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‘It’s nothing new’: A Mass. politician’s battle with pandemic-fueled online hate

State Senator Becca Rausch at the State House in Boston.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

At this point, state Senator Becca Rausch is used to hate, online and otherwise.

On a sunny weekend day last August, she was chatting with constituents at a farmers market in Ashland, iced coffee in hand, when she was interrupted by a woman who accosted her repeatedly about her support for coronavirus vaccines and mask mandates for children.

The woman, who called herself a “patriot” on YouTube, followed Rausch — a Democrat who represents the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex district in the Massachusetts Senate — to her car. She took video on her phone and asked Rausch: “Why are you encouraging people to abuse children?”


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

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

But Rausch’s story — one of a female, 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 that run deep with antisemitism and racism.

“Jews have been scapegoats since the beginning of time,” she said in an interview. “It’s nothing new.”

“Jews have been scapegoats since the beginning of time,” Rausch said in an interview. “It’s nothing new.”Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Rausch was born in 1979 and grew up in the suburbs of Albany, N.Y. From the beginning, her Jewish identity loomed large. Rausch’s maternal grandfather was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, and though he died when Rausch was 9, his journey left a lasting imprint on her family.


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

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

Soon, she found her way to Massachusetts to attend college at Brandeis University, graduating in 2001. She stayed for law school at Northeastern, and got her law degree in 2004.

She started working in health law, and then transitioned into a teaching position at Seattle University, only to come back to Massachusetts to serve under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration as an attorney in the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. In 2017, Rausch won a seat on Needham’s town council, and nearly two years later she became a state senator.

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


Most of the hate centers around a few things, most notably, her signature legislation — the Community Immunity Act. The bill calls for limiting the spread of deadly and preventable diseases through standardized immunization policies among schools, preschools, day care centers, and summer camps.

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

Nowadays, a tour of Rausch’s e-mail inbox or Facebook account reveals a torrent of vitriol. “What a horrible woman you are,” one Facebook message read. “I hope their [sic] will be new Nuremburg trials and that you will be found guilty.” Another message called her a “pandering racial hack.” Others are even more hostile and threatening.

Meanwhile, protesters have tried to “Zoom-bomb” her town hall meetings. And videos on YouTube and Facebook have been uploaded, where protesters show off their attempts to question her relentlessly in public, often asking why she wants to make it against the law for children to breathe.

For Rausch, the hate she receives is disconcerting and confusing. She is not the only politician in Massachusetts to support robust immunization standards or mask mandates, so why, she asked, was she being targeted more than her colleagues on both sides of the aisle?

“I’m a woman and a mother and a Jew,” she said. “There is an inherent nexus between the anti-vax movement and antisemitism and sexism. I am the person here that fits that bill.”


“I’m a woman and a mother and a Jew,” Rausch said. “There is an inherent nexus between the anti-vax movement and anti semitism and sexism. I am the person here that fits that bill.”Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Joan Donovan, an expert on disinformation at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said Rausch’s experience is not surprising. Multiple research studies indicate female and non-white politicians bear the brunt of online harassment, especially when it comes to those advocating for vaccines. Antisemitism also has a role to play, she said.

“This goes back to old antisemitic tropes about Jewish people trying to control populations,” Donovan said in an interview. “There is a strong contingent of folks that believe COVID-19 is a hoax. ‘It’s meant to be population control,’ and as a result, they have a few different constructions of who they think the ‘they’ is that’s behind this plot.”

Donovan added the phenomenon will not abate, and politicians in future elections must think about how to protect themselves. Those who identify as female, people of color, Jewish, Muslim, or have “any minority identity,” should be most concerned, she said, and will need to implement a security strategy to deal with the hate they could receive.

Experts note that politicians should ensure their home address and phone numbers aren’t available online. Friends and family should be warned they may be harassed, and should also hide their contact information. In severe cases, politicians might have to ask for physical security.

Mental health is also a concern. Politicians facing inordinate levels of harassment must figure out how to distance themselves from the hate. Staffers can be deputized to control social media accounts and e-mail inboxes.


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

Despite all that, regulating hate speech has been tricky.

Social media platforms don’t enforce their content moderation policies consistently, critics have noted, nor are they incentivized to regulate it because hateful content can keep users engaged and pad company revenue. Moreover, law enforcement struggles to penalize such hateful commentary.

“Many people using the Internet don’t think the Internet counts as real harassment,” she said. “People do get away with it all the time.”