Thanks to a Mic article about it that was published last week, a Chrome extension called Coincidence Detector has gotten a fair amount of attention over the last few days. Coincidence Detector is extremely creepy: It draws on a database of names of (purported) Jews and automatically adds Jew-parentheses around those names when they show up in the user’s browser. “John Smith,” to take an unlikely example, would show up as “(((John Smith)))” — a winking in-joke among online anti-Semites (particularly alt-righters) indicating that, hey, this guy is Jewish.
“The extension has 2,473 users and boasts a rating of 5 out of 5 stars,” noted Mic. “It is connected to a database of names that is regularly updated.” The article also explained that the “coincidence” part is ironic, in the sense of It sure is a coincidence there are so many Jewish people in positions of power. (After the Mic article, Google yanked Coincidence Detector down from its extension marketplace.)
For anyone who is Jewish (I am), there is a dark, murderous history to the practice of maintaining lists of Jews — a history that stretches back through millennia of persecution, pogroms, mass murder, and forced migration. So it’s completely understandable why some might find this extension scary.
And yet: I wish people would ignore garbage like this. Nobody gains anything by panicking about it, and there’s solid reason to think it will only rile up trolls who have shown little evidence of exhibiting any offline power or influence.
This is a delicate argument, so it’s important to be really specific: Obviously, it is vital to vigilantly monitor anti-Semitism in the U.S. and everywhere else. This is especially true now, given that in recent years it has become increasingly difficult to be Jewish in Europe, where hatred of Jews is disturbingly common both in some of the recently resurgent far-right parties clawing to power in the recession-scarred E.U. political landscape and among certain subsets of the continent’s growing Muslim population. So I’m all for raising the alarm bells about any sign of rising anti-Semitism — any attack on a Jew or a synagogue should get coverage. “Never forget” may be a cliché, but it’s an important imperative that can’t ever be, well, forgotten.
But when it comes to the world of anonymous online fuckery, there’s a line to be walked. It really is quite easy for faceless jerks who don’t represent anyone to get more attention than they warrant by targeting cultural pressure points pertaining to harassment, hatred, and so forth. In this case, all we know is that some asshole made a list of Jews and an extension drawing on that list, and that a grand total of less than 3,000 other assholes around the world downloaded it, with the end result being … some parentheses were added to a bunch of names. Maybe some of the extension’s users then tweeted at the Jewish figures whose names were parenthesized, I guess, but the extension itself didn’t even do anything to its targets — all it did was puke up some stupid parentheses, at which point the user presumably chuckled to himself and hit refresh on a Stormfront forum.
When it comes to app and extension downloads, 3,000 isn’t all that far off, statistically, from zero. Very few people downloaded this extension. If I told you that there are anti-Semitic people in the world who make lists of Jews, that wouldn’t surprise you (hell, do a Google search for “Jew list” and you’ll find stuff as old as the internet itself). If I told you that there are enough of them that 3,000 would download a Chrome extension feeding on their obsession, that wouldn’t surprise you either. It’s unclear, in short, exactly what new or newsworthy threat Coincidence Detector represents that would lead anyone to be all that concerned about it. That doesn’t mean Mic shouldn’t have covered it — in both the Coincidence Detector article and another one they published last week explaining Jew-parentheses, authors Cooper Fleishman and Anthony Smith did some valuable excavation of the worst corners of the internet — but rather than that we need to develop some perspective. Given how easy it is for anyone to spew hatred online, we need to be better at triaging, better at discerning strains of hatred that demand a forceful response from those which are best ignored. Coincidence Detector, gross as it is, sat firmly in the latter category.