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.

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


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