I-Team: Anti-Semitic Trolls Impersonate Rabbis, Stoking Hate after Hasidic Attacks

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What to Know

  • Social media posts from fake accounts have been spreading hateful, bigoted messages since attacks on Hasidic Jews
  • The fake accounts, which claim to be of U.S. rabbis, post messages seemingly geared at pitting Jews against African Americans
  • While the accounts were fairly easily exposed as phony, a question remains: Why don’t Twitter or Facebook block the content sooner?

Days after Grafton Thomas, a black man, was arrested for the Hanukkah slashing at Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s home in Monsey, a Twitter account calling itself “David Rothstein” wrote, “monsey stabbing was perpetrated by a black supremacist.”  He followed that up with a picture of a black man missing multiple teeth and the N-word.

The racist David Rothstein account wasn’t the only one capitalizing on a tragedy to spread hate.

In December, following a fatal mass shooting at a Jersey City kosher supermarket, another troll account called Rabbi Hezekiah of ATL was born.  After the crime, Rabbi Hezekiah tweeted, “Jewish landlords should not rent to colored people,” and “The problem Jews all over the world are facing is:  the Black Man.”

The vile, racist tweets are just a few of the toxic social media posts that went unchecked in the days and weeks following a series of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York City region.

It wasn’t difficult to decipher the troll accounts were imposters.  The profile picture for David Rothstein was actually a photo of Rabbi David Lau, one of Israel’s chief rabbis.  A link under the profile picture of Rabbi Hezekiah takes readers to the homepage of Congregation Beth Shalom, a suburban Atlanta temple whose real leader is Rabbi Mark Zimmerman, a man who preaches tolerance.

“Who we are and our views are completely antithetical to the kind of hate that’s being spread on that Twitter feed,” Zimmerman said.

But if the troll accounts were so easily exposed as phony, the question remains, why didn’t Twitter block the content immediately?

“There’s no accountability from the social media companies to look at what’s going on,” said Eric Feinberg, a Vice President at the Coalition for a Safer Web.  “These companies don’t care.  Why should they care?  Because the laws protect them, advertisers keep spending money, and the share prices keep going up.”

Feinberg, who was the first to uncover the fake “Rabbi Hezekiah” account, says he has patented technology that continuously scrapes social media feeds for hateful content.  He also sent the I-Team a series of Facebook memes labeling Hasidic people as “Fake Jews” and “jewish devils.” Feinberg has long sought to sell his technology to Twitter and Facebook, but the companies have instead focused on improving their own artificial intelligence to intercept hate speech.

“While even one post is too many, we’ve made major improvements on this,” read an emailed statement from a Facebook spokesperson.  “We’ve removed 7 million pieces of hate speech in the third quarter of 2019, 80% of which we found before someone reported it – an increase from 18 months earlier when we removed 1.6 million posts, 24% of which we found before some reported it to us.”

A similar email from Twitter’s corporate spokesperson said “Twitter Rules strongly prohibit users from promoting violence against, threatening or harassing people on the basis of race, ethnicity or other protected groups. There's always room for improvement, but we remain deeply committed to improving the health of the conversation on the service, and prioritizing the safety of our users."

Within 24 hours of the I-Team notifying inquiring about the “Rabbi Hezekiah” and “David Rothstein” accounts, Twitter suspended them, citing violations of the company’s rules.  After the I-Team notified Facebook about four posts attacking Hasidic Jewish people, the company removed two of the posts.

Rep. Max Rose (D–Staten Island) questioned why the companies didn’t block the content without prompting by a news station.

“Yes they can use artificial intelligence, but they also have to put their money where their mouth with actual human beings who are spending their days doing the tough and difficult work of getting this content off of these platforms as quickly as possible,” Rose said.

Later this month Rose has called a Congressional hearing to examine the root cause and response to an increase in anti-Semitism, including the violent attacks in Jersey City and Monsey. He is also the sponsor of the Raise the Bar Act, a bill that would install non-profit referees to make periodic assessments of how effectively social media companies are removing terrorist content from their platforms.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook commented on the bill.  Rose’s office has said discussions with the social media companies are ongoing.

Rabbi Zimmerman, the leader of the Georgia congregation that was fraudulently linked to an anti-Semitic Twitter account, implored social media companies to take more responsibility quickly blocking bigoted content.

“Does this pose a security risk?  Absolutely,” Zimmerman said.  “You just need one person suffering from mental illness or somebody who already has that hate in their heart to see this site and see our url and say ah, these are the people responsible and hold those views.”

The attorney for Grafton Thomas, the accused Hanukkah slasher, said he does suffer from mental illness.  He has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and federal hate crime charges.  The extent to which Thomas accessed social media is unclear.  Investigators have linked several anti-Semitic social media posts to the shooter who opened fire on a Jersey City kosher supermarket.

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