Are Online Jews Playing Into the Hands of anti-Semitic Trolls?

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Journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted in anti-semitic tweets after writing a profile of Donald Trump's wife Melania.
Journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted in anti-semitic tweets after writing a profile of Donald Trump's wife Melania. Credit: Screenshot/Twitter

Looking at the amount of attention that is being given to the virulent and offensive online harassment of Jewish public figures by presidential nominee Donald’s Trump’s core of supporters,  you might think that we are experiencing a new dawn of dangerous anti-Semitism. But is the reaction justified or could Jews be providing oxygen to a relatively marginal phenomenon? 

There’s no denying that Jews have history on their side in justifying getting highly stressed out over hordes of threatening messages to those who dare to challenge a politician. After all, when Adolf Hitler began his political career, he was viewed as a ridiculous clown whom the power elite didn’t take seriously and whose message of racial hate was believed by many Jews to be a disturbing wave of kooky ideology that would peak and pass. The fatal mistake of underestimating Hitler devastated the Jewish people and upended the world.

When we say “never again” it is less a message to the world, but a mantra for ourselves, vowing to remain vigilant so that we won’t be caught off guard and vulnerable as we were in 20-century Europe. That vigilance is evident in the plethora of organizations in the US, Israel, and around the world dedicated to tracking and measuring anti-Semitism in its various manifestations, created by a community still traumatized by the Holocaust determined to keep their finger on the pulse of Jew-hatred. 

In recent years, some questioned the need for such intensive monitoring, as even the most nervous doomsayers had reason for optimism. Only last month, there was good news from those keeping track of such things -  the number of violent anti-Semitic incidents worldwide declined in 2015 by nearly 50 percent compared to the previous year, hitting the lowest level in a decade according to Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center. The center’s Annual Report on Anti-Semitism said it had recorded 766 incidents in 2014, while in 2015 the number decreased to only 410.

It was in this relatively upbeat atmosphere that the torrent of offensive anti-Semitic abuse unleashed by the Trump followers on Twitter on critics of their candidates stung like an unexpected slap across the face. First directed at journalists like Julia Ioffe and Jonathan Weisman, and then spreading to others like young congressional candidate Erin Schrode, the vile imagery and hateful threatening languages has been horrifying. While we’ve known that these white supremacist and neo-Nazi conspiracy theory-ridden subcultures have lurked in the dark corners of the Internet since its inception, the rallying cause of the Trump campaign, and the public nature of a platform like Twitter has brought them out of their holes into a place where we can’t pretend they don’t exist.  

So far, it seems, the strategy has been to expose them to the glare of the spotlight as much as possible. From Weisman’s eight-hour marathon of retweeting his haters to the adoption of the anti-Semitic cowbell parentheses by Jews and non-Jews on Twitter. The idea, as Jeffrey Goldberg puts it, is to “reclaim” the mark in what the ADL calls “clever counter speech.”

It is an approach that is, indeed, clever, in the sense that it is attention-getting and entertaining. Moreover, it fills an emotional need to fight back that is clearly driving Goldberg and his colleagues who are under attack to be defiant, look Jew-hatred in the face, confront it, call it out and make a mockery of it. 

But while it might be clever, is it really strategically smart? I’m not so sure. My discomfort with the massive social media response to the Trumpkin hordes stems from my instincts as a parent. When my kids act up, I do my best not to reward the negative behavior with with excessive attention, finding that the more I focus on it, and the more emotional my response is and the more I invest in responding to their provocation - the more effective it is, and the more likely it is that I’ll get a repeat performance. 

I try to approach life online in a similar way, doing my best not to “feed the trolls” who attack from either the right or the left, lest I encourage them. Those who work in the world of social media know that, in the vein of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” is “there’s no such thing as bad engagement.” If you post something disgusting, horrible and offensive - and the whole world points to it and says “look at that terrible thing that person said.” In online terms where success and failure is measured in clicks, shares, likes and comments and overall “buzz” - I worry that the amount of attention being lavished on the onslaught of hatred from Trump supporters turns it into a success story. 

This is particularly true if we are talking about a relatively small group of technologically talented crackpots and not a massive wave of hatred taking over the population. And there’s the rub - for all  of the time energy and resources we devote to trying to monitor the precise size and scale of modern anti-Semitism, the new wave is almost impossible to measure. The Anti-Defamation League has just stepped up to the challenge, creating “a task force to look into the anti-Semitic harassment online” specific to the presidential race. Such things take time, however, and one wonders whether any results will be in soon enough to make a difference in this disturbing roller-coaster ride of a campaign. 

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