That’s barbaric, and it raises issues not only about the civility of the public square but also about the integrity of Twitter itself. Jonathan Weisman, a New York Times editor who struggled to get Twitter to shut down accounts that were abusing him earlier this year, told the Anti-Defamation League: “I think suspending or deleting [attackers’] accounts is pointless, because they just come back on under a different name. Twitter has to decide if they are going to stand by their terms of service or not. If they decide tomorrow, ‘Look, we don’t have the capacity to monitor all of this, and we want it to be a free exchange of ideas’ — then fine, we would know what it was. But they want to have it both ways — the halo of having terms of service, but not enforcing them. Or enforcing them only sporadically.”
Weisman found himself the target of an anti-Semitic Twitter barrage after he tweeted an anti-Trump opinion piece bearing the headline “This is how fascism comes to America.”
A statement from Twitter addresses the matter: “We don’t believe these numbers are accurate, but we take the issue very seriously. We have focused the past number of months specifically on this type of behavior and have policy and products aimed squarely at this to be shared in the coming weeks.” On the matter of the numbers, Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, expressed confidence in the methodology of the study and said that even if there’s a discrepancy in some data, the “point of the report remains.”
Twitter policy does expressly prohibit the sorts of emails that came the way of Weisman and his peers: “Hateful conduct: You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”
Whatever the vigor of its countermeasures, Twitter was likely as blindsided by this surge of hatred as were the targeted journalists. “It’s amazing what’s been unleashed,” Ben Shapiro, an outspoken conservative voice, told the ADL. “I honestly didn’t realize they were out there. It’s every day, every single day.” Other conservative journalists on the receiving end of this wave include John Podhoretz and Noah Rothman. The ADL itself, says Segal, is a hard organization to “surprise” when it comes to measuring hatred. It has been monitoring online anti-Semitism since 1985 — when it was confined to message boards, says Segal. “That being said, this reiterates a trend that we’ve been seeing over several years where anti-Semites and bigots of all kinds are finding opportunities to express their position and share their bigotry in ways that haven’t been available in human history.”
What caused this problem? Here, the ADL study performs a transparent bit of hair-splitting. On the one hand, it notes, “There is evidence that a considerable number of the anti-Semitic tweets targeting journalists originate with people identifying themselves as Trump supporters, ‘conservatives’ or extreme right-wing elements. 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.'” A word cloud aggregating the language used in the Twitter bios of people directing anti-Semitic attacks on journalists features a large “Trump,” though the Erik Wemple Blog cannot embed it here because it contains foul language.
On the other hand, the study carefully notes that its findings do not “imply that Mr. Trump supported these tweets, or that conservatives are more prone to anti-Semitism. It does show that the individuals directing anti-Semitism toward journalists self-identified as Trump supporters and conservatives.”
On some other hand, the study says the following:
There is evidence that Mr. Trump himself may have contributed to an environment in which reporters were targeted. Indeed, he repeatedly denounced reporters as “absolute scum,” and said of “most journalists” in December 2015, “I would never kill them, but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.” Accordingly, while we cannot (and do not) say that the candidate caused the targeting of reporters, we can say that he may have created an atmosphere in which such targeting arose.
That assessment seems incomplete. In the spring, reporter Julia Ioffe wrote a GQ profile of Melania Trump that broke news about the former model’s past, including a secret half-brother back in her native Slovenia. The Trumps didn’t like it. Following the story’s publication, Ioffe received threats and anti-Semitic smears across various platforms. She even filed a police report over the reaction.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer confronted Trump about the death threats against Ioffe. “Oh, I don’t know about that. I don’t know anything about that. You mean fans of mine?” Trump asked Blitzer. When asked to outline his message to these people, Trump responded, “I don’t have a message to the fans. A woman wrote an article that’s inaccurate.”
In other words, a general failure to denounce. The ADL report doesn’t address this troubling moment. Asked about the omission, Segal told the Erik Wemple Blog, “I would put it into context here and suggest this: When David Duke endorsed Donald Trump, we called on the Trump campaign to disavow David Duke. When the Twitter accounts of Trump and some of the Trump team were recycling images that had originated on extremist forums, we called on them to distance themselves” from such material. “The ADL’s record is consistent in terms of holding public figures accountable for the language that they use.”
The ADL report appears to point at a confluence of factors that have converged on Twitter: Trump has stirred all his followers about media bias, which is perhaps the campaign’s only consistent plank. And a portion of the fan base takes things from there. “When you’re attacking the media and basing your worldview on conspiracies, you attack Jews,” says Segal.