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The Dark Side of the Web: The Battle against Anti-Semitism on Social Media

March 11, 2021

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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The coronavirus has instigated a new world in which much of daily life is done online: work, shopping, fellowship and for some, voicing hate. Amid real concern about transparency and double standards, the treatment of Jews and Israel online remains a disturbing sore spot even as tech giants such as Twitter and Facebook try to do more to monitor content. Some progress has been made, but social media companies have not yet effectively reined in anti-Semitism online. And the results can be deadly.

The Scope

According to reports by the UK-based group Community Security Trust (CST), online anti-Semitism has set a new record during the first half of 2020. “Social media is the main location and transmitter of anti-Semitism today,” said Dave Rich, the head of Policy at CST. “It is where extremists coordinate their activities and encourage each other, and where anti-Semites find it easiest to directly target Jewish people with hate.”

In its January–June 2020 anti-Semitism report, CST recorded 344 online incidents of anti-Semitism—including 313 on social media—during that six-month period. That was just slightly less than the 58-incident-per-month pace for all of 2019 and the most CST has ever recorded for the first six months of a year. What’s worse, that’s “only the tiniest tip of the iceberg and does not reflect the true scale of the problem,” Rich explained. Indeed, this only reflects incidents reported to the CST where either the victim or the offender is in the UK, and it treats each online hate “campaign” as a single incident rather than tracking every post.

As a simplistic sample of the reality of online hate toward Jews, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in the US published a report in 2020 recording a shocking 5,954 tweets considered “potentially anti-Semitic” sent to 30 Jewish members of the US Congress over the course of a single month.

At the same time, 2020 could have been much worse, noted the CST report. With most of public life shut down in COVID lockdowns, the January–June 2020 CST report said there was fear that anti-Semitism would spike online. Instead, it merely continued the disturbing-enough trend of years past.

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry, in its annual anti-Semitism report summarized by the Jerusalem Post in January, noted that efforts by social media companies to police their sites had led to a decline in anti-Semitic posts, even as it increased online overall in 2020. This included a 50% drop on Twitter from 2018–2020. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn failed to answer requests for comments for this article. 

The Struggle

Social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have made major headlines in the last year over their efforts to crack down on online content. But while they went so far as to shut down the account of then-US President Donald Trump for allegedly inspiring trouble, their efforts in fighting anti-Semitism don’t appear to be as robust. In the ADL’s 2020 report—which looked at tweets from July 23 to August 22, 2020—7% of the posts used what was considered “explicitly anti-Semitic language.” However, at the time of ADL publishing its report more than six weeks later, Twitter had yet to remove those posts.

Indeed, in late January, multiple anti-Semitic Twitter posts about “Zionists”—a term used for Israel by the Jewish state’s enemies—from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could still be found. While one recent post on the Iranian supreme leader’s feed was blocked at the time of writing this article—without an explanation aside from it violating Twitter’s guidelines—Twitter has not shut down the account, even though it says the “fake Zionist regime will perish” and slams the “filthy Zionist agents of the U.S.”—such as the “Jewish member of Trump’s family,” referring to then-White House advisor Jared Kushner, in response to the Israel–United Arab Emirates peace deal.

In January, ADL released a report in which they review the approach to Holocaust denial by 10 major social media entities, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, grading the entities ranging from a top score of A to a failing F grade. Just one entity, Twitch, received even a B grade. Twitter and YouTube were among those with C grades, and Facebook/Instagram received a D. The project, which searched for Holocaust denial and then reported it to the platform’s online content review process, found that just two of the entities, Twitter and Twitch, even took action against the Holocaust denial content. Furthermore, none of the entities explained their reasoning for their action aside from saying a post either did or did not violate the platform’s policies. The ADL conclusion, among other things, was that more transparency from the social media platforms was needed.

“The main platforms have definitely improved their efforts to remove hate content, including anti-Semitism, but there is still much work to be done,” Rich said. “A significant amount of anti-Semitism does not meet their threshold for removal, and the processes for removing anti-Semitic content don’t always work as well as they should.”

The Solution

Israeli Knesset [Parliament] Member Michal Cotler-Wunsh in November 2020 told the Times of Israel that education with social media tags for additional information on problematic posts, rather than censorship, was the answer. In the summer of 2020, Chief UK Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis promoted a two-day boycott of social media in response to Twitter and Instagram failing to address anti-Semitism from a popular music artist, according to the Guardian. Rich said that public pressure such as this “can help move this debate forward,” but he believes that “ultimately only government regulation can bring about the fundamental changes that are necessary.”

The threat is so much more than virtual. The BBC, in its coverage of the 2019 Yom Kippur massacre in Germany, noted that the murderer was radicalized on the internet, posted his anti-Semitic ravings online, and even live-streamed his attack. “Online hate plays a significant, practical role in the glorification, encouragement and organization of terrorism, whether by jihadists or neo-Nazis,” Rich warned. “It has a significant and, at times, deadly real-world impact and should not be downplayed.”

Photo Credit: Maxim-Apryatin/shutterstock.com

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