There were 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets on Twitter last year, with a total reach of 10 billion impressions. Of that, 19,253 of them were specifically directed at Jewish journalists—myself, and my Daily Beast colleague Sally Kohn, included. Remarkably, two-thirds of the tweets originated from just 1,600 accounts. And even more remarkably, Twitter has deleted only 21 percent of them.
These are some of the numbers from the report released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League, entitled “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign.” For the first time, the report quantifies—with some significant surprises—the extent of anti-Semitic harassment online on Twitter since the rise of the Donald Trump campaign and the resurgence of the “alt-right,” specifically the period from August 2015 to July 2016.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. I was an adviser to the ADL’s task force on harassment, although the hate-tweets I was tagged in—pictures of me in death-camp gas chambers (with Donald Trump pressing the “gas” button and the caption “You’re Fired”); an endless torrent of kike, faggot, and other slurs; lots of gleeful boasts that Trump would finish the work Hitler started—pale in comparison to those aimed at the primary targets in the ADL report. Indeed, one of the report’s most shocking revelations is that 83 percent of the anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists targeted only 10 people.
People like Ben Shapiro and Bethany Mandel, two conservative writers turned Trump critics. And Julia Ioffe and Jonathan Weisman, who warned of the looming fascism in the Trump movement (which, of course, the hate tweets exemplify). And others whose great offense was reporting on Trump while being Jewish.
“The true alt-right is steeped in Jew-hatred,” Shapiro told The Daily Beast. “Writing that off as ‘mischievous and trolly’ as publicists for the alt-right do, is a vicious lie.”
The result, anecdotally, has been a profound chilling effect, and a normalization of the abnormal. Weisman quit Twitter entirely, frustrated with the social-media giant’s refusal to honor its own terms of service and inability to distinguish between legitimate political speech and bigoted harassment. Personally, I am quite certain this piece will provoke another storm of anti-Semitic tweets. Part of me wants not to write it.
Second, as the ADL report emphasizes, when there are 10 billion chances to see the kind of vicious, murderous, slanderous, filthy, and, yes, deplorable bigotry that we thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the hateful becomes normalized. “Machen Amerika Great” photoshopped onto the gates of Auschwitz. “Jude” stars photoshopped onto pictures of Jewish journalists. Endless variations on anti-Semitic images and language.
“I think the alt-right rock has been turned over,” said Shapiro. “If they believe they’re gaining power and credibility, this is just the start.”
Who’s to blame?
Well, obviously, the trolls themselves, first and foremost, and secondarily, white supremacists like Andrew Anglin and Lee Rogers.
But racist scum like them have always existed. And while, as a 501(c)(3) eager to work with businesses to solve problems, the ADL dances around the two most obvious villains, I am not thus constrained. They are Donald Trump and Twitter itself.
First, despite nearly a full year of anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish journalists, Trump has not once condemned it. Where the fuck are you, Donald Trump? This is your daughter and son-in-law whom your followers are calling rats and bloodsuckers; it’s your grandchildren they want to burn in ovens. And yet, no—only repeated dog-whistling, like Trump’s recent references to global conspiracy of bankers and media elites. Sad!
Further, as the ADL report notes, incidents of anti-Semitic tweets spike together with Trump-related news events: Feb. 29, when Trump refused to disavow the Ku Klux Klan; May 17, when Melania Trump accused Ioffe of provoking the attacks against her; March 13, when Trump blamed Bernie Sanders for violent protesters at his rallies.
And then, of course, there’s Trump’s starring role in the tweets themselves; the cozy relationship, via Steve Bannon, between Trump and the alt-right (and anti-Semitic conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones); and the entire race-baiting, white-America-first themes of his campaign.
Hope Hicks, press secretary for the Trump campaign, told the Daily Beast that “we have no knowledge of this activity and strongly condemn any commentary that is anti-semitic. We totally disavow hateful rhetoric online or otherwise.” Really—no knowledge of this activity that’s been going on for months, features Trump’s name and likeness, and has been reported throughout the mainstream media?
Trump is not encouraging these tweets; the ADL report makes clear that a small handful of alt-right demagogues are. But he’s not condemning them either, and he’s clearly seen, by the tweeters themselves, as the great anti-Semitic messiah. It’s worse than sad; it’s a national disgrace.
And then there’s Twitter.
Waving the tattered flags of the Arab Spring, Twitter’s position is that it is a platform for the free, basically anonymous exchange of ideas, and that includes offensive ideas. If you require users to identify themselves, they can’t be safe from authoritarian regimes, snooping bosses, or the NSA.
Plus, they point out, you can easily block users you don’t want to see, although your name, likeness, and personal information can still be shared with those users’ thousands of followers. In the words of one targeted journalist, that’s like walking down the street with your ears plugged, while right behind you a bigot is shouting that you’re a bloodsucking kike. “I can’t hear you!”
The biggest shock in the ADL report is that this entire campaign of harassment is coordinated by a relatively small number of trolls, most of whom have words like white, nationalist, and Trump in their bios. Gosh, couldn’t Twitter, a company with a $11.9 billion (and falling) market capitalization, come up with some innovative solutions to go after these 1,600 bad actors? How about requiring users to identify themselves if they repeatedly tweet out offensive images? How about adding more staff to investigate reports of harassment? How about actually enforcing your own terms of service, rather than hiding behind the “free speech” banner? Or maybe Twitter doesn’t want to lose the trolls and their ad-viewing eyeballs?
The situation, it must be noted, is similar to Twitter’s anemic response to the epidemic of rape threats directed at women, and racist bile directed at people of color. (Or, in the case of comedian Leslie Jones, both at the same time.) Yes, some people are banned, before popping up again in a hateful game of Whack-a-Mole. But too few, too late, and with too much effort. Twitter is not doing remotely enough.
Indeed, we don't even know where these tweets are coming from. Bethany Mandel, one of the journalists most targeted by them, said that “In a perfect world I would’ve loved to see information on the origins of these accounts. Many people, myself included, believe these accounts not to be American supporters of Trump, but instead Russian troll farms. If that is the case, the Russian government is interfering even more than we originally thought in our electoral process, trying to intimidate journalists who are covering the campaign.”
But with Twitter either lacking the ability or the will to track these users, we don’t know the answer.
Racist lowlifes have long drifted in the backwaters of America’s political sewer. They are, to quote their hero, sad, pathetic losers. And I am sure that if Twitter decides to finally cut them off, they’ll slink back to Reddit, 4Chan, and other, seedier venues.
But Twitter ought to be different. Its technology enables the rapid sharing of information, and often productive dialogues across political lines. It is an invaluable tool for journalists in particular. It would be a shame if it went down, a victim of its own pseudo-libertarianism.
I dread going on Twitter after this article runs. In part, I’m afraid of the real-world damage these trolls can inflict; colleagues of mine have been doxxed, stalked, and harassed in person. But in part, the online harassment itself is degrading. There’s something uniquely disturbing about being humiliated in front of tens of thousands of virtual users, in bigoted terms that most of us thought belonged to the distant past. It’s debasing; you’re pulled down into the muck where these trolls live. And it’s demeaning, because you’re powerless to stop them, because Twitter prefers them to you.
I lost a dozen members of my grandparents’ families in the Holocaust. I know it will not happen again, not in the United States anyway. I know that the people sending me pictures of mass graves are among the most profound losers in our society. And I know that I should have a thick skin.
But Twitter is letting these racists spit on my grandparents’ graves. 2.6 million times.
Updated 11:45 am, 10/19: This piece was updated to include quotations from sources and additional reporting by Lloyd Grove.