Anti-Semitism and Anonymity on Twitter

Is the Social Media Giant Allowing Hate Speech To Thrive?

Tweeting: What happens when hate hides behind a social media platform?
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Tweeting: What happens when hate hides behind a social media platform?

By Gal Beckerman

Published April 15, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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“Anonymous” is a pretty apt name for the motley crew of anarchist hackers who like to disable and deface the websites of groups or people “they” don’t like. We can’t interrogate their motives. Only their work offers clues, sometimes quite unambiguous ones.

When Anonymous recently tried to take down the website for Yad Vashem — on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less — this was anti-Semitism. Despite many newspapers, including The New York Times, describing the group that day as “pro-Palestinian,” it’s hard to understand how vandalizing the website of Israel’s Holocaust museum furthers the Palestinian cause.

But at least Anonymous wears its anonymity on its sleeve. The bigger problem with anonymity online is the way it serves as a mask on social media platforms that provide a bullhorn of unprecedented volume to anyone who wants it. I’m thinking of Twitter, and a recent case that poses interesting — some would say serious — questions about how social media abets hatred in new and dangerous ways.

Last year, thousands of Tweets in French bearing the hashtag #unbonjuif (“a good Jew,” as in, “A good Jew is a dead Jew”) streamed through the social media site’s enormous network. The Tweets were usually violent comments about Jewish influence or blood curdlingly anti-Semitic jokes — one Tweet simply linked to a picture of an ashtray.

The Union of French Jewish Students sued Twitter last fall in the French equivalent of the Supreme Court, demanding the company provide the names of those Tweeting out the vile stuff (it would have been a long list since at one point the hashtag was trending among the three most popular topics in France). The students won, but Twitter has refused to comply, and in late March they sued again, this time to fine the company over $50 million for not obeying the ruling.

On the face of it, this seems like a straightforward matter of free speech. That’s what Twitter is arguing.


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