In World of Online anti-Semitism, ADL Seeks to Stay Ahead

After battling traditional forms of anti-Semitism for over 100 years, the Jewish watchdog turns to cyberspace.

A screenshot of one of the anti-Semitic tweets Jonathan Weisman retweeted.
Screenshot / Twitter

NEW YORK – The Anti-Defamation League is doing a pivot. A slow pivot, to be sure, but the legacy Jewish organization, which has been fighting anti-Semitism and other types of race, religion and ethnicity-focused hatred for 103 years, is turning its attention to the online space full throttle.

While the fact that cyberspace is where today’s hate lives isn’t news, the forms it takes change with breathtaking speed. And staying ahead – or at least on pace – with online haters requires a lot of attention and resources. Judging by the focus the topic received at the ADL’s “Never is Now!” conference on anti-Semitism, the organization is now doing just that.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt announced several new initiatives, including an open-data sharing endeavor called Data.World, which will allow the FBI and other safety enforcement agencies, lawmakers and civil rights groups to make use of information collected by the ADL and the FBI.

Greenblatt opened the conference Thursday with a litany of the anti-Semitism online and off of which his organization has recently been made aware. “People are afraid,” he said. “I hear from them.”

“And now the chief curator of the site where many of these are generated has been appointed to the White House,” he said, referring to Steve Bannon, named recently by President-elect Donald Trump to be his special advisor. Before joining the Trump presidential campaign, Bannon was chairman of Breitbart News, a right-wing online publication that has hosted writers and attitudes from the alt right.

“We must raise our voices, we must understand what we are up against,” urged Greenblatt. “We need to speak out whenever we see anti-Semitism and bigotry, whether it’s from a publicly traded company or a high ranking official no one has an excuse for excusing intolerance.”

To enthusiastic applause from the more than 1,000 people in attendance, Greenblatt said, “We must stand with our fellow Americans who may be singled out for how they look, where they’re from, who they love or how they pray.”

ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt
Carl Cox

Speakers at the conference, which was held Thursday and Friday at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, included journalists buffeted by anti-Semitic online haters and senior executives from Twitter and Google’s parent company. There was also a reformed Al-Qaida recruiter and more conventional players in the anti-Semitism and intergroup dialogue sphere, which has been the area in which the ADL has been a major player for decades.

To be sure, the ADL has been looking at cyberspace as a forum for hate for more than a decade. But it appears to be devoting increased focus to the subject.

In September the organization hired Brittan Heller as its first director of technology and society. In October, it published a report on the anti-Semitic targeting, which took place almost entirely online, of journalists during the 2016 presidential campaign. And at the conference it published a companion report, titled “Control-ALT-Delete,” using the familiar keyboard commands as a way to point to the alt right.

Del Harvey, vice president for trust and safety at Twitter, explained some of the challenges inherent in monitoring a social medium utilized for threats.

Historically, when a tweet was reported to Twitter as threatening, “often the person doing the front line review didn’t understand what a phrase meant,” said Harvey. For example, what would a tweet saying someone should be put in the ovens mean, “if you didn’t grow up learning about the Holocaust? We were getting it wrong,” she said. In response, “we put together a specialized and comprehensive training on ‘here’s what these things mean, and that they can have additional meanings, and the history of where they came from.’ ”

Twitter announced this week that it has revised its reporting policies, making it easier for people to flag threats and block harassment, and updated how those reports are handled. It also suspended the accounts of several alt right leaders.

In an interview before the conference, the ADL’s Greenblatt told Haaretz, “Twitter has hosted some of the most horrible, horrible hateful content in the past year. The proof will be in the pudding. I will judge them less by their words and more by their deeds.”

A major challenge in shutting down hate on social media, said journalist Jonathan Weisman in a session titled “Hate Online and How to Respond,” is that chasing down anti-Semites on social media is like playing whack-a-mole. When one account is shut down, they just open another. Weisman, deputy Washington editor at The New York Times, was one of the journalists bombarded with anti-Semitic tweets during the presidential campaign.

Twitter’s Harvey said, later, “The whack-a-mole issue is very challenging for us. We’re working on it on the back end, to do more when people are suspended to keep them off the platform. We’re investing a lot in it.”

Then there is the very real problem of hate online tipping over into the real world.

Reporters were harassed while covering Trump rallies, as his followers were egged on by the candidate himself, noted Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine, who also participated in the panel on “Hate Online and How to Respond.” With Trump’s election “People feel empowered to act out on these impulses,” he said. “We’re going to see more of this.”

Rosenberg has the dubious distinction of being ranked second among Jewish journalists attacked with anti-Semitic tweets, according to the ADL’s October report. Threats don’t “stay just on Twitter. If you see it on Twitter you probably should worry a little more about it,” he said.

“The messages I’ve gotten since the election are all now ‘we’re coming to get you, we won, now we get to impose our will,'" said The New York Times’ Weisman.

According to Heller, the ADL’s recently hired director of technology and society, “Twitter acts as a megaphone, magnifies the message 100 foldThe reach of anti-Semitic language on Twitter [during the presidential campaign] was equivalent to the reach of a $20 million Superbowl ad,” she said.

Social media, of course, can also be used for good, as was emphasized during a discussion between Greenblatt and Yasmin Green, head of research and development at a Google unit called Jigsaw.

Jigsaw, set up five years ago by Google founder Eric Schmidt, looks at geopolitical conflicts to see how technology can fit in (like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle) to help.

One test Jigsaw ran identified people with a positive interest in ISIS and redirected them to videos countering ISIS propaganda to debunk the Islamic State’s messaging, said Green. Jigsaw had interviewed ISIS defectors to compile a database of key terms. In eight weeks the Jigsaw pilot program reached 320,000 people in Arabic and English, Green said.

While one of the great challenges of countering intimidation on social media is that every instance has needed review by a human being who understands context, now machine learning and artificial intelligence are being developed that can do the same thing, she said.

“Using technology and innovation to try to neutralize this age-old hatred is not a battle we will win in the short term,” Greenblatt said in that session, titled “Using Social Innovation and ‘New Power’ to Fight Hate.” “It requires innovative approaches and new partnerships.”

One of the ADL’s new partnerships is with Google, he said. Another is with Data.World.

“It offers instant access to ADL’s data and hate crimes data from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies,” said Greenblatt, making it available to journalists and policy makers, and hopefully encourage new legislation that would offer protections from hate crimes to more people, like LGBT and disabled people, he said. “It will make the case why we should have comprehensive hate crimes laws in every state across the country.”

The first day of the conference concluded with a screening of “Munich ’72 and Beyond,” a short documentary about the Palestinian terrorist kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes competing in the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, Germany.

In the film the story is related largely by the widows and now-grown children of those athletes, as well as journalists who were covering the games, and officials there at the time. It ends with photos of some of the dead Israelis’ mutilated (one was castrated) bodies.

After a day spent focused mostly on anti-Semitism in social media, it was a powerful reminder that, while the technologies and platforms through which loathing is expressed may change, the murderous hatred of Jews survives.