In 2011, freelance journalist Bethany Mandel converted to Judaism. In 2014, Rabbi David Freundel, who converted her, was arrested for voyeurism—he had hidden cameras in the mikvah (ritual bath) and filmed every woman he converted over five years, including Mandel. Freundel is currently serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence in prison.
Mandel, who has written about Donald Trump’s “outrageous Jewish hypocrisy” for publications like The Forward (and has also written for the Observer) was transported back to that painful period earlier this year when a large group of Trump-supporting Twitter trolls (up to 1,000, in Mandel’s estimation) began taunting her because she was a victim of Freundel’s voyeurism.
“It takes a low person to mock someone who was the victim of a sex crime at the hands of a rabbi,” Mandel told the Observer. “It’s creepy and disturbing. But that’s who we’re talking about.”
Mandel is one of several Jewish journalists who have been harassed by anti-Semitic Twitter trolls throughout the presidential campaign. No matter who wins the presidential election, some Jewish reporters facing online harassment believe these trolls will continue to make their voices heard online for a long time to come.
According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League (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. While the report did not specify exactly how much anti-Semitic speech had increased from previous years, Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center for Extremism, told the Observer that “we had not seen the level of anti-Semitic harassment before this year.”
The ADL added that an estimated 800 journalists have received anti-Semitic emails and tweets in recent months. The top 10 most targeted journalists (all of whom, like Mandel and the Observer’s Dana Schwartz, are Jewish) received 83 percent of these anti-Semitic tweets.
“These were beyond one-off, nasty comments,” Segal said. “They were experiencing campaigns that included not just words, but threats and posting of personal information online.”
The trolls are stirred to action because they think social media puts them on equal footing with those they’re harassing, according to Segal.
“Twitter and other platforms have leveled the playing field between those who want to use technology for respectful, legitimate debate with those who have more nefarious purposes,” he said.
The ADL found that the most frequently targeted journalist was Ben Shapiro, founder and editor in chief of The Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion website Shapiro estimates that he has received about 7,400 anti-Semitic replies and messages on Twitter, with more coming every day.
“When you’re a prominent person on Twitter you’re gonna get harassed, but it has increased in orders of magnitude,” Shapiro told the Observer.
He said the amount of anti-Semitic Twitter content really went “through the roof” in March, when Shapiro wrote a Daily Wire post about how he would never vote for Donald Trump.
“It was not a huge cadre, but it was extremely loud,” Shapiro said.
Indeed, the ADL reports that only 1,600 Twitter users were responsible for 68 percent of anti-Semitic tweets sent to journalists.
“That suggests there are a hardcore group of people who are particularly interested in using this platform to harass other people,” Segal said.
However, Segal also put a positive spin on this news, saying that the small number of abusers could be contained if Twitter commits to ending the abuse.
“Private companies can decide to mitigate these uses,” he said. “It’s manageable—there aren’t as many haters as there are tweets.”
Shapiro said, however, that the trolls will find a way to be heard even after Election Day.
“It’ll get louder because people are gonna be pissed,” he said. “The stench of political death will keep people from finding common cause.”
Other tech companies have already started discouraging the haters; earlier this year Google removed an app called Coincidence Detector from its app store. The browser extension, created by a user identified as “altrightmedia,” enclosed names that its algorithm deemed Jewish in triple parentheses, e.g. (((Ben Shapiro))). This symbol is referred to as an “echo.”
Some Jewish journalists have used the echo to beat anti-Semitic Twitter trolls at their own game. Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet who has written that “Jewish conservatives deserve credit for their courage” in condemning Trump, added the echo to his profile in June to “mess with the Twitter Nazis.”
“I wanted to show that it doesn’t bother me and appropriate it for my own purposes,” noted Rosenberg, who was also one of the ADL’s most targeted reporters. “The symbol was made ironic by people who found it contemptible.”
Echoing Shapiro, Rosenberg said that anti-Semitic trolls have always been present on Twitter, but that “the internet horde of bigots” had become more prominent this year because they believe a leading presidential candidate shares their views.
“If you were a Jew with opinions on the internet, you were going to get these people—but now they have a rallying point,” Rosenberg said. “Trump is a beachhead that makes these opinions more acceptable.”
Many trolls post anonymously so that their words can’t be traced back to real people. This is especially common for the brand of troll Rosenberg finds “particularly odious”: far-right anti-Semites who set up accounts impersonating Jews, then use them to spout racist sentiments to make it look like Jews are racists.
Given the constant stream of notifications from far right accounts like these, Rosenberg and other targeted reporters said it was hard to pinpoint specific moments when the amount of trolling increased.
The ADL, however, determined that anti-Semitic Twitter activity spiked after certain events, such as in March, when Trump said Bernie Sanders supporters were inciting violence at his rallies.
The Jewish reporters also charge that right-wing media personalities like Alex Jones have fanned anti-Semitic flames by claiming that a “Jewish mafia” is trying to get Hillary Clinton elected.
“The alt-right is disgusting,” Shapiro said. “They take advantage of the fact that Trump panders to whoever claps for him.”
“They’re trying to screw with us, and it’s working,” Mandel added.
Some reporters think the amount of “screwing” will depend on who wins the White House.
“If Trump wins they’ll have validation,” Rosenberg said. “But if Hillary wins they’ll discover again that they’re marginalized. Their great hope of becoming mainstream and acceptable will be dashed.”
“If Trump loses they’ll just crawl back in their holes,” Mandel agreed. “But if Trump wins it’s scary to think about.”
The ADL’s Segal, however, doesn’t think any result, positive or negative, will stop the trolls from spreading their message.
“I don’t anticipate the bigotry and hatred sparked by this campaign to go away on November 9,” he said. “No matter which candidate wins, they’re gonna use it as an opportunity to continue what they’ve been doing.”
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.