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Twitter’s ‘Juggernaut of Bigotry’

Five takeaways from the ADL’s report on anti-Semitic targeting of journalists during the 2016 presidential campaign

Armin Rosen
October 19, 2016

There are a lot of nasty things about this presidential election that would have seemed appalling back in the halcyon days of American democracy (which one could trace to say, the summer of 2015) but which we’re all just kind of sadly numb to by now. Take, for instance, the anti-Semitic hounding of Jewish journalists on social media. The image of an SS-appareled Donald Trump grimacing as a probably-Jewish opponent of his shrieks from behind a gas chamber door isn’t some one-off; it’s one of the icons of a horrid election season.

The harassment of Jewish media figures is a problem. But how quantitatively bad is that problem? Do we even want to know? Earlier today, the Anti-Defamation League’s Taskforce on Harassment and Journalism published a report looking at “the anti-Semitic targeting of journalists” over the course of the election. The report examined 19,000 Twitter mentions of journalists that included some kind of anti-Semitic content, and provides an analysis of both the scope and the nature of the phenomena. Here are five of the report’s biggest take-aways.

The most-targeted journalists are a diverse bunch
America’s Jews contain multitudes, and Jews in media are a case in point. There are prominent Jewish conservative writers, like Ben Shapiro; full-throated liberals, like Sally Kohn; sober-minded doyens of the media establishment, like Wolf Blitzer; and trailblazing young guns, like, I dunno, Yair Rosenberg, for instance. Guess what: All of the aforementioned crack the ADL’s list of the top-ten journalists targeted for anti-Semitic tweets.

They work in different media, they reach vastly different audiences, and they hold wildly and wonderfully divergent ideas about a wide range of political and social issues. But they all have two things in common: None of them support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (as best I can tell), and you already know the other thing they all have in common.

The anti-Semites have a chilling Ben Shapiro obsession
One of the report’s more surprising and actually most disturbing findings is the concentration of anti-Semitic tweets targeting a very small group of journalists: The ADL reported that while 800 journalists received over 19,000 anti-Semitic tweets, 83 percent of such tweets were sent to the 10 most-targeted journalists. This suggests an ominous coincidence of fixation and coordination: The senders aren’t just anti-Semites errently tweeting at whatever targets their fevered imaginations lead them to. Instead, these are obsessive anti-Semites, who have found specific people to systematically harass.

Within this top 10, by far the most targeted user is Ben Shapiro, the former Breitbart columnist and current editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire. Shapiro received just about as many hate-tweets as everyone else in the top-10 combined, meaning that well over 40 precent of tweets covered in the study are directed at him alone. This is just a jaw-dropping fact to consider: the ADL found that nearly 16,000 harassing tweets were directed at their “top ten,” which means Shapiro received around 7,400 of them. In fact it’s so incredible, and suggests such a sustained and orchestrated effort, that I’d almost be remiss in not reminding readers of what Milo Yiannoplous, a professional troll and Shapiro’s erstwhile Breibart colleague, told Dave Rubin on March 24, in a tortured attempt at explianing why alt-right web-trolls aren’t really sincere anti-Semites, and why we should just stop worrying about them altogether: “They realize that saying stuff about Jews gets on the nerves of journalists.”

The anti-Semites aren’t getting their accounts frozen by Twitter that often
The ADL discovered that Twitter suspended a mere 22 percent of the 1,600 users directing anti-Semitic abuse at journalists. Circumstantial evidence reveals that these users were of average prolificness, as the suspensions resulted in the removal of only 20 percent of the nearly 19,000 tweets directed at journalists. That means that users can dump bigoted harassment on prominent users (Shapiro, for instance, has 326,000 followers) without any apparent consequence, and stand a better than 1-in-4 chance of having their accounts left alone. One can debate whether or not social media suspensions are contrary to the spirit of online speech, or whether it even helps. But it’s clear Twitter hasn’t established a forceful deterrent, thus allowing anti-Semites to hijack their platform.

Harassment escalated as the presidential campaigns have escalated
The ADL was careful to note that it found no connection between either of the presidential campaigns and anti-Semitic harassment. But the campaign itself has been a factor: The ADL found that 76 percent of the tweets directed at journalists came between February to July of 2016, the second half of the study’s reporting period and a time that included the end of the primary campaigns and both of the major party conventions.

Moreover, the report found convincing evidence that the vast majority of harassers were Trump supporters. Indeed, “the words that show up most in the bios of Twitter users sending anti-Semitic tweets to journalists are ‘Trump,’ ‘nationalist,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘American’ and ‘white,’” according to the report. The biggest spikes in anti-Semitic harassment also coincided with events in the campaign, a couple of which barely registered in the national media: One such spike occurred on March 13, when Trump “blamed Bernie Sanders for violence at a Trump rally.”

Anti-Semitic tweets are reaching a lot of eyeballs
The ADL found 2.6 million total anti-Semitic tweets over the course of the study, which received a total of 10 billion impressions or “roughly the equivalent social media exposure advertisers could expect from a $20 million Super Bowl ad.” In the ADL’s view, this constitutes a “juggernaut of bigotry” that “reinforces and normalizes anti-Semitic language and tropes on a massive scale.” The over 19,000 journalist-harassing tweets covered in the study made 45 million impressions just on their own.

Consciously or not, users and Twitter administrators might be starting to view attacks on Jewish journalists as simply an unfortunate if perhaps insoluble feature of the discourse on the site, an unfortunate fact that users of the social network will just have to adapt to if they want to continue using it. But past a certain point, such passive acceptance stops becoming a reflection on the platform’s gatekeepers alone, or even just the platform itself.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.