Rise above the internet parapet
I have a comment piece in this week’s Jewish Chronicle about Twitter and the worrying rise of internet-based abuse and racism:
My name is Marcus, and I’m a Twitter addict. I’ve been using the site for two-and-a-half years and, last week, sent my 18,000th tweet.
I average 20 tweets a day and interact with my 1,400 followers almost non-stop, at work and on holiday. You may think that makes me a bit of a sad case, but I’ve found the site to be a valuable tool. I’ve made contact with complete strangers to debate everything from the intricacies of the Middle East conflict to Hull City’s promotion chances. It is usually entertaining, sometimes maddening, often trivial.
Yet as much as I have enjoyed joking with my favourite footballers and being directed to news from around the world, I have regularly seen examples of most offensive and vile abuse imaginable. Personally, I have received nothing worse than the odd expletive or playground insult but, for some, the experience is altogether more harrowing.
Writing this, I searched for the term “Jew” and immediately found someone posting their approval of Hitler’s extermination efforts, another referring to “rich Jews”, and one truly shocking tweet about brit milah which displayed sickening antisemitism.
It only takes a second to set up a fake profile
Our recent story about Twitter’s failure to act against a user who allegedly sent death threats and antisemitic abuse sadly came as no surprise. Presented with messages from someone threatening to “hunt down” and “beat to death” a stranger, the company said it did not have the “ability to investigate and assess” this. Look at the figures and the scale of the problem becomes clear.
Twitter has around 40 million users, sending more than 200 million tweets per day. If just half of one per cent of all tweets were racist, threatening or criminal, the company would face one million investigations daily.
Thousands of tweeters could readily confirm that the level of abuse totals far more than that. The problem is such that the Crown Prosecution Service issued a “New Year warning” to social media users, highlighting the risk of prosecution, and ultimately jail, for those who racially abuse others online. If we add Facebook and YouTube and their combined one billion users to the mix, and then throw in the immeasurable “blogosphere”, it becomes utterly impossible to challenge, scrutinise and police online hatred.
Unsurprisingly, Jews and Israel are regularly on the front line for the cyber-bullies. While the Community Security Trust forensically records the hundreds of antisemitic incidents against Jews in Britain every year, the scale of what is happening on the web makes it impossible for the organisation to fully monitor.
The CST has regularly called on social media groups to police their sites and prevent the spread of extremism and abuse. But the charity recognises that proscribing an organisation or censuring an individual has limited impact. It takes seconds to set up another fake email address, username or profile and get back to spreading hatred.
Our community must be vigilant. The internet has been a game-changer for opponents of Israel. The proliferation of blogs, informal news sites and tweeters poses a challenge to those who seek to defend it.
Consider the case of one anti-Israel activist who previously would have spoken only at the odd meeting attended by a small number of like-minded people, but who is now at the forefront of the Twitter assault, sending 40 tweets a day to thousands of followers around the globe. He writes blogs for newspapers, magazines and independent sites, and has built up a considerable cult following among supporters who might otherwise have never heard of him. All of this without even needing to leave the house.
There are, of course, many Israel advocates using the web to promote their work. Within British Jewry, however, there are too many who are prepared to speak quietly in support of Israel, yet are reluctant to raise their heads above the parapet. The internet and its associated problems will not go away. As new technologies are devised, the age-old threat of antisemitism will find new vehicles through which to seep into our daily lives. We cannot eliminate it, but we must be adequately prepared for the battle ahead.
You can read the piece, and more about antisemitism, in the JC here.
Follow me on Twitter here.