September 16, 2019

Digital hate: After the election, will this be our new normal?

It was February, right after the South Carolina Republican primary, and Donald Trump had been declared the winner. Bethany Mandel, a writer who usually focuses on politics and culture from a conservative perspective, was upset that Trump seemed to be emerging as a legitimate candidate. 

Observing that many Twitter users who proclaimed their love for Trump were just as generous with their anti-Semitic rhetoric and invective, she tweeted: “Another night blocking all the anti-Semites who are helping Trump make American [sic] great again.” 

Mandel, an outspoken anti-Trump Republican, had been a Twitter target before, so she expected some Twitter hate. But she wasn’t prepared for what was to come.

“The floodgates opened,” she said in an interview with the Jewish Journal. 

That first night she blocked an estimated 350 to 400 accounts that had begun sending her anti-Semitic and threatening messages, along with what she described as “a lot of Holocaust imagery.” There were images of her Photoshopped into photographs of Holocaust victims or concentration camp scenes, and cartoons depicting Jews being shoved into ovens. 

“It was impossible to keep up with; it seemed like a coordinated attack, not an organic thing,” she said, speculating that the perpetrator of the deluge was “a Russian bot farm, doing this to interfere with the electoral process. 

The ADL report

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Task Force on Harassment and Journalism released “Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign,” a report that set out to document these attacks. Mandel makes the list as one of the “top ten most targeted.” 

The ADL report noted 2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech from August 2015 to July 2016, with a significant uptick starting in January as presidential campaign coverage kicked into high gear. At least 800 journalists received anti-Semitic tweets with an estimated reach of 45 million impressions. 

The report also noted that all of the top 10 most targeted journalists are Jewish. They received 83 percent of “overtly anti-Semitic tweets” “which may contribute to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language on a massive scale.” Offenders are even creating new words — such as using “skypes” instead of “kikes” — in order to evade spam and hate-speech filters. 

The ADL plans to publish a follow-up report outlining recommendations for how to respond to anti-Semitism online during its Nov. 17 event, “Never Is Now: The ADL Summit on Anti-Semitism,” in New York City.

Among the highest profile examples, journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted after writing a profile of Melania Trump for GQ Magazine in May. She was met with anti-Semitic responses from people musing that her face would look good on a lampshade; at a conference in June, she also said that people had ordered caskets and homicide cleanups to her apartment. (Mandel and Ioffe are advisers on the ADL task force that published the report.)

New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman tweeted about casino magnate Sheldon Adelson’s support for Trump, and about the anti-Semitic response to Ioffe’s article, which made Weisman a target as well. In a piece called “The Nazi Tweets of ‘Trump God Emperor,’ ” Weisman reported that the only image he blocked and forwarded to Twitter was “a photo of my disembodied head held aloft, long Orthodox hair locks called payot Photoshopped on my sideburns and a skullcap placed as a crown. I let stand the image of a smiling Mr. Trump in Nazi uniform flicking the switch on a gas chamber containing my Photoshopped face.” 

Weisman subsequently disengaged from Twitter altogether, defecting instead to Facebook, “where at least people need to use their real names and can’t hide behind fakery to spread their hate.” 

Trump: Not the cause, but a connection

While the ADL report “identifies some self-styled followers” of Trump to be the source of these anti-Semitic Twitter attacks against reporters, it also states that “we cannot and do not attribute causation to Mr. Trump, and thus we cannot and do not assign blame to Mr. Trump for these ugly tweets … 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.”

But other observers are more blunt in assigning blame to Trump and the forces his campaign has unleashed. Over the past few months, there have been incidents that paint a picture of the atmosphere in question. 

“Once Donald Trump entered the scene, something changed. … Suddenly a lot of people who were normally in shadowed corners of the internet felt emboldened,” said Jason Weixelbaum, a historian and a doctoral student at American University in Washington, D.C., who has also been the target of Twitter hatred for his work — his dissertation focuses on American businesses in Nazi Germany. 

More backlash — and questionable intentions

In June, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Susan Goldberg participated in “Stop Trump: Vigil Against Violence and Hate.” She tweeted a photo of herself and several other Jews bearing signs reading “Jews Against Trump” and used the hashtag #weveseenthisbefore, which has been in use over the past few months to rouse Jews to action against Trump’s campaign. 

The response to the tweet was immediate and vitriolic from white supremacists, Goldberg said. One said that “Jews have always been antagonizing the ethnic interests of white people,” while another gleefully tweeted that “Jewish rejections of Trump are his biggest endorsements.”

In early July, the Trump campaign re-tweeted an image of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” shown in front of a pile of money and accompanied by a red, six-pointed star. Was the image a reference to Jews and money, a well-traveled anti-Semitic trope, or was the star — as the Trump campaign alleged — benign, meant to evoke a sheriff’s badge? Was it just a careless social media share, an absence of due diligence by the social media team, or a willful oversight meant to appeal to the white nationalists who had identified Trump as their great hope to make America white again? 

The campaign eventually converted the star into a circle, but didn’t apologize or admit it made a mistake in sourcing the original image. Nor did it condemn the type of content or commit to increased vigilance about sourcing material so it wouldn’t happen again. 

Those who responded negatively to this image and the campaign’s lack of responsibility for circulating it were met with a barrage of anti-Semitic images and comments that invoked the Holocaust. In the case of 25-year-old Laura Silverman, one message read, “I would like you to take a nap in an oven”; another featured a pile of ashes with the caption “Straight Outta Auschwitz.” 

Just last week, media mogul Russell Simmons explained in a video for Fortune why Trump, his friend for 30 years, is not fit to be president: “I’ve heard anti-Semitic things, not blatant, but pretty clear that he was harboring some, we all harbor some hate, right? And the fear is that his statements would take people who would never even admit to having those seeds of hate in them and one of those seeds, in those people, would say things they’d never even imagine saying, and that became the norm.” 

How far does it go?

The hate, while disturbing and graphic and suddenly visible to many who might not have believed that such sentiments could even exist, may actually be louder than it is widespread. 

So said Ben Shapiro — a conservative columnist who is on record as being anti-Trump and who landed at No. 1 on the list of targeted reporters released by the ADL — on his internet television program “The Ben Shapiro Show” last week. He pointed out that the report links Trump support to what he characterized as “a small but loud amount of supporters who tweet gas chamber memes at people,” but that the “vast majority of Trump supporters find this sort of stuff absolutely reprehensible” and  “to overestimate the percentage of the population would be wrong and foolish.”

Mandel said that the most remarkable and valuable part of the ADL report was the finding that about 1,600 accounts are responsible for 68 percent of the hate. 

“It’s much sexier to say there’s an explosion of hate,” she said, “but that doesn’t seem to be the case. This is 1,600 very loud accounts that had an amplified voice this election season.” 

After the election

With the presidential election less than two weeks away, the question those on the receiving end of this rise of hate are asking is whether it will vanish or wane come Nov. 8, or if hate — and its amplification via social media — is here to stay, regardless of who wins the presidency. 

“The seeds have been present for some time,” said Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he taught courses on contemporary political issues and American Jewish affairs at the Los Angeles campus. 

“Election season itself, the campaign with both parties, has created a kind of ugliness and negativity where some of these voices have come to play and are more visible.”

Windmueller cited earlier attacks on Marco Rubio for “being too close to the Jews” or Bernie Sanders being seen as a spokesperson for “Jewish interests.” He also said that many factors contributed to the increase in hate speech: the rise of the alt-right, the development of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, and the fact that Jews are “suddenly being seen as the establishment — high-profile journalists and even as candidates.” 

The new normal?

Mandel predicts — and hopes — that after this campaign season, “the intelligence community takes a serious look at the varied and scary ways that Russia tried to interfere with electoral process this year.” 

While the media have been blaming Trump for the hate tweets, she believes that “this is more Russia than it is him. He might be asking [Vladimir] Putin to do this. The actions of the Russians that we know about [WikiLeaks and Democratic National Committee hacks] are certainly changing the way this election is playing out.”

One of the major shifts will be for the Republican Party, Weixelbaum predicted, explaining that the “rise of existential racism is a culmination of the Republican Party dealing with the entropy between its voter coalitions, social conservatives, evangelicals and business folks,” a tension that he called “not sustainable over time.”

“Trump is not an aberration,” Weixelbaum said. “He’s a culmination, that what was pulling all those coalitions together was racism. Racism is not going to be something that’s going to be successful in a society that’s made up of a lot of ethnic groups, so the Republican Party has to dissolve and clean its own house, get away from the racist common thread or they’re going to be a regional party that may have a seat in Congress but can’t win the presidency.”

Windmueller said that the Jewish community’s national organizations, as well as its local community relations agencies, will also have to “push back against this being accepted conduct and discourse.” He noted the importance of having grass-roots interfaith, inter-ethnic coalitions and communities of diversity speaking with one voice.

“The most important step is for those who believe that it’s OK to extol these kinds of words and views to see that they’re being pushed back not just by Jews who are upset but Christians and Muslims and others. There’s a great, angry divide in the country but the solutions will come in collaborative efforts, not with the language of the street or the language of hate,” he said. “The question is what happens on the 9th of November. Hopefully we will take a deep sigh and address these real serious challenges.”

Windmueller paused to point out that Nov. 9 also marks Kristallnacht, the anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass pogrom in 1938 that he called “the beginning of the end of German Jewry.”

“It’s so eerie when you put the date up against history. It struck me immediately as an interesting contrast,” he said, then paused again. “Hopefully a contrast.”