In Runup to the Midterms, Study Finds Marked Rise in Far-Right’s Use of Anti-Semitic Attacks on Social Media

Continuation of 2016 efforts targeting journalists includes physical threats against Jews; Soros invoked by far the most in harassing tweets

New York, October 26, 2018 … Continuing what began during the 2016 presidential election, the members of far-right extremist groups and the so-called “Alt Right” have stepped up “online propaganda offensives” in the runup to the upcoming midterm elections to attack and try to intimidate Jews and especially Jewish journalists, according to a new Anti-Defamation League study, which said social media platforms are “key facilitators of this anti-Semitic harassment.”

“The themes of this online harassment against the Jewish American community, especially against journalists and prominent members of this group, have been carried from the 2016 presidential election to the 2018 midterm content,” said the study by Oxford scholar and ADL Belfer Fellow Samuel Woolley.

Woolley and co-author Katie Joseff, both researchers at the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab, analyzed more than 7.5 million tweets and interviewed Jews in politics and journalism to assess the extent of anti-Semitic harassment and disinformation about Jewish Americans on social media ahead of the U.S. midterm elections. The study found there has been a “marked rise in the number of online attacks” against the Jewish community ahead of Election Day and that the vast majority of these (about two-thirds) are from real accounts, not bots.

“Both anonymity and automation have been used in online propaganda offensives against the Jewish community during the 2018 midterms,” the paper said. The authors said political bots “are playing a significant role in artificially amplifying derogatory content over Twitter about Jewish users. Human users, however, still accounted for the majority of derogatory Twitter traffic,” and they’ve “made use of Twitter bombing – barraging hashtags associated with the Jewish community with highly politicized, and sometimes hateful, content in an effort to demobilize, coopt and interrupt normal communication and organization over social media.” 

Bots have played a critical role in anti-Semitic attacks online. Nearly 30 percent of the accounts that repeatedly tweeted terms meant to denigrate Jews were judged to likely be bots, according to the analysis. These accounts made more derogatory comments about Jews on average than accounts that seemed to be from humans – 43 percent of the tweets even though they represented just 28 percent of the accounts.

The study also found that 80.26 percent of the harassing tweets used hashtags associated with those on the right side of the political spectrum. Nearly 40 percent of the tweets included #MAGA or #KAG, which supporters of President Trump use to tout his 2016 and 2020 campaign slogans. The most popular term used by Trump supporters “by one or two orders of magnitude” was “Soros,” referring to George Soros, the Jewish billionaire that anti-Semites use to blame for anyone who resists conservatives. 

The campaign of online attacks has two real-world impacts: it has led to physical threats against Jews in the public eye, and it is bringing anti-Semitism into mainstream politics. As ADL has reported, a record number of right-wing extremists and bigots are running for office this year.

Several Jews in the political arena, including one political candidate, were doxxed by white supremacists and needed police protection.

The study said there is widespread agreement that anti-Semitic harassment is “worse on Twitter than on Facebook.” It recommended a series of actions for civil society and government to take to stem the disinformation and harassment, and it urged social media platforms to make changes that give users the ability to make harassment less visible.  It also urged journalists to use their influence on Twitter to help bring changes to the site.

“Online hate is not some idle threat that just lives online and can be ignored. Technology companies need to work harder and faster to curb the vicious violence-inducing harassment on their platforms,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “We are working to help find solutions, too, but this study shows us we have not come far enough and the companies need to do more to tamp down the spread of hatred online.”

Woolley is working with the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society (www.adl.org/cts) as a Belfer Fellow. The fellowship program was made possible by a generous contribution from the Robert A. and Renee E. Belfer Family Foundation.

The Twitter analysis examined 7,512,594 tweets and 8,183,545 hashtags between Aug. 31 and Sept. 17, 2018.

ADL is the world’s leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to protect the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Today, ADL continues to fight all forms of hate with the same vigor and passion. A global leader in exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education, and fighting hate online, ADL is the first call when acts of anti-Semitism occur. ADL’s ultimate goal is a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.