Anti-Defamation League Takes On Hatred Online as Anti-Semitism Goes Viral

New Tactics Needed as Watchdog Enters Second Century

New Century: Vice President Joe Biden embraces ADL national director Abraham Foxman at the group’s centenary event.
New Century: Vice President Joe Biden embraces ADL national director Abraham Foxman at the group’s centenary event.

By JTA

Published June 12, 2013.
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How do you confront hatred when it has no fixed address?

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League national director, attempts to pin down an answer to the question in his latest book, “Viral Hate.”

Co-authored with privacy lawyer Christopher Wolf, the book chronicles the complications of countering hate on the Internet.

The takeaway? It’s up to us.

“Let’s take back responsibility for our culture — both online and off” is the book’s main conclusion. “Public involvement, concern, action, and, when necessary, outcry are key.”

Calling on the public to be alert and reactive to the dangers of bigotry is not new terrain for the ADL, which throughout its 100-year history has coupled behind-the-scenes suasions with public appeals to lobby leadership and engage with peers.

Yet while many of the book’s accounts of broad, spontaneous action against Internet hate speech end in triumph, Foxman’s reliance on more traditional ADL tactics in the digital age are less successful.

Efforts to engage with the powers that run the Internet — indeed, Foxman’s attempt to discover who those powers even are — peter out in frustration.

“We have been talking to the geniuses at Palo Alto,” Foxman said in an interview. “We have said to them, ‘thanks but no thanks. You developed a technology that has some wonderful things but also has unintended consequences.’ ”

Such dead ends do not mean the public is powerless, however. Foxman and Wolf cite the example of JuicyCampus, a gossip website brought to heel after direct appeals to the website went nowhere.

As the authors tell it, the website, established in 2007 as a clearinghouse for campus gossip, quickly devolved into speech replete with misogyny and race hatred. The site’s founding pledge to ban “unlawful, threatening, abusive, tortuous, defamatory, obscene, libelous or invasion of another person’s privacy” was honored mostly in the breach.

Efforts to ban its usage by the student government and administrators at Pepperdine University in Southern California — one of seven schools initially targeted by the site — kept rubbing up against First Amendment protections.

Ultimately, what led to the site’s demise was an independent campaign launched by a student at Pepperdine, a Christian school that does not allow alcohol on campus, urging boycotts of the site. The campaign went viral, advertisers abandoned the site and by February 2009 it folded.


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