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!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • 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.