Twitter is the “weapon of choice” for bigots and racists, according to a new report on digital hate and intolerance released by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The center surveyed hateful content on over 30,000 websites and found that online hatred rose more than 30% over the past year.
The report also graded top social media platforms on their commitment to removing hateful posts and on whether the prevalence of these posts on their sites is increasing or decreasing.
“If the world is going to effectively deal with the growing threat from lone wolf terrorists, the leading social media companies, including Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter must do more,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, assistant dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
But Cooper reserved special criticism for Twitter, which received a D grade in the report. He said Twitter has shown little inclination to work with his center or to seriously address hateful speech and even terrorist activity.
“There are terrorist groups that use Twitter to communicate,” he said. “Twitter hasn’t shown us they have an institutional grasp or commitment of the issue, and that needs to change.”
Cooper pointed to the Twitter activity of Al-Shabaab, a Somali terrorist organization, which live-tweeted a horrific September 2013 terrorist attack at a mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Twitter did, however, shut down the Al-Shabaab’s Twitter handle, but the group continually opened new handles – demonstrating one of the many obstacles to restricting hateful speech on the internet.
Twitter rules on speech forbid “direct, specific threats of violence against others” but allow “potentially inflammatory content,” so long as it does not violate any other terms of service.
Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Twitter, declined to comment on the Wiesenthal Center’s report.
Facebook, which earned a B+ in the report, drew praise for its strict rules against offensive speech and aggressive enforcement efforts.
But Cooper warned that extremists forced off of Facebook often migrate to lesser-known platforms, like vk.com, a social media platform favored by many Eastern Europeans, which earned an F grade.
Hateful comments posted online often lead to real world consequences, according to Cooper. “We are constantly seeing that lone wolves, bullies, terrorists and other extremists spew their hatred and formulate their plans first online and then carry out their mission offline,” he said.
“The recent Kansas City JCC Shooting by Frazier Glenn Miller, which first took root online, is an example of this subculture of hate formed online,” he added, referring to the April 13 attack on Kansas City-area Jewish sites by Miller, a white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader.
The Wiesenthal Center, which works to combat antisemitism and bigotry, has tracked hateful online speech for the past 20 years. Though its researchers found a a 30% rise in hateful comments since its 2013 report, Cooper noted that that number is based on a limited survey and is not meant to be an “ultimately definitive” read of all speech on the internet, which contains hundreds of millions of websites.
The center’s report was released May 1 by Cooper in conjunction with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.