Vox Populi: The Destructive Anti-Semitism of Online Comments


Last week, news broke on TMZ.com that four flight attendants were suing their employer, Delta Air Lines, for discrimination — specifically, “a pattern of intentionally discriminating and retaliating against ethnically Jewish, Hebrew and/or Israeli employees and passengers.” Most of the alleged behavior took place on flights between New York City and Israel. The story was quickly picked up by other media outlets, including Newsweek, the New York Daily News, England’s Daily Mail, JTA and Times of Israel, and while the merits of the case will be decided in court, the online response to the suit has been very disturbing.

The first comment of the 110 left by TMZ readers says, “Palestinians for equality, kill all Jews,” and it doesn’t get much better from there. A reader with an Archie Bunker photo as his avatar writes, “Who can say with a straight face their not a pain in the you know what.” (As with the other comments mentioned here, I am not editing them for grammar and spelling.) Another with a Harvey Weinstein avatar writes, “Delta is not anti semite!…in order to make up for this misunderstanding, all Jewish employees have been given a free one way ticket to Auschwitz, Germany…”

People make references to putting Jews in the oven, and another talks about not wanting to sit next to Jews on a plane because they smell bad. Someone with the username DefenderofIsrael writes, “I’m assuming they knew they were jewish because they traveled coach and didn’t tip.”

TMZ’s rules for comments include this clause: “We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to hate speech. This includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic and other comments containing hateful words.”

Either this zero-tolerance policy has been poorly implemented in this case, or the site, which is helmed by Jewish editor Harvey Levin, does not consider anti-Semitic remarks to be hate speech. (TMZ did not return a request for comment by press time.)

TMZ was not the only media outlet that received anti-Semitic remarks in response to the story, but it is alone in failing to remedy the situation. Newsweek and the New York Daily News seem to have barred comments on the piece from the start, while Fox News has done a fair job in moderating, despite retaining comments like, “It would be amusing if it weren’t so irritating how jews always whine ‘anti-semitism’ every time someone fails to bow to them and shower them with money.”

The Daily Mail notes that its comments have been moderated in advance, which is surely why there are no anti-Semitic remarks on their page. They’ve now disabled further reaction to the story on the website.

Every online publisher faces the decision of what to do about online comments because so many of them are inevitably hateful. Some media outlets have simply decided to do away with comments altogether. Others either moderate in advance, or monitor comments in real time so that hate speech and personal attacks can be quickly deleted. Some publications use Facebook’s commenting plug-in, which is supposed to help cut down on the nastiness as it prevents people — in theory anyway — from hiding behind anonymity. Yet hateful people are remarkably determined to have their say, and will create dummy Facebook identities in order to do so.

I have worked at publications where we discussed barring comments selectively on articles about minority communities, as the amount of hatred was too much to keep up with. I’m guessing Newsweek and the New York Daily News disabled comments on this story because they knew full well what they’d likely get in response.

There are plenty of options and tools out there for media outlets to deal with this, but TMZ — a media juggernaut with bus tours, a TV show and millions of fans worldwide — has dropped the ball here, allowing this destructive, painful conversation to thrive on their site.

Some will question why it matters, or even argue that it’s better to see what our enemies are thinking. I think I would have argued that a few years ago. But TMZ draws a lot of young readers to its pages, kids who are still trying to work things out about people they may not know. And such remarks are hurtful, too. Even if you tell yourself the people making them are idiots, it’s demoralizing to read this stuff.

Some people say, “So just don’t read the comments.” But it’s not always that easy. For instance, I started to play the live mobile game HQ Trivia, invented by the founders of Vine. It’s become phenomenally popular and just expanded to Android. Part of the fun of the game is that people can comment live, whether to provide help with a trivia question or to ask for a birthday shout-out from Jewish host Scott Rogowsky. The communal conversation is a big piece of what’s made the game thrive.

Yet I had to stop playing the app because so many of the comments were about Jews. The most common seemed to be “Kill the Jews,” though swastika emojis are almost equally popular. The app does allow you to hide the live comments if you want, but then you’re missing out on what makes the app unique. With so many young people across the country playing this game, I wonder about the effect of this constant drumbeat of Jew hatred.

In 2017, there was a lot of talk from the Jewish organizational sphere about anti-Semitism. The two biggest stories in the news in this regard were incidences of Jewish cemetery vandalism (Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis) and robo-call bomb threats to JCCs. Rallies were held, monies donated, partnerships formed, statements released. The communal response was swift and decisive, as it should be in such cases.

It should be noted, however, that we do not know for sure that the cemetery vandalism was actually motivated by anti-Semitism. In fact, in a historical survey of such incidents in Philadelphia starting in the 1960s, the Jewish Exponent found the majority of cemetery vandalism was the result of drunken kids. In addition, it was discovered that all of the bomb threats were fake, and most were called in by a Jewish Israeli teenager.

This is not to say that these events didn’t deserve our attention. But I wonder at the lack of attention paid to the kind of everyday online hate I noticed on that TMZ article and on HQ Trivia. It’s hard to know how to respond to something that happens with such regularity, all while it comes from a place of such obvious idiocy. But I wonder if we’ve all become a bit too complacent, too jaded.

Of course the ADL has guidelines and best practices for countering cyberhate, an effort they’ve been involved in since the dawn of the internet. But it’s going to require more from Jewish individuals to make actual change — people willing to reply to comments and create space for dialogue; people willing to call a company and say, “This isn’t right.”

Organizations can only do so much. But if the internet is a bit of the wild, wild west, we need to get on our horses and become anti-hate cowboys. We cannot allow hatred to flourish.

Liz Spikol is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent.


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