In the early days of the social web, putting someone's name in multiple parentheses was meant to give that person a cute virtual hug. Today, it's something far more sinister.
Neo-Nazis, anti-Semites and white nationalists have begun using three sets of parentheses encasing a Jewish surname — for instance, (((Fleishman))) — to identify and target Jews for harassment on blogs and major social media sites like Twitter. As one white supremacist tweeted, "It's closed captioning for the Jew-blind."
Jonathan Weisman, deputy Washington editor for the New York Times, wrote about his experience as a victim of this harassment in a May 26 story.
Weisman asked his harasser, @CyberTrump, to explain the symbol. "It's a dog whistle, fool," the user responded. "Belling the cat for my fellow goyim."
With the parentheses, @CyberTrump had alerted an army of trolls. The attacks that followed were sudden and unremitting. "The anti-Semitic hate, much of it from self-identified Donald J. Trump supporters, hasn't stopped since," Weisman wrote.
The origins of the symbol ((())) can be traced to a hardcore, right-wing podcast called The Daily Shoah in 2014. It's known as an "echo" in the anti-Semitic corners of the alt-right — a new, young, amorphous conservative movement that comprises trolls fluent in internet culture, free speech activists warring against political correctness and earnest white nationalists. Some use the symbol to mock Jews; others seek to expose supposed Jewish collusion in controlling media or politics. All use it to put a target on their heads.
To the public, the symbol is not easily searchable on most sites and social networks; search engines strip punctuation from results. This means that trolls committed to uncovering, labeling and harassing Jewish users can do so in relative obscurity: No one can search those threats to find who's sending them.
The origin of (((echoes)))
The symbol comes from right-wing blog the Right Stuff, whose podcast The Daily Shoah featured a segment called "Merchant Minute" that gave Jewish names a cartoonish "echo" sound effect when uttered. The "parenthesis meme," as Right Stuff editors call it, is a visual pun.
In Right Stuff propaganda, you'll often read that Jewish names "echo." According to the blog's lexicon page, "all Jewish surnames echo throughout history." In other words, the supposed damage caused by Jewish people reverberates from decade to decade.
In an email, the editors of the Right Stuff said it is also intended as a critique of "Jewish power." They explained further:
"The inner parenthesis represent the Jews' subversion of the home [and] destruction of the family through mass-media degeneracy. The next [parenthesis] represents the destruction of the nation through mass immigration, and the outer [parenthesis] represents international Jewry and world Zionism."
What ((())) looks like in action
Last week, Mic staffers became the target of anti-Semitic trolls a day after Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who has a large following of conservatives, tweeted a Mic story about Trump.
Here's how Twitter users deployed ((())) to single out Jewish members of the staff:
We got off easy — just a flood of memes in our timelines, a few "kike" insults hurled our way.
Other Jewish writers have faced more serious attacks: death threats, anti-Semitic cartoons, images of concentration camp ovens and executed Jews, threatening emails, even home phone calls.
"With the cat belled, the horde was unleashed," Weisman wrote of his experience. One tweet he received included a photo of the gates of Auschwitz with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" slogan of the Nazi death camp replaced with "Machen Amerika Great," a clumsy translation of Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again."
"I get plenty of anti-Semitic things, but this was different," said Michael, a Jewish journalist who was targeted by right-wing trolls in 2015 following a story he wrote that was critical of the GOP. (Michael asked Mic to use only his first name to protect his family.)
"[The echo] is a way of bringing attention to people who are Jewish — intimidating," Michael said. "They try to threaten."
Michael received "awful cartoons," animated GIFs of Hitler with the caption "Don't you miss me?" and photos of Nazis killing Jews in Eastern Europe. Trolls threatened him: "'When the time comes, the Jews are going to be in trouble, lined up,'" Michael recalls. "That kind of tone. Random shit by people thinking it's funny Jews were being targeted."
Michael said he blocked about 100 accounts during the onslaught.
Hate speech and the election
In a phone call, Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism, said he's seen a "spike in hate speech and the harassment of journalists, in particular Jewish journalists" this election cycle.
According to Segal and other social-justice advocates who keep tabs on racist groups and hate speech, the jingoism of Trump's presidential campaign has fueled this sort of harassment. Trump's xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and policy proposals have resonated with the rebellious, belligerent, flag-waving alt-right.
"They've been on a tear," Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a phone call. "You can't publish something about Trump right now and have any inclination of being Jewish without being trolled to hell."
Beirich called for Trump to denounce the anti-Semitic harassment conducted in his name. "This is the most racist invective that's been directly involved in a presidential campaign in the last 16 years," she said. "It's frightening how cavalier Trump has been about these people."
How have these trolls been able to hide harassment in plain sight?
Partially because the ((())) symbol is difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary users to search for. When you try using Twitter's search engine with the query "((()))", you get the following:
If you try to search for "(((Last Name)))," Twitter's search engine strips the results of the parentheses, yielding every single result for the last name, the sheer size of which obscures instances of the symbol being used.
Try searching for random combinations of parentheses on Twitter, Reddit or Google. Try searching Google for "site:twitter.com '((('" or a similar query. Try looking for (((Mic))) in a Google search. The results drop the parentheses from the search.
Filtering is possible using the app TweetDeck, which has the ability to mute punctuation like parentheses. But the larger issue is the Twitter community's ability to identify and police hate speech. Singling out a particular method of harassment is more difficult when Twitter has to rely on users reporting single tweets, rather than being able to search for everyone who's using the construction. A spotlight on ((())) would let users and Twitter developers shut down the problem much faster.
Twitter needs better tools to curb hate speech
On Tuesday, Twitter, Facebook, Google and Microsoft partnered with the European Union to crack down on online hate speech, pledging to delete offensive comments on their respective platforms in under 24 hours.
Asked about users targeting Jewish people, a Twitter representative directed Mic to a statement by Karen White, Twitter's head of public policy for Europe: "Hateful conduct has no place on Twitter and we will continue to tackle this issue head on alongside our partners in industry and civil society," she said.
Twitter Rules, an extension of the company's Terms of Service, forbid its users from "incit[ing] or engag[ing] in the targeted abuse or harassment of others." Users are required to agree to these rules when they sign up for the social media site.
At the same time, Twitter also pledged to protect free speech on its network. "We remain committed to letting the tweets flow," White said. "However, there is a clear distinction between freedom of expression and conduct that incites violence and hate."
Twitter declined to address why the symbol is unsearchable on its platform, if a hate-speech filter would detect it or if the company plans to categorize the symbol as hate speech at all.
Users wary of the social network silencing unpopular views responded by launching the hashtag #IStandWithHateSpeech, which began to trend Tuesday night. "[Social justice warriors] are infecting society with their made-up terms," one user wrote.
Coded hate speech like ((())) may not be searchable, but it is public; tweets containing it can be reported to Twitter for abuse and shut down. This will not stop abusers from simply creating new accounts, and it will not stop other users from swarming on victims once they've been identified using the ((())) symbol — a method of abuse known as "dogpiling."
In 2014, the group Women, Action and the Media reviewed hundreds of Twitter harassment reports and recommended several measures to help curb the problem. To address dogpiling, WAM recommended that Twitter grant users the ability to report multiple accounts at once and to filter abusive content from their timelines. Twitter now lets users flag multiple tweets in one report.
Whether they know it or not, Neo-Nazis on Twitter have discovered a brilliant loophole — a code that's difficult to filter whose meaning incites waves of hate before the target realizes what's happening. Jewish writers can report those tweets all they want, but the damage ((())) sets into motion may only be beginning.