Vox Populi: The Destructive Anti-Semitism of Online Comments


Last week, news broke on TMZ.com that four flight attendants were suing Delta Airlines for “a pattern of intentionally discriminating and retaliating against ethnically Jewish, Hebrew and/or Israeli employees and passengers.” The story was quickly picked up by other media outlets, and while the merits of the case will be decided in court, the online response to the suit has been disturbing.

The first comment on the TMZ piece reads, “Palestinians for equality, kill all Jews.” A reader with an Archie Bunker avatar writes, “Who can say with a straight face their [sic] not a pain in the you know what,” and “Harvey Weinstein” 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 …”

A commenter talks about not wanting to sit next to Jews on a plane because they smell bad, while DefenderofIsrael writes, “I’m assuming they knew they were jewish because they traveled coach and didn’t tip.” Another reader invokes “the oven.”

TMZ’s rules for comments include: “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 ignored 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. Newsweek and the New York Daily News seem to have barred comments on the piece from the start, and 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, and 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. Some media outlets have 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 nastiness as it prevents people from hiding behind anonymity. Yet hateful people are remarkably determined to have their say and create dummy Facebook identities to do so.

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 allowed this destructive, painful conversation to thrive on its site.

Some will question why it matters, or even argue that it’s better to see what our enemies are thinking. 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. Even if you tell yourself the people making them are idiots, it’s demoralizing to read them.

Ignoring hate speech isn’t easy, as I found when I recently started to play the live mobile game HQ Trivia. Part of the fun is that people can comment live, whether to provide help with a question or ask for a birthday shout-out from Jewish host Scott Rogowski. The communal conversation contributes to the game’s popularity.

Yet I had to stop playing 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 comments, 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, the two biggest stories in the news about anti-Semitism were incidences of Jewish cemetery vandalism (Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis) and bomb threats to JCCs. Rallies were held, monies donated, partnerships formed, statements released. The communal response was swift and decisive.

It should be noted, however, that we do not know for sure that the cemetery vandalism was motivated by anti-Semitism. In fact, a historical survey of such incidents in Phila-
delphia’s Jewish Exponent (a sister paper of the JT) found the majority of cemetery vandalism was the result of rowdy kids devoid of an agenda. In addition, it turned out 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. Have we become too complacent, too jaded? Or does the problem just seem too vast?

Of course the ADL has guidelines and best practices for countering cyberhate, but it’s going to require 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 indeed the Wild West, we need to get on our horses and become anti-hate cowboys. We cannot allow this vitriol to flourish.

Liz Spikol is editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media.


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