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New York Times Editor Quits Twitter, Says The Service Isn’t Doing Enough To Fight Anti-Semitism

Twitter for iPhone. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW
Twitter for iPhone. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICHARD DREW

Twitter’s harassment problem hit a new low this week after a prominent editor of the New York Times declared he would abandon the service because it hasn’t done enough to combat the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks on journalists.

Times’ Washington bureau editor Jonathan Weisman received a barrage of anti-Semitic messages last month after he retweeted an article criticizing presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Within minutes, right-wing users “outed” Weisman as Jewish using “echoes” — three sets of parentheses used to mark individuals who are presumed to be Jewish — and berated him with anti-Jewish slurs and threats. Weisman responded by retweeting the messages and detailing his ordeal in a lengthy op-ed.

Eventually, Weisman finally had enough and announced Wednesday that he would leave Twitter and switch to Facebook because the microblogging company failed to step in.

However, Weisman’s ordeal did bear some fruit — at least in the short term. He told ThinkProgress Wednesday that Twitter alerted him that they suspended at least 10 accounts, including two Weisman linked to as evidence of anti-Semitic harassment, after he threatened to leave the platform.

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Weisman’s experiences are part of a rising tide of anti-Semitism online, where a growing number of Jewish journalists are receiving hateful messages via Twitter, Facebook, and email. The attacks — which sometimes include death threats — have been lobbed against reporters at the Atlantic, the Daily Wire, and ThinkProgress, among others.

The increase in harassment has pushed some in the media to take legal action: Jewish reporter Julia Ioffe filed a police report in May after she received messages that superimposed her face over someone in a Nazi concentration camp and others that threatened to take her life.

The spike has alarmed organizations that track hate groups, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

“There is no question that online hate on Twitter has exploded over the last few months,” Heidi Beirich, Director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told ThinkProgress. “Frankly, Twitter has become a bit of a cesspool right now.”

There is no question that online hate on twitter has exploded over the last few months.

Others have tried to blunt the attacks by using the “echo” symbol around their names on Twitter as a sign of solidarity after news broke of a controversial Google browser extension that used the triple parentheses to identify Jewish names or civil liberties groups. The Anti-Defamation League added the “echo” to their online database of hate symbols earlier this week.

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The recent rise in white nationalist sentiments and anti-Semitic rhetoric online has been attributed, in some part, to the rise of Donald Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric has been praised and endorsed by a wide range of white nationalists. Despite the increase in the number of attacks against Weisman and other Jewish journalists, targeted harassment is a growing issue plaguing Twitter and several other social media platforms.

“All of this began with the rise of the Trump candidacy,” Beirich said, “All this hate in the last few weeks — these aren’t some random thing. Those are campaigns.”

“I think Twitter, which created this [committee] to take on hate speech…they have to speed this up,” Beirich added, noting that the SPLC is on Twitter’s anti-harassment committee. “At the end of the day, they’re allowing this to happen on their platform while their position is against this. They could be dealing with it.”

By threatening to abandon Twitter — a prized platform for journalists — Weisman was able to push administrators to act, but that result isn’t afforded to the majority of harassment victims.

No one is immune from online harassment. According to a 2014 Pew Internet survey, 40 percent of internet users reported experiencing harassment, ranging from name-calling and being personally embarrassed to cyberstalking, physical threats, and sexual harassment. But socially marginalized groups, particularly, women, people of color, and the LGBT community, are more vulnerable to online abuse.

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About 44 percent of men, compared to 37 percent of women, experience harassment, but it tends to be less severe forms, such as name calling, Pew found. Other estimates rate that women are nearly 30 times more likely to experience harassment, and also routinely receive violent and sexual threats. For women of color, such as African American women, the harassment is compounded by racial epithets and gender-specific threats.

Twitter didn’t respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on Weisman’s case, but the platform has become a prime example for online harassment in recent years, and as a result, has updated its policies to make it easier for users to report harassment and abuse. Those efforts, however, didn’t stop or slow attacks against Weisman — until he threatened to leave for Facebook.

Twitter has been struggling with stagnant user rates and engagement, both key reasons to keep a prominent journalist from leaving as a result of harassment. But online abuse isn’t exclusively Twitter’s problem.

Weisman declared that at least on Facebook “people need to use their real names and can’t hide behind fakery to spread their hate.”

Facebook has repeatedly touted its controversial real name policy as a harassment deterrent. But the company loosened enforcement of the policy after after public backlash criticized the policy as discriminatory against the LGBT community, users with non-American names, and abuse victims, including journalists looking to escape harassment.