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Elliot Leven

Elliot Leven: Anti-Semitism on Twitter just the tip of the iceberg

By Elliot Leven, January 30, 2013

Some Twitter users in France have recently been posting vile anti-Semitic comments, but it will not be easy to stop them. For those of you who do not know what Twitter is, this is the most shallow and superficial of the many shallow and superficial Internet social media which now abound. Twitter is an Internet soapbox which allows anyone to post very short anonymous comments about any issue. The format virtually precludes thoughtful dialogue.  Many posts are about current events.  Some are personal in nature.  There is no gate-keeper, so many Twitter posts are truly idiotic.  Others are racist, sexist and offensive.  Yet, Twitter grows more popular with every passing month.

Twitter is based in the United States.  The U.S. has the world’s strongest legal protections for freedom of speech.   American courts have ruled that American Nazis can legally march in neighborhoods where many Holocaust survivors live.  A few limitations on freedom of speech (such as laws against child pornography) are constitutional, but most racist and offensive speech is legally permissible.

France has a different constitution and tougher laws on hate-speech.  French Internet users can post and read Twitter comments, including racist ones.  Because of the differences in French and American laws, it may be difficult or impossible for French Jews to stop the hatred.

All of which brings us to the larger question of racism on the Internet.  In short, there is a lot of it.  Because of the nature of the Internet, there will always be a lot of it.  Hackers or hate-mongers with sufficient technical skills can post whatever they want online, and hide their identities and true locations.  They can even hijack the websites of legitimate organizations and post hate-speech on those websites.  The website owners will soon discover the mischief and correct it, but there is nothing stopping the hackers from doing it again. If they are clever, they will never get caught.

It is possible for countries to censor the Internet.  China does in the most heavy-handed way.  However, this is not an option for liberal democracies.

The reality is that we are just going to have to get used to a world in which some anti-Semitic speech goes unchecked.  There are ways to reduce the problem.  For example, people tend to write more thoughtfully when they have to sign their names to their writing.  Old-style letters to the editor had to be signed. 

Many mainstream news websites allow readers to post comments using pseudonyms rather than real names.  The commenter might have to register with the news outlet first, but the world never sees the commenter’s real name.  Anyone who reads these anonymous comments on a regular basis knows that many are angry and childish.  They would be more intelligent if the news media that run the websites required real names.  However, some news websites actually prefer angry, childish comments because they are more provocative and exciting than intelligent, thoughtful comments.

As for Twitter, my own view is that it has no reason to exist.  It is almost never a forum for intelligent debate about current events. It is almost always a forum for meaningless drivel.  I urge my friends to boycott it.  It may not go away but, if reasonable people boycott it, it will lose much of its current lustre.  There will always be some garbage on the Internet, but we don’t have to help promote the garbage.

Meanwhile, the best antidote to bad speech is good speech. I urge Jewish readers to engage the hate-mongers by writing plenty of signed letters to the editor and online comments, opposing hatred in all of its forms, and promoting tolerance and diversity.

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