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Trolling the trolls: One journalist's creative response to online harassment

Jewish journalist Yair Rosenberg has been the target of anti-Semitism on social media. In response, he takes a humorous approach to shut down the hate.
8 Feb 2017 – 06:46 PM EST
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There’s a certain type of social media user that seems to exist merely to insult, harass and argue. They’re often too cowardly to show their true identity, instead hiding behind a moniker or cartoon, and the slightest mention of something they don’t like can unleash a barrage of cruel messages.

They are trolls. And the Internet seems more full of them now than ever.

When it comes to responding to online haters, people can take a number of approaches. You can ignore and continue on with your day, trying not to let it get to you. You can slink away. You can report the incident to the site you’re on, though that often has mixed results. Twitter, for instance, has received widespread criticism for its failure to adequately respond to hate on its platform, sometimes refusing to ban openly anti-Semitic users.

Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at the Jewish news magazine Tablet, doesn’t think it’s solely Twitter’s -- or any other technology company’s -- responsibility to monitor for and respond to trolls. Instead, he says individuals should get involved as much as possible. He’s made it a sort-of part time gig to mock his own trolls, or as he likes to say, “troll the trolls.” And in many instances, that’s shut down the hate.

Rosenberg was one of several Jewish journalists aggressively harassed by anti-Semitic trolls throughout the presidential campaign.

In October, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Task Force on Harassment and Journalism released a troubling report detailing a year-long rise in anti-Semitic hate targeting journalists on Twitter. According to the ADL, Twitter users sent 2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech between August 2015 and July 2016. These tweets had an estimated 10 billion impressions.

In April, well-known journalist Julia Ioffe was bombarded by hateful tweets, phone calls and emails after she wrote a profile of Melania Trump in GQ Magazine. The images she received often featured disturbing Holocaust imagery, such as a picture of her photoshopped into a concentration camp.

In June Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor at The New York Times, briefly quit Twitter after a month’s worth of similar anti-Semitic messages and photos.

For Rosenberg, this sort of treatment was nothing new. Though he was alarmed and disturbed by the increase and severity of the attacks, he’d been on the receiving end of it for years.

“The occupational hazard of being a professional Jew on the Internet with opinions is that you will receive hate mail,” he says. “If you have a visibly Jewish name like mine, or if you cover issues related to Jewish causes or community or Israel, you will get more of it than if you cover City Hall. I am at the nexxus so I get a lot.”

Rosenberg wanted to convert his harassment into a “teaching moment,” using it to display the prevalence of anti-Semitism to those who might not realize it exists, as well as maybe connect with his harasser.

Beginning in 2014, Rosenberg began to test out a strategy that he would end up using throughout the presidential campaign. Every now and again, he would engage with the sender of an anti-Semitic tweet in a creative, smart, even funny way.

“I try not to give people the attention they like. But I don’t like to ignore it either, because that doesn’t make it go away. So how do you raise attention without giving them attention? I will never argue with an anti-Semite. I use humor and creativity and fun solutions people can be a part of.”

By refusing to be silent and instead giving it back to the harasser, Rosenberg say he has successfully unnerved and fended off countless trolls. “They don’t like it when it’s turned on them,” he says.

Often, the original user often ends up removing their tweet completely.

In that same vein, Rosenberg even helped convert a racist symbol into one of solidarity and tolerance. In June, after Mic reported that neo-Nazis were using parentheses known as the “echo symbol” as a way to target Jews on social media, Rosenberg suggested that Jews and others do the same. That tweet reverberated widely.

As a result, the “echo” symbol was adopted by users across Twitter, including Muslims, atheists, and Christians.

“We appropriated the parenthesis so that it is completely useless now to anti-Semites. I challenge anyone to find a more effective example than that,” Rosenberg says.

Still, he concedes that his lighthearted approach will not work for everyone. For some, racist harassment becomes a disturbing burden, especially when it involves in-person harassment, like calls and written death threats.

In the midst of the barrage of harassment, Ioffe told the Guardian last April: “I started the day off having a sense of humor about it but by the end of the day, after a few phone calls like this, with people playing Hitler speeches, and the imagery, and people telling me my face would look good on a lampshade, it’s hard to laugh.”

In that case, Rosenberg says it’s smart to take a different approach.

“It’s important to stress that not everyone can do what I do and there is no shame in that. You have to ask yourself if this is work you’re cut out for, or would it make things worse? If it would make things worse, disengage.”