Trending swastikas spark anti-Semitic deluge on Twitter

Tens of thousands of users worldwide publish messages on the social network featuring the Nazi symbol; Jewish group to seek a ban on its use

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

One of controversial German artist Erich Klahn's paintings,
One of controversial German artist Erich Klahn's paintings,

A controversial Twitter trend featuring the unprecedented use of the swastika as a typewritten character has erupted on the social network.

“#卐卐卐” emerged as a popular phrase on the social network site in several countries and snowballed into a phenomenon. Analysis of the hashtagged phrase yielded 63,537 mentions on Twitter on Sunday alone.

Jewish groups told The Times of Israel they were outraged by the phenomenon, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center said it would seek to have the symbol barred from Twitter.

A host of messages including overtly anti-Semitic and White Supremacist statements tagged with #卐卐卐 gained broad publicity on the social network. Some messages employed wordplay to make light of the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Others endorsed the murder of Jews or mimicked themes associated with Germany’s National Socialist party.

Sieg Heils accompanied by the hakenkreuz piled up.

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One of the most popular messages was posted by FillWerrell, a user with over 1,700,000 followers, who feigned shock at the trend’s emergence:

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By Tuesday afternoon, FillWerrell’s message had been retweeted over 7,000 times and marked as a favorite by over 3,000 users.

Less amusing was a popular tweet by Yalienn, a user who claims to hail from London. She tweeted a disconcertingly erroneous message on Sunday:

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Her top-ranked comment was retweeted 1,961 times since, with many correcting her regarding the swastika’s association with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party and not with al-Qaeda.

Adolf Hitler, or at least his Twitter avatar, took a central role in perpetuating this phenomenon. DictatorHitler, a user with over 100,000 followers — over 3,000 of whom began following him since the trend erupted — took advantage of the icon’s popularity on Twitter to disseminate statements making light of the Holocaust. DictatorHitler on Sunday announced to his horde of followers:

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Riding the wave of the trend’s popularity, DictatorHitler published a spate of anti-Semitic statements meant to belittle the Holocaust.

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One user replied: “6,000,000 jews :).”

DictatorHitler said he did not start the trend, but was glad to see that “all of Twitter is a bunch of Hitler Youth.”

Stunned Twitter users expressed their dismay over the trend, with many expressing shock over the fact that the symbol, whose use is illegal in Germany, was unchecked on the social network. One user rhetorically queried:

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Twitter denies block trending subjects from the site, according to a statement published in the New York Daily News in 2010. Earlier in 2012 Twitter banned Guy Adams, The Independent’s Los Angeles bureau chief, for bad-mouthing the NBC’s coverage of the London Olympics and publishing an NBC exec’s email address. 

This year the website introduced a controversial country-specific censorship algorithm to withhold banned content from users. Despite the legal ban in Germany on the use of the swastika, however, Twitter’s censorship algorithm did not block the anti-Semitic posts from German IP addresses. A source in Berlin told The Times of Israel that a Twitter search for #卐卐卐 yielded identical results as those conducted elsewhere.

Jewish advocacy groups contacted by The Times of Israel denounced the swastika’s emergence on Twitter.

“This is an example of the power and scope of social media,” Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, said on Tuesday. “It becomes a very dangerous thing when it comes to anti-Semitism.”

Zuroff said the swastika was offensive and “universally acknowledged as a Nazi symbol” and “if anything should be removed from Twitter, it is this.” He said the organization’s US office would pursue the matter.

“The fact that it is now trending on Twitter is outrageous, and a sad reminder of how we need to continue to educate young people about the history and meaning of Nazi symbols and why they are so hurtful,” Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Times of Israel.

Jewish actor Zach Braff offered a glimmer of hope and defiance by announcing a day-long boycott of Twitter on Sunday because of the trend.

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