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

By Gal Beckerman

Published April 15, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Since its servers are based in the United States, it respects First Amendment law, which offers a very broad umbrella of protection. Basically, if there is no threat of immediate violence, it’s fair game. Since Twitter sees as its mission (not to mention its business) to provide an open forum, it makes sense for them to be dogmatic on this point. The American in me instinctually gets this.

Twitter is simply a tool. It can be used by anyone — to project interesting ideas and witty asides, or racism and stupidity. And we should leave it to the free marketplace of Tweets to sort it all out. I wouldn’t want Twitter to become the arbiter of what counts as authentic hate speech and what doesn’t.

But I’m also a Jew. And the Jew in me has a hard time ignoring the particular context of French Jewry and the sense of embattlement it is currently experiencing. Between the shooting spree at a Jewish school in Toulouse last year that killed four people and the earlier torture and murder of a young Parisian Jew, Ilan Halimi, there is a deep sense of dread that has led to an increasing emigration by Jews out of France. For those French students suing Twitter, the endless vile Tweets must have felt like the walls closing in on them.

Complicating this already complicated issue is anonymity. What the French students wanted was not to ban the use of #unbonjuif (Twitter eventually deleted the most offensive Tweets). They wanted the names of those who Tweeted.

France has more stringent hate speech laws and those making threatening anti-Semitic statements could possibly be prosecuted if their identities were known. Those laws exist because of France’s history and because its citizens feel more acutely than Americans do that potentially dangerous speech has to be quickly suppressed.

At some level Twitter, as global as it is, understands the need for sovereignty. The company’s policy states that users must comply with their local laws. But this is meaningless when you consider that anyone can create a fake handle and start tweeting with impunity.

There is, of course, a defense of online anonymity to be made. Think of all the revolutions throughout history and the new ideas, dangerous at first, that would never have existed if their authors had to declare themselves publicly. Many of the Tweets emanating from the Arab Spring or the 2009 Iranian protests were anonymous. And some of the funniest material on Twitter comes from joke handles (remember @InvisibleObama, which appeared after Clint Eastwood’s conversation with an empty chair last summer?). Much of the vibrancy of a platform like Twitter could be compromised if users were forced to register with their real names.

Against this ideal of total freedom, though, stand the particulars of history and society. Sitting here in front of my computer in America, I think anonymity is important, even if it provides cover for hate and can become a tool for cowards. It would be a mistake to use the law to override it except under extreme circumstances. But can I say the same for Europe?

The hate that lies under anonymous cover in France or Germany clearly feels even scarier and more nefarious to its citizens. That’s why their laws are harsher for prosecuting that hate. At a moment when we are so enthralled by transnational, earth-flattening forums like Twitter, couldn’t we also make room for these concerns, balancing our enthusiasm with a respect for the way national history shapes our sense of what should or should not be spoken?

Gal Beckerman is the Forward’s opinion editor and writes a monthly column about the media. Contact him at beckerman@forward.com or on Twitter @galbeckerman


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.