During the election season, Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet magazine with a legion of more than 36,000 Twitter followers, was the second most targeted Jewish journalist on social media, according to an October 2016 report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). He grew accustomed to threats, slurs and photoshopped Holocaust images littering his news feed.
In December, he decided to fight back. Working with a programmer in San Francisco, he created an automated Twitter account called “Imposter Buster,” tasked with detecting fake Twitter accounts created to impersonate and defame Jews and other minorities.
“Now this bot is policing Twitter for us,” said Rosenberg, who recently added Muslims to the list of minorities his automaton is programmed to defend. He said the automated account has largely “killed this form of trolling.”
“It’s a bottom-up solution,” he said.
Creating more bottom-up solutions like Rosenberg’s to combat cyber hate is fast becoming a priority. Last week, the ADL and the Natan Fund, a grant-making foundation that supports entrepreneurship in the Jewish world, announced the launch of an innovation prize intended to catalyze grassroots approaches to countering online hate speech.
The competition, called “Innovate Against Hate,” encourages programmers, students, academics, journalists, artists and social entrepreneurs to devise new approaches to uncovering and countering anti-Semitism and other forms of online hate speech. In the spring, finalists will present a “fast-pitch” to a panel of judges, modeled after the reality television series “Shark Tank.” The first-place winner will receive a $35,000 grant; the runner-up will receive $15,000.
“I spent most of my career in business, and one of the things I know is that competitions engage talented, entrepreneurial, inventive people,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL and a former corporate executive and social entrepreneur. Particularly in an age where the newly inaugurated president uses Twitter as his primary mode of communication, fully understanding the platform is essential, said Greenblatt.
“While President Trump’s use of Twitter may attract some and alienate others, the bottom line is that social media is the new battleground,” said Greenblatt, who said his experience in technology ventures makes him feel “comfortable taking ADL in this direction.”
He continued: “1.8 billion people are on Facebook — 500 million tweets are sent out every day. No matter how you cut it, it’s incredibly important to make sure we are taking the fight to where the country and the world is at. Simply put, it’s online.”
Felicia Herman, executive director of the Natan Fund, told The Jewish Week that the prize is intended not only to put an “exciting new idea into action, but to raise awareness about the issue.”
“Hearing the finalists present their ideas in a public venue will educate people about the problem,” she said. “We’re spotlighting this challenge, and offering ways to combat it.”
Though the Natan Fund has backed new media projects in the past — including Sefaria, an online library of Jewish texts — “calling out anti-Semitism” hasn’t been the only area the organization has focused on in the past.
“One of the great advantages of partnering with the ADL is that they’ve already done extensive work combatting anti-Semitism and advancing civil rights,” said Herman. “When you start fighting one kind of hatred, you end up fighting them all.”
In the week since the innovation prize was announced, they’ve already received a dozen proposals, she said. “We’re excited to see what people create.”
For the ADL, which has been battling anti-Semitism since 1913, the competition highlights an effort to rebrand. In the coming months, the ADL will be “cranking up” their focus on cyber security and combating online harassment, said Greenblatt. “The new front line is Silicon Valley,” he said. The organization just hired its first director of technology to lead the effort and will be launching a “physical presence” in the Silicon Valley later this year.
“It’s time to adapt,” said Greenblatt. “We need to use modern strategies to tackle this age-old hatred. Detractors are using technology to spread hate — we’re going to use technology to combat it.”