Online denizens love to talk about the perils of pile-ons, how one person’s thoughtless, mistake-laden blog post or ill-considered Tweet can bring a rain of disproportionate wrath from commenters, Twitteratti — and then the whole mess will be granted an extra few days of life by the cycle thinkpiece culture. But what if the original thought wasn’t even your own? Then the hate mail and condemnation would not only be extra noxious, but it could affet your reputation, not to mention your search engine index in a terrifying way.
It seems like some enterprising white nationalists took advantage of this status quo yesterday when they posted a racist anti-Muslim screed on the Times of Israel user blogger platform, stealing the name and identity of an Australian pro-immigration lawyer, Josh Bornstein. With Israel-Palestine issues, absolutely everything but especially questions of racism and politics – is already extremely touchy. And extreme views o tend to get aired. So naturally, good people who don’t like racism started getting extremely offended by the post. Fortunately the Times of Israel was on it — retroactively.
They determined that the hoax was constructed in an elaborate manner by a “malicious imposter,” who had clearly planned to take advantage of the (perhaps questionable) open access of the Times of Israel’s blogging platform. Even more sneakily, they had copied and pasted actual articles written by Bornstein before dropping the hateful post into the system, in order to “establish credibility.” For that reason, the explanation goes, the “Times of Israel staff had no reason to suspect this was a hoax, also given that half a dozen posts were published on this blog in subsequent days, all on topic and perfectly reasonable. ”
After establishing his credibility on The Blogs platform, the imposter Thursday published a blog post that was vile and disturbing in the extreme. Shortly after it was published, we removed this blog post and the entire blog, and began investigating what had transpired. The post had also been copied to an online archive with the obvious intent of causing maximum harm.
The harm was both to discourse around Israel and Palestine issues, but also to Bornstein’s reputation. As Daniel Sieradski writes in a deeper investigation into who actually posted the piece, there have been messages on 4chan and 8chan and white nationalist sites about impersonating Jews online, and Bornstein, a human rights lawyer in Australia, was already target: “A post on the Daily Stormer website calls Bornstein a ‘Subversive Jewish parasite’ against whom they are ‘waging an all-out war.'”
Fortunately for Bornstein, he already had an online presence, and so was able to hear about the post through a series of tweets directed at him and immediately disavow the post.
But imagine if Bornstein hadn’t been active on Twitter, or easily findable online — and then imagine if the screed posted in his name had been just a tad more subtle and less obviously fishy. In such a case, the post might have stayed up for much longer and made a more lasting digital imprint under his name.
While it may be more explicitly frightening for people to be accosted by the kinds of violent online threats that make Gamergate and its ilk the holy terror that they are, this is yet another way to shut down and muddy Internet discourse.
The insidious tactics of these hoaxers, combined with the speed and fury which which online “outrages” snowball and become major scandals, are also something to be on alert for in this brave new world in which trolls adapt and change tactics.
In the end, this mini-blowup is a good reminder to all of us, particularly the pugnacious and sensitive among us, that when we see something that seems as though it were explicitly designed to gin up a high level outrage and disgust, that might actually be the case.