Antisemitism on social media

June 24, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Antisemitism on social media and what to do about it was the focus of the latest webinar from the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

Emily Schrader

Guest speaker, digital marketing expert  Emily Schrader, has led social media for StandWithUs, creating content that reached 108 million people in one week alone, and has worked with the Israeli Government, the IDF and numerous NGOs and political candidates.

She noted a significant resurgence in white supremacism over the past few years especially. They use social media to build networks and to recruit and miseducate people. They favour lesser-known platforms such as Gab, 4chan and Telegram over the mainstream ones such as Facebook, but use those too.

The major white supremacist groups favour Facebook groups rather than pages, because groups are harder to monitor, and adopt tactics to avoid the algorithms Facebook uses to monitor hate speech, such as using slight variations of keywords.

Facebook tries to redirect those using keywords to search for neo-Nazis to pages that counter them, but this hasn’t worked, and Facebook algorithms direct people to content they may like, so once someone accesses one racist site, Facebook will direct them to others.

Under social media algorithms, more people see something the more comments it gets and the more people who talk about it.

Schrader explained that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have latched on to Zionism as a replacement term for Judaism to escape censorship. For example, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke blamed “Israel and the Zionist elite” for COVID-19, and it was not removed because even though it’s clearly antisemitic, it’s ostensibly about Israel.

The BDS movement and hostile states also use social media to demonise Israel, for example by comparing Israel to the coronavirus.

Classic antisemitic tropes such as Jews having dual-loyalty are never taken down, and get hundreds of comments that are textbook antisemitism. There is also lots of use of derogatory terms such as “Zio” for Jews.

Another widespread theme is comparing Israel to Nazis, by, for example, replacing a Star of David with a swastika. The working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) includes this as an example of antisemitism, but again, such posts are never removed.

Content about Israel is also liable to attract a stream of antisemitism. For example, a Snapchat story about Tel Aviv drew hundreds of photos of Adolf Hitler on Twitter.

Another growing trend is state-sponsored antisemitism. Turkey is one of the largest producers of fake accounts, some of which are antisemitic or strongly anti-Israel. Iranian fake accounts include antisemitism, Holocaust denial and virulent attacks on Israel.

Individuals are responding to the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) controversy by attacking Jews, despite Jewish organisations having been supportive of the BLM movement. Other themes getting significant traction include the comparison of coronavirus to Jews and Israel, world-wide Zionist puppets, and rabbis using COVID-19 to make money. The hashtag #COVID-48 to say Israel or Jews are acting like the virus was popular but seems to have died down now that attention has been drawn to it.

The most disturbing thing, Schrader says, is the responses on social media. For example, she tweeted that Jews are not the enemy of the BLM movement, and received 126 responses, almost all hostile including 20 that were horribly antisemitic. She reported the latter to Twitter, but none were removed.

The BDS movement latched onto BLM within hours of the protests starting, claiming without any factual basis that the US police were trained by Israel to use improper tactics, and then pressing for divestment from Israel because the knee on the neck restraint is supposedly used by Israel against Palestinians – a claim that is completely untrue and perpetuates antisemitism.

Schrader explained that social media platforms regard hate speech terms as violations. For example, Facebook has its “community standards”. However, these are really lacking when it comes to antisemitism.

Google/YouTube remove Holocaust denial, and Twitter only removes some outright denial but not revisionism or claims that Jews benefit financially from the Holocaust, even when they incite violence.

However, Facebook doesn’t remove Holocaust denial, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg having said, “I’m Jewish, and there’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find that deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong.”

However, Schrader adds, Holocaust denial is not free speech, it is incitement and purposeful misinformation, so if Facebook is trying to stop fake news, as it claims, it should remove Holocaust denial.

Antisemitic tropes, she says, tend not to be removed because they don’t fit into the social media networks’ rubric of what antisemitism is, even though “you’re continuing to perpetuate conspiracy theories, you’re continuing to perpetuate misinformation about Jews, and all of this is spreading hatred and creating a culture that builds hostility to the Jewish people.”

For example, a Louis Farrakhan tweet that proclaimed “I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m anti-Termite” took a long time for Twitter to remove. Other examples include the classical antisemitic trope alleging use by Jews of children’s blood.

Conspiracy theories such as Israel having created COVID-19 to make money and posts that mask straight up antisemitism as anti-Zionism are also generally not removable. The networks, Schrader says, need a new approach, including acknowledging that anti-Zionism often is antisemitism.

She adds that social media platforms should also adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism and use a pro-active approach. They seem to be able to be vigilant against hatred against other groups but not so for antisemitism.

She says it’s important to get involved and notes the two groups that get the most hate on social media are Jews and the LGBT community.

The campaign she is most proud of was during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge military campaign in Gaza in 2014. She encouraged people to send photos of themselves holding their passports and saying they support Israel against Hamas. She had more than 2,500 such responses from 147 countries, including some from the West Bank and Iran saying it was not acceptable to say so where they live, but they support Israel and condemn Hamas. This gave Israelis hope.

While she has never found taking on the hate speech to be physically risky, she does get many negative responses, and enduring lots of nasty attacks can be very draining. She said people who want to get involved should report every time they see antisemitic content, or join groups that do so in a more co-ordinated way, or that correct the record where necessary.

When considering how to respond to a post, Schrader points out that the more likes or retweets a comment receives, the higher it goes on the page. She, therefore, recommends responding to a good comment to get that comment amplified, so everyone who looks at the original post or tweet will see it.

Anti-Israel material should be responded to, but antisemitic material should just be reported, and people can work with other groups to get it removed. If Facebook doesn’t remove an antisemitic post, tweet about it on Twitter, and if Twitter leaves an antisemitic tweet, post about it on Facebook, because they do pay attention to each other, and the more chatter that can be made without promoting the objectionable content, the better.

On responding to the antisemites on the lesser-known platforms such as Gab, Schrader suggests pressuring the host networks. They are private companies and therefore have no obligation to protect free speech, so it is within their rights to remove content they see as unacceptable. Governments should do more to pressure and crackdown on incitement to violence, because, for example, Arabic incitement leads directly to stabbing attacks.

Comedy, such as satirising the hate speech, can also be an effective way to combat it.

She mentioned that Facebook recently implemented an oversight board and announced the first 20 of what is to be 40 members. The board is intended to protect human rights even above Facebook’s business interests. However, she added, some members of that board are very questionable, while others are good. One member, for example, has a Muslim Brotherhood background and is a friend of Turkey and Qatar. This, she says, could turn out well or very badly.

She says organising shareholder action to pressure the platforms on these issues can and should be done.

Asked whether the far left or the far right were the biggest problem, she said the far right is a bigger problem on Twitter where there is a “ton of neo-Nazis” and on the non-traditional platforms, while on Facebook the bigger problem is Arabic antisemitism and the far left, including BDS and other anti-Israel activity. Some examples of antisemitism are common to all these groups, such as conflating Israel with Jews.

Finally, asked whether people’s minds are being changed by all this activity, she said that pro-Israel efforts do make a difference, because the pro-Israel view is outnumbered, and the algorithms use numbers. If Israel’s supporters don’t engage, the other side will have the monopoly, and there are lots of young people who get their news from social media.

It is very dangerous to have no voice at all, and you never know who will see a response to a biased or unfair article that will change the way they understand the issue.  “It’s important to say the truth when you know the truth and to fight back when you see lies,” she concluded.

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