Trolls on the online forum 4chan celebrated on New Year’s Day as a fake Twitter (TWTR) account seeking to stoke tensions between Jewish and black Americans amid a string of anti-Semitic attacks in New York provoked outrage. Even as the trolls celebrated, the account went unchecked by Twitter (TWTR) for hours despite dozens of users saying they reported the account to the social media company.
The incident is more evidence of how trolls work to increase racial division in the US. It also raises questions about Twitter’s commitment to combating hate on its platform and how quickly it will respond to fake accounts seeking to stoke such divisions during an election year.
“As a fellow Jew who was frightened by the string of anti-Semitic attacks, I am frightened,” the fake account, which used the name “Elaine Goldschmidt,” tweeted Wednesday. Using the n-word to describe black Americans, “Goldschmidt” added they “were supposed to be on our side. Now, we have lost control of them.”
The account bore clear hallmarks of the kind of fake beloved by racist trolls: It used a supposedly stereotypical Jewish name, its bio contained extreme statements that trolls use to parody liberals, it was just set up on Wednesday, and its profile image was a stolen picture of a real person – a Scottish comedian who’s been a 4chan target and who did not authorize the use of her photo.
Still, the tweet picked up hundreds of likes and retweets. And Twitter users who reported the account Wednesday were told by the social media company that the account did not break its rules.
All the while, trolls on 4chan, which is known as a hotbed of online hate and is often used to coordinate the spread of hate online, celebrated Twitter’s inaction and expressed admiration for the person who set up the account.
“They’re a f***ing hero, and they’ve been going for hours. It’s incredible,” one 4chan user commented.
“The tweet was absolutely shocking,” Jessica Noah Morgan, a British journalist who is black and Jewish, told CNN Business Thursday. “Not only was it hurtful as a Jew, but seeing a fake Jew using such disgusting racist language towards black people.”
But when Morgan reported the account to Twitter the company told her the account didn’t break its rules.
“We’re writing to let you know that after reviewing the available information, we didn’t find a violation of our rules in the content you reported,” Twitter told Morgan in an email.
While Twitter did suspend the account hours later, the company’s initial decision was especially striking because, in an earlier email to Morgan, the company told her that it would have a “person on our support team” review the tweet, suggesting it was subject to more rigorous review than simply automation and artificial intelligence and still was not taken down.
In a statement to CNN Business on Thursday, Twitter said, “The account you referenced was permanently suspended. While we want people to freely express themselves on our service, the 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.”
Twitter declined to address the question of why the account was initially determined not to be in violation of its rules.
Stoking racism and anti-Semitism is par for the course for many 4chan users on some of the site’s forums. Fake Twitter accounts using stolen profile pictures are the norm, but those behind “Elaine Goldschmidt” appear to have been deliberate in the picture they chose.
The profile picture showed Janey Godley, a comedian based in Glasgow, Scotland. Godley told CNN Business Thursday that she has been the target of 4chan trolls as a result of her activism — she said she has experienced a significant uptick in online harassment since she began protesting against President Donald Trump when he was a candidate in 2016.
“It was very basically clear they were using my image, they were using anti-Semitic and racist words,” she told CNN Business, describing Twitter’s initial inaction as “unbelievable.”
Seeking to exacerbate racial and cultural divisions is a common aim of online trolls. In 2016, the Russian government-linked trolls who posed as Americans on opposing sides of political issues frequently targeted African Americans with their messaging, for instance.
Yair Rosenberg, a journalist who has tracked anti-Semitism and online trolling, summed up the situation in a tweet Wednesday, “The white supremacists on Twitter are doing what they regularly do, especially in the wake of tragedy: impersonating minorities to sow hatred and pit them against each other. Right now, we’re seeing fake Jews saying anti-black things. As ever, this is on @Twitter to deal with.”