive of conservative politicians, media personalities and far-right online influencers, including former Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and podcaster Joe Rogan.
For 2½ years, the account has posted a drumbeat of videos, photographs and links, often featuring TikTok or Instagram videos recorded by progressive leftists, accompanied by a derisive comment from Raichik.
Like most social media influencers, Raichik doesn’t produce all the content she tweets about. Libs of TikTok regularly shares videos and posts created by other far-right accounts, often with inaccuracies, misinformation and thinly veiled hatred mixed in.
But while those other accounts may have a smaller reach, once Libs of TikTok chooses a target, the viral response can quickly spin out of control.
Once Raichik posts something, “it just gets amplified to an order of magnitude larger audience,” said Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at the Harvard Law School Cyberlaw Clinic who has been openly critical of Libs of TikTok. “Any tweet she puts out gets – instantly – millions of views and potentially tens of thousands of retweets and likes. So it gets wide dissemination.”
Shortly after – media reports and interviews show – is when the threats often begin.
Hospitals receive threats after Libs of TikTok posts
In Spring 2022, Raichik began directing her audience toward doctors, hospitals and medical facilities that provide care to LGBTQ+ patients, especially children.
On March 16, 2022, Libs of TikTok targeted Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Oregon, part of the Oregon Health and Science University’s health system, for providing gender-affirming care to youth. Almost immediately, the hospital and its staff started receiving harassment and threats.
“The harassing calls, emails and other messages that OHSU received in March 2022 objected to gender-affirming health care. Most of these messages cited social media posts that contained inaccurate or misleading information about life-saving and medically necessary care for gender-diverse patients,” reads a hospital statement provided to USA TODAY. “OHSU and its staff continue to be subjected to anti-transgender harassment today.”
By the summer, Raichik focused on Boston Children’s Hospital.
From Aug. 11 to 15, 2022, Libs of TikTok tweeted about the hospital at least seven times,. In one post, Raichik shared a debunked – but wildly popular – video claiming the hospital was performing hysterectomies on children.
Almost immediately, far-right message-boards and Twitter caught fire, with one poster.’” On Aug. 16, the official Twitter feed for Boston Children’s Hospital posted a statement saying it had “been the target of a large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls and harassing emails, including threats of violence towards our clinicians and staff.”
The statement specifically cited the false video about hysterectomies as the driver of the campaign.
The next day, Aug. 17, the local U.S. attorneyinto the threats and a month later, federal agents arrested 37-year-old Catherine Leavy, charging her with making a false bomb threat against the hospital. Leavy pleaded guilty in September and faces up to 10 years in prison.
But the Libs of TikTok tweets against healthcare workers continued unabated.
On Sept. 18, 2022, the account posted about gender-affirming care at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. The online abuse got so bad, the hospital had to take down a section of its website.
A few days later, on Sept. 21 it was the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s turn, when Libs of TikTok posted about the hospital’s efforts to help parents of transgender children. The hospital soon reported increasing its security because of threats to staff.
And it’s not just big institutions; Libs of TikTok has also targeted individual doctors.
Last October, Raichik posted a video of Dr. Katherine Gast, co-director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s UW Health gender services program, describing gender-affirming operations. The backlash was swift, with thousands of Twitter accounts sharing the post, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
The subsequent harassment campaign against Gast was “scary and overwhelming,” she told NBC News.
“The followers of Libs of TikTok and Ted Cruz lied about my practice to stir up outrage, doxxed me and my family, and my clinic is receiving harassing phone calls,” she told the network.
‘They want to become famous’
Asked for her reaction to the established pattern of harassment that follows her tweets, Raichik has a simple – and standard – response: She’s merely reposting what institutions and individuals have already, themselves, chosen to put out to the world on social media, she says.
“If an individual posts publicly on TikTok, the goal of TikTok is to get views,” Raichik said. “That’s why people post on TikTok – they want to become famous, they want clicks, views.”
But Raichik doesn’t just repost other people’s content.
First, her posts almost always include some kind of commentary. One in October, for example, featured an Instagram video of a New York music teacher, joyfully waving a Progress Pride flag while the message “Happy National Coming Out Day – Black, Gay and Thriving” appears at the bottom of the screen. “An actual elementary school teacher in NY,” reads Raichik’s comment on the video.
That teacher told USA TODAY that while he had not been aware Libs of TikTok posted his video, he had seen an immediate surge of hate mail. “I’m so mortified by this!” Eric Williamson said via email. “I have seen an increase of nasty messages on my post this week and wondered why.”
Other posts either directly or indirectly encourage Libs of TikTok’s followers to contact the original poster directly. In a post last April for example, Raichik sarcastically told her followers “definitely do not keep up the pressure” on a school district in Oregon that supported transgender students using their chosen pronouns. Asked about that post, she acknowledged it was a call to action, but only to “tag” or mention the account on social media. “I’ve done that a couple times, where I told people to tag accounts on Twitter,” she said. “That is nowhere near telling people to call in bomb threats.”
Libs of TikTok also doesn’t post solely public material.
Posts regularly include clandestine photos and videos that have been sent to Raichik or her network, presumably without the permission of a hospital, school clinic or library.
And some of the material she posts is doctored or fake – something Raichik acknowledged in her interview with USA TODAY. In April 2022, she reposted photographs and claims purporting to show an elementary school teaching children about a lifestyle some people believed depicts a fetish for animal costumes. The original post was an easily debunked hoax, and Raichik later deleted her tweet.
“I deleted it, and actually it taught me a lot, because now I’m much more careful in vetting everything,” Raichik told USA TODAY. “But yes, that is one example, I’ll admit, of a story that wasn’t true.”
Early this year, Raichik said, she deleted all of her prior tweets from 2022 and 2021 – an act she called a “one-time editorial decision.” She wouldn’t elaborate on her reasoning.
In recent months, Raichik, who calls herself a journalist, has begun labeling certain posts as “Scoops” – indicating they contain original reporting that nobody else has published, including the targets of her posts.
She told USA TODAY she is increasingly filing requests under public records law, with the hope of revealing previously unknown information. That’s a shift away from her original brand – the idea that she just posts videos the “libs,” themselves, already made.
Whatever her intention, Raichik has clearly spent recent months focused on one target: public schools.
Libs of TikTok turns its attention to schools
In at least 12 cases in the past two years, Libs of TikTok posts about schools, school districts and teachers have been followed by bomb threats, Media Matters found – often multiple bomb threats against the same location.
Most of these happened in the past two months.
Since Aug. 21,, and USA TODAY confirmed, there have been at least 25 bomb threats against schools, libraries, school administration buildings and universities after Libs of TikTok posts.
On Aug. 21,in Davis, California, where staff refused to allow a group to continue a public presentation. During a speech about transgender athletes, the speakers broke library rules by repeatedly referring to them as “biological males.” Libs of TikTok then tweeted a video of the confrontation, which has been viewed more than 1.4 million times and liked by 20,000 accounts.
The library almost immediately received bomb threats, and had to close temporarily, according to local media reports and the local police. And though the event was at a public library, the Davis Joint Unified School District also then received at least five bomb threats, and district staffthat their personal information was posted online. The FBI are assisting local authorities in investigating.
“The County of Yolo unequivocally condemns hate crimes and incidents that have cast their shadows over our vibrant community,” Dwight Coddington, a spokesman for Yolo County, which includes Davis, told USA TODAY. “Hate crimes and incidents have no place in Yolo County.”
In recent weeks, similar bomb threats have been made following Libs of TikTok tweets about schools in Oklahoma, Iowa, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
Despite the steady, and increasing, drumbeat of bomb threats against the very public schools and libraries her posts have targeted, Raichik said she was not convinced Libs of TikTok is connected to these harassment campaigns.
Schools, hospitals and other public institutions get bomb threats all the time, she told USA TODAY.
“It’s possible that some of these bomb threats were not even real bomb threats, you know,” she said. “Why are these bomb threats – the ones that are allegedly coming after my tweets – why are those making it to the news, while others aren’t?”
Two school security experts told USA TODAY that many schools do, indeed, receive more bomb threats than the public might realize. But victims and experts say the pattern of threats following Raichik’s posts shows more than just coincidental timing.
At the Cherry Creek School District in Arapahoe County, Colorado, for example, a local media station received a threat in September claiming multiple bombs had been placed at three schools and two administration buildings. The buildings, including a day care center, were evacuated.
The day before, Cherry Creek had been the subject of a Libs of TikTok blog post claiming the district kept “pornographic” books in elementary school libraries. The Libs of TikTok post ended with a call to readers to contact the district.
Almost immediately, the district was inundated with thousands of harassing phone calls, emails and social media posts. Then came the bomb threat.
In a letter to parents, the district superintendent, Chris Smith directly connected the threat to “bullying” and homophobic views expressed about the LGBTQ+ books on social media.
“The attacks from last week were driven by hate and have no place in our schools,” he wrote.
Ken Trump, a former Federal Protective Service officer and author who runs a school safety consultancy, said he’d be very surprised if the recent string of threats immediately following Libs of TikTok posts had happened by chance.
“I’ve seen some coincidences in my years doing this work, but that would be a really big one,” Trump said.
Libs of TikTok targets Pride events
Alyssa Gonzales was standing in her parents’ kitchen when she got the phone call late last November: A bomb threat had been made against the South Dakota State University Gender and Sexualities Alliance, where Gonzales volunteered and now serves as president.
Gonzales’ parents knew something was up.
Her father quizzed her about the call, and Gonzales’ reaction to it. The 19-year old took a deep breath. She had never told her parents she was gay. Now, she couldn’t wait any longer.
She came out to her family, explaining she had become heavily involved with LGBTQ+ causes at SDSU, and that she and her colleagues were now the target of a bomb threat.
The chain of events had begun a few days earlier, when Libs of TikTok reposted a video of a drag queen dressed in an outfit designed to make the wearer appear naked. The tweet claimed the video was from a “family friendly” drag show hosted by SDSU’s Gender and Sexualities Alliance.
The clip was actually from the previous year’s drag event, at which no children were present. But that didn’t stop the outrage. Replies to the tweet flooded in. The university began fielding hundreds of hateful and threatening emails, and eventually the bomb threat that led to Gonzales’ untimely coming out to her parents and grandparents.
The threats didn’t stop Gonzales and her colleagues at the college. Instead, in an act of defiance, they like to read out some of the more bizarre messages in ridiculous voices at their meetings.
“It feels like, ‘Oh, we’ve made it, we’re making news, and people are going to notice us.’” Gonzales said. “And if they notice us, then we can talk more, too – we can still say that, despite all this, we’re here, we’re queer, we’re out, and we’re proud.”
Other activists and performers across the country have also taken the threats in their stride.
Panda Dulce, a drag queen from the San Francisco Bay Area, hosted the event at the San Lorenzo library in summer of last year. It had been targeted by Libs of TikTok tweet, then was disrupted by a group of men wearing black and gold – the colors of the extremist group the Proud Boys. The men shouted homophobic slurs at Dulce as she tried to read to children, she said.
“They called me a ‘pedophile,’” Dulce wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
Dulce said the men made direct threats at her safety. “It was clear I was the target and focus of their attack,” she wrote.
But more than a year later, Dulce said she can’t let hate win.
“I still lead Story Hours,” she wrote. “I will not stop simply because some hobbyless extremists decided to cosplay Call Of Duty and throw a tantrum in a shameless grab for attention.”
For Gonzales, despite the bomb threat incident forcing her to come out to her family, the process went really well, she said. Her parents were loving and accepting, open and embracing – and all the more so given the hostility they knew their daughter was facing.
“They were very understanding,” she said. “They don’t get everything, but they’re still accepting.”
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