Itâs a lamentable turn that Twitter says it is urgently working to address.
Soon after Twitter took its place in the tech-driven media revolution a decade ago, it proved to be a forceful amplifier of ideas and personalities, one that could be a political game changer. Its role in enabling the Arab Spring movements remains inspirational. It helped foster bottom-up movements like the Tea Party and Black Lives Matter here in the United States. And, of course, it helped make possible the outsider candidacy of Donald J. Trump, who continues to use it, er, aggressively.
The back-and-forth over his candidacy, and the news mediaâs coverage of it, have added a new cache of material to the uglier side of Twitterâs oeuvre.
More often than not, the venom comes from pseudonymous accounts â the white hoods of our time.
Just take a gander at @Bridget62945958, who published a series of anti-Semitic posts against my colleague Binyamin Appelbaum. One message showed a series of lampshades. Its caption read: âThis is your family when Trump wins. Get your Israeli passport ready.â
Twitter suspended the account after Mr. Appelbaum brought it to the attention of Twitterâs co-founder and chief executive, Jack Dorsey, by way of his own Twitter feed. A new account sprang right up to continue the vitriol, prompting Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, to write a post asking Mr. Dorsey, âHow does it feel to watch Twitter turning into an anti-Semitic cesspool?â
Mr. Goldberg says he is torn about what Twitter should do, given that its cause â openness and free speech â is a reason he and so many other journalists are drawn to the service. âThatâs the fundamental problem,â he told me. âAt a certain point Iâd rather take myself off the platform where the speech has become so offensive than advocate for the suppression of that speech.â
Twitter clearly wrestles with the same fundamental problem. It warns users they may not âthreaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, genderâ and various other traits. Yet it often fumbles the enforcement. Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed News unearthed a doozy last week.
After a user who identified herself as Kathleen posted a tweet criticizing the Trump campaign, a Twitter member going by Adorable Deplorable directed a message back at her featuring a photograph of a beheaded man â apparently an ISIS victim â and the words, âYour [sic] heading for a deep hole.â
Twitter forced the photoâs removal after BuzzFeedâs inquiries, but it initially told Kathleen that the post did not violate its policies. This is apparently common. In a BuzzFeed survey of Twitter users, about 90 percent of those who said they had reported abuse said their complaints went unheeded.
So-called trolls are a problem for all social media â even Facebook, which keeps a tidier, more contained system. (To wit, the Facebook message a local New Jersey politician wrote to the Daily Beast writer Olivia Nuzzi after she posted something about Mr. Trump that he did not like: âHope. You. Get. Raped. By. A. Syrian. Refugee.â)
But the openness of Twitter, and the sheer speed and volume of information that moves through it, present a particularly hard challenge that executives there say they are rushing to meet.
âEveryone on Twitter should feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs,â the company said in a statement it sent me on Saturday. âBut behavior that harasses, intimidates or uses fear to silence another personâs voice should have no place on our platform.â
In a letter to shareholders, Mr. Dorsey said the company was putting in place technology enabling it to more readily detect abusive accounts, make it easier for users to report them and even prevent them in the first place.
Some of its moves to curtail abuse have drawn accusations that it is applying a double standard aimed at conservatives. After Twitter placed the Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos on permanent suspension for his role in the Twitter campaign against Ms. Jones, he accused it of declaring âwar on free speech,â specifically against âlibertarians, conservatives and anyone who loves mischief.â
In an interview, Mr. Johnson said he respected Twitterâs right to ban patently offensive speech but argued that it needed to set a consistent, uniformly applied standard. Still, he said, âthe problem of trollsâ might be unsolvable.
âIt might just be a human nature problem,â he said. âMaybe we donât like each other that much â and thatâs what Twitter has revealed.â
We didnât need Twitter to reveal that. And in the previous two media revolutions â radio and television â the country managed to strike some sort of accommodation between the right to free speech and the greater civic good.
That happened because there was an immediate national recognition that these media could have tremendous power to shape culture, politics and government for good and for ill.
As Herbert Hoover moved to establish basic standards for radio, he acknowledged that it had âgreat possibilities of future influenceâ but was also of âpotential public concern.â
He declared radio should be developed with public interest in mind, an idea that carried over to television. What followed were standards that forced broadcasters to devote at least some of their hours to civic affairs while avoiding obscene and âgrossly offensiveâ content. At times, the efforts have wandered dangerously into censorship. But at least there was a big national discussion about what should beam into American living rooms.
There was no similarly robust discussion at the start of this, the latest media revolution, and we can only hope that the political mistrust isnât so great that we canât have a constructive one now.
Each new media development has served as a mirror for the society that spawned it. It sure seems time for a good, hard look.
But what does this dumb, pants-soiling Jew know?