MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN—As I walked into the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Thursday afternoon, the chosen venue of the Anti-Defamation League’s “Never Is Now” day-long summit on anti-Semitism, no one seemed to be visibly panicking.
“Never Is Now,” which was planned (and, I assume, named) before Donald Trump’s election thawed out the rest of the United States’s dormant white supremacists, is a two-day conference featuring panels like “Violent Threats to Jewish Life in Europe” and “How Anti-Semitism Motivates Extremists.” The ADL, a century-old nonpartisan organization that aims to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, now faces a sharp resurgence in these challenges and an incoming administration that appears more-or-less openly hostile to its goals. Oddly enough, some Jews don’t seem to mind anti-Semitism so much these days; conservative Jewish organization Zionist Organization of America attacked the ADL for its “character assassination” of Steve Bannon, Trump’s newly-appointed chief strategist.
I arrived at the conference as Pepe the Frog creator Matt Furie, dressed in a short sleeved button-down emblazoned with smiling frog images, was describing to a rapt audience the meme-takeover of his “chillaxed” comic strip character by the violent, racist and sexist nationalists who call themselves the “alt right.
“It was so weird,” Furie said. During the presidential election, after finding mass fame on teen Tumblr and the social media feeds of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, Pepe began showing up on 4chan and Twitter decked out in Nazi and Klan regalia, committing violent sex crimes, and as a muscular, heavily-armed member of “The Deplorables,” a meme that eventually got retweeted by the likes of David Duke and Donald Trump, Jr.
Boy’s Club, the stoner comic strip where Pepe was born in the early aughts, was “this good-natured, funny comic book for my friends and coworkers,” Furie recalled, with a lethargic California drawl. “I’m just an artist dude.” He didn’t seem to know why a symbol of boyish nihilism, however gentle, might appeal to a homoerotic mass of vagrant mini-fascists. Furie, who told The Atlantic in September that his feelings were “pretty neutral” about Nazis co-opting his character, has evidently changed his mind; in coordination with the ADL, he’s started a #SavePepe campaign, encouraging people to share positive versions of the meme in an effort to “reclaim” it.
“If more people would chill out, I think that would be great,” Furie told the audience, to laughs. “Just scribble a cartoon frog and make him say something nice.”
The Anti-Defamation League recently came out with a report on the wild anti-Semitic harassment of journalists during the presidential campaign, which they determined targeted around 800 reporters; a lengthier report of industry recommendations to combat the online harassment of journalists was released on Thursday. Twitter, which, unlike Facebook, seems to have taken its role in American society’s recent downturn rather seriously, had several representatives at the conference. Del Harvey, Twitter’s VP of Trust & Safety, spoke to the audience about recent much-needed changes to the platform, including context training so Twitter employees can better understand what constitutes as hate speech (“What is ‘ovens’?” Harvey demonstrated).
Twitter, Harvey noted, is beginning to better understand the “trickle-down ramifications of design decisions.”
After Furie’s talk, a panel convened on “Hate Online and How to Respond,” featuring Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine, Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor of the New York Times, and Brittan Heller, the ADL’s Silicon Valley-based director of technology and society. The unspoken post-election reality—of swastikas not just on Twitter memes but on churches, subway cars—hung in the air. Rosenberg and Weisman, both on the ADL’s list of top 10 most-targeted journalists, described receiving an “absolute deluge” of anti-Semitic harassment on Twitter, including the requisite Auschwitz photoshops. Rosenberg chronicled his good-natured attempts to embarrass and undermine the alt right, suggesting that “they don’t actually believe these things.”
If a woman journalist had been onstage during this panel, she would likely have pointed out that the racist, misogynist, anti-Muslim/anti-Semitic alt right was preceded by anti-women groups like Gamergate and Men’s Right’s Activists; women have been getting harassed, doxxed, and terrorized online for years now, with little public mobilization on their behalf. Whether these are deeply held beliefs or angry whims often seems beyond the point when you’re getting threatened with something like violent rape, a prospect that we can’t quite convince ourselves is unrealistic.
“While I agree that positive counter-speech is a really good way to beat trolls at their own game, I worry that that is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” Heller told me after the panel, stretching her feet into a pair of temporary flats.
“I think saying that [Twitter harassment is] something you shouldn’t take seriously, that comes from a specific point of view,” she told me. “A lot of representatives of minority groups don’t have that luxury. If, as a woman, somebody makes repeated threats of sexual violence, laughing it off doesn’t seem as viable an option.”
Heller, who mentioned during the panel her role as a Jane Doe in a high-profile cyber harassment case 10 years ago, understands this better than most. Along with another Yale Law student, she sued a group of anonymous online commenters on Internet forum AutoAdmit for publishing violent, derogatory, sexually explicit materials and personal information about them online. “They knew I was an ‘other,’ so they threw everything at me,” Heller, who is Mexican-American and Jewish, told me. The case settled out of court in 2009, and she went on to a career at the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Criminal Court in Hague. Even today, though, she doesn’t think someone with average resources (Heller had help from pro bono Yale Law professors) would be able to wage a similar fight.
How does misogyny correlate with other forms of bigotry? I asked. “I’m interested in those venn diagrams,” Heller replied. “When you foment hate against one group, it really seems to snowball into targeting all the other groups that you feel threatened by. It gives people permission to express more of their prejudices.”