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Can a group of French students force Twitter to release the names of users posting anti-Semitic tweets?

Jillian Scheinfeld
March 14, 2013
The wall of a house in Pont-du-Chateau, France, 2012.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images)
The wall of a house in Pont-du-Chateau, France, 2012.(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images)

“A good Jew is a dead Jew.”

“A good Jew is a slave.”

“How many Jews can fit in a Volkswagen? Two in the back, two in the front and 100 in the ashtray.”

These are just a few of the thousands of anti-Semitic jokes that have circulated on Twitter over the past year from anonymous accounts based in France and Mexico, attached to the hashtags #UnBonJuif, or “A good Jew” and #EsDeJudios, or “It’s Jewish to …” Hate speech on the Web is nothing new, but the jokes are so popular they’ve become trending topics alongside more innocuous subjects like #HowToMakeMeSmile and the Oscars.

Last October, when the hashtag #UnBonJuif reached the top three on Twitter’s trending topics list in France, a French Jewish student group, the Union of French Jewish Students, complained directly to the San Francisco-based social networking giant asking for the names of Twitter users promoting the anti-Semitic hashtag. When Twitter failed to respond, the students took their case to a French court—and won.

Perhaps one reason the court took the case so seriously is that the rise of anti-Semitic hashtags on Twitter has coincided with a surge in anti-Semitic outbreaks throughout Europe. In the year since a gunman murdered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, there has been a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents throughout France, prompting so many Jews to leave for London that synagogues there have begun offering Shabbat services in French. Neighboring Belgium has seen a reported 30 percent increase in anti-Semitic episodes, including 13 instances of Holocaust denial, 11 cases of vandalism, and 15 verbal assaults last year. To the east, politicians from far-right nationalist parties have been elected in Hungary, including Márton Gyöngyösi, who told the London Jewish Chronicle last year that it was time to “get over” the Holocaust.

In the aftermath of World War II, most European countries adopted strict laws criminalizing hate speech. But Twitter is a creature of the Internet, whose developers have taken a libertarian approach to the free flow of ideas and information, and of the United States, where freedom of speech trumps most other values. Its laissez-faire attitudes conflict with what Jews in other countries see as hard-won legal protections. “The policy of Twitter gives people the impression that they cannot be punished for what they say on the Internet,” said Elie Lenglart, a law student at the Sorbonne who is working on the French students’ case. “Maybe that is the case in the U.S., but in France and most European countries this is not allowed, and when you have anti-Semitic speech on the Internet, you have to be punished.”

On Jan. 24, the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance, or Superior Court, ordered Twitter to hand over the names of people promoting the #UnBonJuif hashtag. Twitter now faces a fine of a thousand euros for every day it fails to comply—peanuts to a company valued at more than $9 billion. Unlike its social-media rivals Facebook and Google, Twitter has adopted a policy of nonintervention when it comes to hate speech on its platform. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, in a report released this week, gave the company an F for its lackadaisical approach to fighting hate speech. Facebook, on the other hand, which has been quick to block users promoting hate speech, got an A- for its work with organizations, experts in the industry, and governments to increase its transparency.

Twitter maintains that tweets sent out by its users around the world are protected under the First Amendment because the data is maintained on U.S.-based servers. But Twitter instituted a mechanism last year called “Country Withheld Content” that allows the service to block users within specific countries to comply with local laws without censoring content globally. The tool was used for the first time last October after German authorities requested the removal of an account called @hannoverticker, which belonged to a neo-Nazi group that had been banned in Lower Saxony.

But the French government has not requested similar action against the many users who have promoted the #UnBonJuif hashtag, and it’s not clear that Twitter, which refused to comment on the specifics of the case, would comply with a broad-based action against many individual users. “We are currently reviewing the court’s decision and appreciate the opportunity to talk with the French government and community groups about Twitter’s policies and procedures,” a spokesman for Twitter said in an email. “We are always open to feedback on what we could be doing better.”

“Open to feedback” isn’t the message Twitter has sent to the French students with its refusal to comply with the court ruling in Paris. “If we don’t get the names, it means the company doesn’t want to respect French law, so the next step is to sue the CEO,” said Elie Petit, the 24-year-old vice-president of the Jewish student union, who is pursuing a communications degree at the University of Paris. He joined the organization, known as the UEJF for its French acronym, with the intention of fighting anti-Semitism but never expected to take on one of the biggest social networking companies on the planet. To him, the case is about something bigger than one social networking company. “There is no impunity in France,” he said. “When you say it is OK to say anti-Semitic statements, people say it more often and are free to think it’s the norm.”

And Twitter’s reluctance to police its users has allowed hate speech to flourish on the network around the world. In January, the #EsDeJudios hashtag began trending in Mexico, and French-speaking users pushed racist and homophobic hashtags like #SiMonFilsEstGay—#IfMySonWasGay—and #SiMaFilleRamèneUnNoir—#IfMyDaughterBroughtABlackManHome—into the trending topics category over the winter. “What is important to focus on is that the people who are spreading these messages are hiding behind something, and what they are hiding behind is Twitter’s policies, because Twitter allows them to do it, anonymously,” said Robert Trestan, a civil rights lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League.

Facebook, by contrast, won a German lawsuit in February defending its policy of requiring members to use their real names, which enforces a certain degree of transparency throughout its user base. But even Twitter’s fiercest critics don’t expect the company to prevent hate speech on its network, which is popular precisely because it’s open and allows users to post under fake names. “It is not the job of Facebook, Youtube, or Twitter to be experts on every terrorist group or hate crime spree,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But they do have the responsibility to have a policy and a way to be responsive so that they don’t become part of the problem.”

It’s not clear, though, how a network whose main currency is its speed and international reach could develop a policy that could effectively prevent hate speech from appearing in the first place. “How can we think a country ban would work in an era of global communication?” asked Eric Newton, who developed the journalism and media innovation program at the Knight Foundation. “And how is it possible to ban hate speech worldwide without the establishment of an authority so powerful we would not want it to exist?”

For now, the UEJF students are at a standstill waiting to see how Twitter will respond to the French court order. A victory in the case, Petit said, isn’t just about protecting Jews. “We ask Twitter to also fight racism and homophobia, really every type of hate speech,” Petit said. “It’s not like anti-Semitism is more special than other types of hate.”


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Jillian Scheinfeld is a journalist living in New York City.

Jillian Scheinfeld is a journalist living in New York City.