WASHINGTON — The Anti-Defamation League is placing a representative in Silicon Valley to work on cyber hate and harassment issues, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The move comes after significant trolling, particularly on Twitter, of Jewish journalists and other public figures, amounting to a wave of anti-Semitic expression not seen in the American conversation for decades — and as tech companies struggle to reckon with their role in regulating abusive speech.
“As a leading civil rights advocacy organization, ADL was early to recognize the burgeoning issue of cyberhate and how extremists were exploiting online platforms to spread antisemitism and target Jews as well as other minorities,” said Brittan Heller, who will become the group’s first Director of Technology and Society, in a statement. “From its first report on these cyberhate more than 30 years ago to this year’s work tracking the harassment of journalists on social media, ADL has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring our online communities are a safe and just place for all.”
Heller is a former cyber crime and human rights investigator and prosecutor, has also been a high-profile victim of online harassment. While she was at Yale Law School, she was subjected to sexual harassment on a law school messaging board. She and another student sued the board’s administrator as well as anonymous commenters for invasion of privacy and defamation. Heller and the other plaintiff settled with the defendants in 2009.
“We've really doubled down on the work that we're doing to deal with this new emerging and metastasizing trend of online harassment and cyber hate,” said ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt in an interview with BuzzFeed News, calling what has been happening on social media "breathtaking and downright scary."
The 103-year-old ADL has traditionally focused on combating anti-Semitism, an issue that has been in the spotlight this year as Donald Trump’s candidacy has had the effect of empowering online trolls. The organization conducted an online harassment survey of journalists over the summer.
"We've had some wins with companies," Greenblatt said, citing its participation in Twitter's Trust and Safety Council and its working with Google to take down the Chrome extension which enabled users to place parentheses around Jewish names, a common device employed by the alt-right. The ADL declared the parentheses used in this way to be a hate symbol.
The group has been vocal during this election cycle about highlighting the issue of online harassment, forming a task force to investigate bigoted harassment of journalists in June and participating in SXSW’s Online Harassment Summit.