Jonathan Greenblatt

Incubators of Hate

Air Date: December 10, 2016

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, talks about how social media are enabling bigotry.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. An onslaught of antisemitism has proliferated on social media this year. To be blunt, Twitter is increasingly an incubator of insult, a firing squad of bigotry, a 3D Imax theatre, as I said to a friend recently, of hatred from which you cannot escape.

Our guest and I will explore the rise of this frequently anonymous cyber hate. Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO and sixth Director of the Anti-Defamation League, and a former White House Special Assistant to President Obama, and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

The ADL says it found 2.6 million Tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech over the last year. “The spike in hate we’ve seen online this election cycle is extremely troubling and unlike anything we’ve seen in modern politics.”

“A half century ago, the KKK burned crosses. Today, extremists are burning up Twitter,” again, my guest’s words. To date, it appears to this observer that the responses of Twitter and Facebook too are woefully inadequate. And Jonathan is here with me to discuss this.

GREENBLATT: Thanks for having me Alexander.

HEFFNER: You’re welcome. Would you agree with that? That their responses to date have been woefully inadequate, not even willing to acknowledge the problem?

GREENBLATT: Well look, to step back, the ADL’s been tracking hate for over a hundred years, looking at bigotry in all forms, in particular anti-Semitism, and what we’ve seen in recent years is these extremists who used to hide behind white hoods, today they hide behind their smartphones and keyboards.
And they’re using these extraordinary social media platforms, to reach a wider audience that was ever before possible. I mean to be clear, Facebook, Twitter, these other platforms, they do tremendous good. And they bring together people across boundaries and across classes, and across time.

It’s very exciting. But you’re right to point out, Alexander, that there’s something happening with the explosion of hate on these platforms, and in particular, our recent report looked at the online harassment of journalists on Twitter, where it’s particularly bad.

HEFFNER: To spell that out in details…


HEFFNER: Tell our viewers what the harassment consists of and who the targets are.

GREENBLATT: Sure. So, we have, we organized a task force to evaluate this problem back in the late spring, early summer. We did it because we heard about many journalists who were leaving the platform entirely, or were self censoring.

They were choosing not to write certain things because they had been so assaulted with invective over Twitter. That concerned us not just because they were facing anti-Semitism, but it becomes a threat to free speech and free expression.

So we looked at the problem over a 12 month period, analyzing the data and crunching the tweets, and what we found were that, over the course of a period of time, over 2.6 million tweets containing anti-Semitic language or images or uh, characters of different sorts.

And of those they generated over 10 billion impressions. So we’re talking Super Bowl numbers here for the worst ideas of society. And even more specifically, we found over 20, oh roughly 20, 000 tweets were directed at about 800 journalists, with a handful, just ten, getting over 80% of those tweets. And the tweets were interesting.

So often times the journalist would write something or post a link about something related to the campaign, to the election, and then they were inundated, deluged with horrible, hateful messages. And I think what I should point out, these aren’t just casual tweets, like you texting your friends. We’re talking about people sending images of the reporter or the pundit with their face superimposed on a Holocaust survivor.

We’re talking about characters of Jews in the worst ways, literally ripping pages, like out of Nazi propaganda. We’re talking about, and I’ll be frank, I’ve gotten a lot of these pictures and images myself. People send me pictures of ovens. People send me pictures of lampshades.

People tell me that they’re going to send me to gas chambers. And I have the ADL behind me. But think, if you’re a freelance writer, like Julia Loffe from GQ who wrote a piece on Melania Trump this summer. And it certainly wasn’t a hit job. It was an objective story. And she was overwhelmed. And they posted her phone, her address. She started getting harassing phone calls. Law enforcement got involved. It’s pretty scary stuff.

HEFFNER: That’s been the theme of these McCarthyite tactics. Brett Stephens of the Wall Street Journal.


HEFFNER: Wrote a wonderful column equating this to a modern day plot against America and American values. And so, you were saying to me off camera, just to be clear, a lot of these are organic accounts and don’t even really account for the extent to which there is some kind of programmatic effort on the part of foreign organizations or countries.


HEFFNER: Be it WikiLeaks or Russia. And it want to talk to you about that in a minute, in terms of the alignment of a country or an organization with this hate speech.


HEFFNER: But first for our, for our viewers, what the Twitter spokesperson said, ‘Um, hateful conduct has no place on Twitter,’ this is their reaction, ‘and we address this issue every day with government, our partners in civil society and our peers in the technology sector. People must feel safe in order to speak freely, and there’s a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate.’ Now, [LAUGHTER]


HEFFNER: If there is a clear distinction, it’s not clear to Matt Katz for example, a reporter for the public radio in New Jersey,


HEFFNER: Who protested, who submitted a request for accounts to be banned that were name-calling and inciting violence, saying, because you’re Jewish, you belong in the gas chamber…


HEFFNER: And he put it forward through Twitter and they denied his request for…


HEFFNER: Those accounts to be removed. So if that’s not inciting violence and hate, I don’t know what is.

GREENBLATT: Yeah, look, what we found, you’re right to point it out. It’s a huge problem. And the companies need to do more. So we found that there were about 1,600 accounts that were, uh, driving the lions share of these horrible messages, these hateful threats.

And it’s worth noting that over the course of the year, Twitter took down 21 % of these accounts, suspended them for violating their terms of service. But what’s I think more important, is almost 80% were left active. And look, at the ADL, we believe in civil liberties. We believe in freedom of speech. But there’s a difference between free speech and death threats, right? This is what crosses the line between what’s permissible in a free society and what’s not permissible.

When you threaten to hurt, to murder someone, that’s just not okay and that’s where we think Twitter in particular needs to do more.

HEFFNER: Right. So you wouldn’t object to anti-Semitic reference per se. Um, you’re not even asking them to remove insinuations that Jews are corrupt. For example, if someone wrote that, it wouldn’t necessarily follow the standard that you just set.

GREENBLATT: That’s right.

HEFFNER: There is intimidation and violence that are the, kind of substantiation of the threat after the insult.


HEFFNER: So in that case, Twitter was not doing anything. So my take on this, and I speak about this on college campuses with some regularity is, there is some language that is a human depravity.


HEFFNER: Um, there is some, there are some words, that just by their mere presence incite violence, the N-word for example.


HEFFNER: So, we’ve talked about this a lot in the context of this political campaign…


HEFFNER: Because the alt-right has employed this rhetoric, or at least whoever’s funneling this.


HEFFNER: The, the abdication of responsibility on the part of social media, to me is the failure to underscore their awareness that hate means violence…


HEFFNER: In a lot a of contexts, and the way that I’ve rationalized it is these social-media are predominantly concerned with their user base, their security and privacy, right…

HEFFNER: And that, and that the implication they’re sending to the nation, is that is their foremost concern and they don’t have the patience to handle anything other than security…


HEFFNER: Their security of the servers of Facebook and Twitter in Palo Alto…


HEFFNER: And the privacy of their users so people don’t torpedo their accounts. That seems to me the predicament, that they’re entirely focused on this and unwilling to acknowledge the problem.

GREENBLATT: So I think there a couple things going on. So I think first of all to your earlier point. So we at the ADL and me personally deeply agree, you can’t outlaw bad ideas. You can’t outlaw hate.

You, you just can’t. We think the best response to bad ideas or bad speech are better ideas and better speech. That’s what you do. You counter speech. Right. You don’t censor. That being said, the best response to death threats is jail time. Right? Like that is not okay. That is over the line.

So I might not like holocaust denial, but we don’t outlaw it here in the United States because of our First Amendment. With that said, I think these companies again, have for to mature and find new ways to realize their responsibilities they have, not just to growing their user base, which I think is an overriding concern.

They’re trying to increase their top line revenue, trying to increase those numbers. But the ultimate responsibility is to the existing users on their platform.
HEFFNER: It’s not just about being hacked. In effect, they need to think of hacking through this, the lens that you and I are talking about today…

GREENBLATT: Think about…

HEFFNER: The hacking of society.

GREENBLATT: So you could think about like… So let me give you an example. So we’ve seen individuals like Andrew Anglin who runs ‘The Daily Stormer’ which is a, he’s a horrible white supremacist, very deliberately identified particular reporters who’ve written things he doesn’t like, and direct his trolls to attack them on twitter.

And you can go to his website. You can read his instructions – here’s what you should say, here’s what you cannot say, because you’ll get thrown off of Twitter. So they’re very intentional and very deliberate and there’ nothing permissible about that.

HEFFNER: I like to say, Jonathon, you know, we, it used to be about beating the censor.


HEFFNER: Now we have to beat the senseless, [LAUGHTER].


HEFFNER: So the senselessness is this bigotry. So when they, when this alt-right, white supremacist for instance comes up with these rules to share, which reminds me of suicide bombers, for example, what you can put on the web, in terms of the web, in terms of the elite…

GREENBLATT: It’s hacking the web, attacking the …

HEFFNER: So in terms of the ingredients of a bomb or something of that nature.


HEFFNER: What you can do without getting monitored by the NSA…


HEFFNER: It’s the same thing here, but it’s not, it’s not just death threats, it’s any kind of premeditated violence. That, that is the standard.

GREENBLATT: Absolutely. So you’re not allowed to stalk people, right? You’re not allowed to publish their home phone number and suggest people should pay them a visit. That’s not OK. Again, that’s a form of trespass. It isn’t permissible in the offline world, and it shouldn’t be permissible online.

HEFFNER: There are a lot of ways you can say I’ll pay you a visit. There are a lot of threats that can be done in way that are not…


HEFFNER: ‘I’m gonna kill you’


HEFFNER: And, and is that really the area in which you implore twitter and Facebook to take more action?

GREENBLATT: Well those are the places where we need, not necessarily new policies but we need policies to be enforced. We need action. Users need action. And by the way, let’s just be clear. This has broad consequences.

‘Cause it certainly isn’t always, isn’t only a Jewish problem. Jews and anti-Semitism, it’s sort of the canary in the coal mine, right? It’s a barometric reading of the health of society. And it starts with anti-Semitism that often, as we’ve seen on this campaign.

So these white supremacists 50 years ago, it was blacks and Jews. Today they’ve widened their scope to Muslims and Mexicans, and women, if you will Femi-Nazis is a terrible term that they often use. But make no mistake, the fact that you’re dealing with the persistence of anti-Semitism and this kind of threats is a problem for everyone.

And not only does it have moral, moral implications, in this case I would say, Alexander, it has economic consequences. So over the past week and a half, Twitter, which was the subject of acquisition talks, companies like Salesforce and Disney backed off.

And it was reported in the press, they backed off in part, because of the persistence of hate on their platforms.

HEFFNER: And, and they don’t necessarily want to take responsibility for answering this critical question Jonathan, which is, in a free society, how much hate are you willing to tolerate.

GREENBLATT: Mhmm. Mm-hmm…

HEFFNER: It’s an open-ended question, but how much hate in the service of free speech…

HEFFNER: Should we tolerate?

GREENBLATT: I don’t know that there’s sort of an easy answer for that. I don’t know that there’s a bright line that you can say, this is in, or this is out, or this is too much. But the bottom line is, is that, when it transcend just, you know, bad ideas to intimidation or threats of different degrees, that is just not okay.

You can’t stand in a crowed theatre and yell, ‘Fire,’ in the middle of the movie. That’s not free speech, that’s …

HEFFNER: And, and right. I think the concern is, these minority positions, if they are that, in this country, are going to cohere into a political faction, that then has legitimacy…


HEFFNER: I mean that to me is the line in the sand and potentially the death sentence in civil society. We’ve seen these strange bedfellows of, WikiLeaks…


HEFFNER: Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime, according to the CIA and FBI, and multiple intelligence sources in our country, they have, over the course of the presidential campaign, propped up what is the alt-right movement.


HEFFNER: Now some see this just as a way to align one American autocrat to a Russian autocrat.


HEFFNER: For example in Syria…


HEFFNER: Maybe there will be less concern about recklessness in the assault on Muslims if you have an American autocrat and a Russian autocrat, that is two leaders who can make decisions about military policy based on the lowest common denominator right?


HEFFNER: But there’s something potentially more alarming about this, and I want you to help us clarify it, and that is, the alignment of snarky anti-Semitic comments that have appeared on the WikiLeaks Twitter feed…


HEFFNER: Really showing who they are, what their true colors are.


HEFFNER: Um, this idea of minority suppression of Jews in Russia that continues to this day. I’m confounded but trying to understand to what extent this is not an alt-right conspiracy in this country, but a global effort…


HEFFNER: To empower anti-Semitism…


HEFFNER: From WikiLeaks to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. GREENBLATT: So I think there are a few things here to kind of like, unpack. So I think number one, as you said, in Russia and we’ll start with Russia, there’s been historical anti-Semitism, right?

It’s existed for hundreds of years. You know, millions of Jews have fled that country over the years, and hundred of thousands were murdered, millions in the second world war, and through pogroms, all through the 20th century.

It’s been a place where cultural anti-Semitism is a persistent part of the Russian, kind of experience. With that said, I think Vladimir Putin, when he went after, early on in his tenure, some of the oligarchs and forced them to flee the country, and nationalized some assets, there was, uh, the use of anti-Semitism. Many of them happened to be Jewish.

And so many of them found themselves on the receiving end so many of them fled the country. So now they leave here or in Israel or in the UK or in other parts of Europe. Now, so it’s interesting, that comes from sort of a fascistic model.

And then we have WikiLeaks, and WikiLeaks is interesting in as much as Julian Assange, used to subscribe to more of the radical left if you will, and he has this anarchist string about him. But what’s troubling about Julian Assange, is that, as you mentioned, the casual anti-Semitism that comes out that WikiLeaks Twitter feed on a regular basis, the delegitimization of Israel that comes out of that Twitter feed on a regular basis.

So you see from the radical left to the extreme right where these things starts to come together, and then we have the alt-right, this white supremacist strain in this country, which…

HEFFNER: And that is, that is the frightening alignment…


HEFFNER: That transcends alt-right as a political identity in this country. I think it is something more global that you point to.

GREENBLATT: Yeah I mean it’s, it’s interesting how you have white-supremacists and radical leftists and folks who dally with the extreme right over here, all sort of coming together in this bizarre sort of unholy configuration.

HEFFNER: How does the League, and how do American Jews model the good citizenship…


HEFFNER: That does not give any of these uh, attacks legitimacy in the eyes of people who are dispossessed of American wealth…


HEFFNER: And in campaign rhetoric over the course of this year, you have heard those not so casual direct references to bankers…


HEFFNER: Wall Street…


HEFFNER: And the reality that Bernie Sanders brought to the fore is a real one, and that is that wealth in this country is not decentralized…

HEFFNER: And so I wonder, I asked you about good citizenship, but I think it’s also about good policy.

GREENBLATT: I think Jews do model good citizenship, right? I think in this country, American Jews have been able to assimilate and achieve in academia, in business, in government, in the arts, I mean they’re, we’re quite successful almost disproportionate in our numbers if you will.

And that’s result in the dint of hard work. I mean none of these Jews came to the country with any resources or any connections. None of them stepped off the Mayflower if you will. So number one, I think we live with tremendous privilege here. But what’s also interesting, Jews have been involved in social movements, again, far disproportionate to their numbers in the past hundred years,

From the civil rights movement, for fighting for farm workers and Latino rights, and supporting the LGBT movement, and the ADL is a good example of that. My predecessor in the fifties, marched across that bridge in Selma with Dr. King, and then stood next to him in the Rose Garden ten years later when they signed the Voting Rights Act, with, with RFK and LBJ.

HEFFNER: Who is more or a model of that, fighting back against that perception that there is a Jewish banking conspiracy than Bernie Sanders…

GREENBLATT: Exactly. He’s Jewish himself.

HEFFNER: Who was leading the efforts on income inequality?

GREENBLATT: That’s right, that’s right, so I mean I think that…

HEFFNER: But I, but I think that the problem is the perception that that is an outlier and you know there were some who identified that he didn’t speak to his heritage in a way that connected Judaism to the fight against income inequality, not that that was an expectation…


HEFFNER: That, that he should have, because he did a service to the country in the first place. But I, but I wonder, how do you build on that, because that is really the one perception, that if, if extinguished, um would, I think, lead to a lessening of the onslaught.

GREENBLATT: Look, if you, so what’s interesting is if you read, like some of these tweets that are written to these journalists that we’re talking about, these, these tweets would spike after an election related event.

And the tweets didn’t say, we don’t like what you said about Donald Trump, even though a large majority of these tweets came from people who identified as Donald Trump supporters or who have, or Trump in their bio on Twitter. But the tweets had things like, Jews perpetrated 9/11, Jews control global media, Jews control global finance.

So these are bizarre outliers that have nothing to do with this election. I point this out, though Alexander, because anti-Semitism is a millennial problem, and I mean that with a small m, right, it’s been around for thousands of years, and it takes different forms. They accuse Jews of controlling the banks and they accuse Jews of being communists. Right. They accuse Jews of owning Hollywood or running media or controlling the government, all kind of crazy things. And so I don’t think we can ever truly extinguish it, but we need to be vigilant and address it whenever it appears.

HEFFNER: You also point out though, that it is a millennial problem, lower case and upper case.


HEFFNER: Because it is young people who are inheriting the social-media context in which that firing squad of anti-Semitism is, if not embraced, permitted.

GREENBLATT: For the last several years, we’ve run something called the Cyber Hate Working Group, which includes Facebook and Twitter and Google and Microsoft and Amazon and Yahoo and a bunch of other companies.

And what we’ve done is we’ve helped them to develop best practices around when speech crosses the line from just being bad ideas, again, to being something more threatening. We literally helped them do that. And we released those last year.

And in addition, literally, I just hired someone about a month and a half ago to create our office in Silicon Valley. And she’s our Director of Technology and Society. Because as you just pointed out, that’s where the millennials are, it’s where they shop, it’s where they socialize, it’s where they find spouses, it’s where they do their, find jobs.

So we as, as ADL, and I think all non-profits who care about this issue, you’ve got to go right to the source. So we’re trying to use technology. We’re in conversation with another large technology firm, about how can we use artificial intelligence and natural language processing.

HEFFNER: Somehow in Microsoft, AI…


HEFFNER: Twitter feed turned into an anti-Semitic personality…


HEFFNER: On Twitter. Uh, uh, did you follow that and, and…

GREENBLATT: Yeah, yeah, we, we talked to them about it. Look, technology is glitchy. Technology is buggy. And it shouldn’t surprise us that 1.0 isn’t doesn’t work nearly as well as 3.0 or 5.0.


GREENBLATT: I mean the fact of the matter is I’m getting updates on my phone every day from new, from applications that are continually iterating and improving.

This will improve as well. AI will get better and better and will become a really interesting way that we can trying to deal with this.

HEFFNER: I think the problem to a lot of observers is that Mark Zuckerberg is more concerned with his Artificial Intelligence nanny…


HEFFNER: Than importing the civic values that you worked for at the White House and now at the League…


HEFFNER: Into Facebook, that, he doesn’t consider his organization potentially part of a problem.

HEFFNER: Well let’s keep one thing in mind. These companies are huge. There’s 1.7 billion people on Facebook, bigger than any country on the planet. And it’s been around for less than ten years. So these businesses have a lot of power, but they’re also still immature and learning. So I feel very confident that with the right engagement, again we talked about economic consequences, they will realize that, if their platforms aren’t truly open and truly safe for all their users. Users will leave the marketplace I think will punish these people, and if the marketplace won’t policy makers will. And so we release the first phase of our report next month. We’re doing a big conference on anti-Semitism here in New York, ‘Never is Now.’

We’re releasing the second phase of our work, recommendations for what industry and what government should do to deal with this problem.

HEFFNER: I doubt, in the near future, Facebook is going to adopt the kind of editorial scrutiny that the First Amendment demands…


HEFFNER: that my friends Emily Bell and Jay Rosen talk about, in terms of a need of a, for a public editor…


HEFFNER: Really a public editorial board…


HEFFNER: Of a Twitter or a Facebook…


HEFFNER: I don’t see that in the future because they’re not acknowledging the problem sufficiently. They may be bringing you to the table. I’m glad our viewers know that now.


HEFFNER: But one thing that could be done in instituting the automation of that kind of civic protection is, you can write anything you want on your profile…


HEFFNER: As long as it’s not violating the law in the way that we talked about at the beginning of the program.


HEFFNER: But what about this idea that in the public comments, that is public affairs stories, news and information, a coded system, so that commenters are not engaging in the discussions or posting photos of the kind of heinous, horrific things…

GREENBLATT: Let’s say you had a story, a news story on uh, a group of nuns who want to build a convent in a church in Auschwitz, and they included a picture of Auschwitz in the story. So less sophisticated AI may block that news story or block that picture. And it’s not offensive at all.

So it’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but here’s what I’ll say, again I think the marketplace will punish these companies if they don’t solve these problems. There’s a reason why you can’t post childporn on Facebook or any of these companies.

I don’t know if you know this or not, but Microsoft led an open source effort, many companies were involved, they all now use the same technology that intercepts and eliminates child porn when it shows up on their platforms.

Equally, go try to search a Viacom video on YouTube, you can’t find it, you can’t find it, because they’ve used technology to deal with copyright infringement. So I feel very confident that again, either marketplace or legislatures will get involved in the same ways they done with these other things, to deal with hate.

HEFFNER: Jonathan, I commend you on your work. I for one am not as optimistic that the marketplace or consumers are going to demand this but I, I see potential. When students say, for example, or young people say, the ship has sailed. I say, no it hasn’t.


HEFFNER: Before there was a Facebook there was a Myspace. Before there was a Myspace there was an AT & T.

GREENBLATT: Friendster and then, and before that…


GREENBLATT: AT & T, that’s right.

HEFFNER: So there is hope.


HEFFNER: Thank you Jonathan.

GREENBLATT: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @openmindtv for updates on future programming.