Sparks fly over anti-Semitic tweets in France

After an explosion of anti-Jewish posts on Twitter in France, the Anti-Defamation League contends that it's too hard for users to report offensive tweets. Twitter begs to differ.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
A firestorm of controversy recently broke out in France over anti-semitic tweets. Illustration by James Martin/CNET

A controversy over an explosion of anti-Semitic tweets in France has raised complaints that Twitter makes it too hard for users to report offensive posts.

Over the last week, Twitter has been awash in anti-Semitic French-language tweets tied to the hashtag "#unbonjuif" ("a good Jew"), prompting arguments that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, are cesspools of objectionable content (article in French).

Among the many objectionable tweets posted using the hashtag, according to France's Le Monde, were "#UnBonJuif est un juif mort," translated as "A good Jew is a dead Jew;" and "est cuit thermostat 6," suggesting Jews should be cooked at high temperatures.

Of course, this isn't the first time a social media service's protections of users' freedom of expression has raised hackles. A recent example, of course, is the YouTube video that was said to insult the Prophet Muhammad, and which led to outrage in some corners of the Muslim world.

Now, the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League has put out a release contending that, though Twitter does offer ways to report offensive tweets, it's cumbersome to do so. "When free expression crosses the line into speech that society recognizes as an affront to individuals' human dignity and as thinly-veiled calls for violence," wrote ADL national director Abraham Foxman in the release, "then the service provider has a responsibility to establish acceptable boundaries."

In an interview, ADL Cyberhate Response Project Director Robert Trestan said that the problem with Twitter is that in order to report an offensive tweet, "you have to drill down into their help center. If you see an offensive tweet, you can't just click right then and there to flag it."

Trestan said that the ADL wants Twitter to match what the organization sees as other social networks' and online services' simple steps for reporting posts. And in the release, the ADL contended that, "Unlike YouTube and Facebook, Twitter has no terms of service or community standards that address aggressive or malicious behavior on the service... Twitter does not provide even the most basic 'flagging' mechanism for complaints, which is widely used on the experienced platforms run by Google and Facebook."

Indeed, there is no immediate way to flag a tweet or a user, at least not on Twitter.com. In some Twitter clients, such as Twitter's own TweetDeck, it is possible to quickly flag tweets as spam.

But according to Twitter, the ADL is mistaken in its contention that users have no way to easily report offending content. For one, the company said, a simple Google search for, say, "Report Twitter behavior," turns up several different methods for reporting, or flagging, abusive posts or users.

Twitter also said that it is concerned with egregious user behavior and can, and sometimes does, take action against perpetrators of such activity. For one, the company said that it can police trending topics, proactively removing any such terms that are considered offensive from its highly-influential real-time list of popular subjects, such as "swastika."

But Twitter has long worked to protect users' expression whenever it can, and the company said that by itself, there's nothing about a term like "good Jew" that's inherently anti-semitic . In a case like the one in France, it's up to users to report abusive tweets, the company contended, and it won't necessarily take action unless such posts would be illegal in the country where the tweet was reported. If it is, Twitter might delete the tweet and issue a warning, or if it's from a repeat offender, ban that person's account altogether.