Social Media Is The New Frontier Of Anti-Semitism
The 892 anti-Semitic incidents recorded by Britain’s Community Security Trust (CST) between January and June of this year set another unfortunate record. A rise of 10% compared to the same period in 2018, the uptick indicates not only that anti-Semitism in Britain is becoming evermore pervasive, but also that inside the Jewish community there is an ever-increasing awareness of the importance of reporting to authorities instances of anti-Semitism that previously would have been swept under the rug.
Beyond the headline figure, the CST’s report also confirms something that surveys of Jewish opinion have been indicating for some years now, going back to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ study of European Jewish life published in 2012: that the internet is the new frontline in the struggle against anti-Semitism.
It is the space where Jews, in particular those with a public profile, are now most likely to encounter anti-Semitism in their everyday lives. Of those 892 incidents, 323 were reports of online anti-Semitism. (By way of context, the CST recorded 384 online anti-Semitic incidents in the whole of 2018.)
Above expressions of anti-Semitic hostility in the streets, vandalism of Jewish buildings, and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, when surveyed by the FRA in 2018 European Jews considered anti-Semitism on the internet, including social media, to be the foremost manifestation of Jew-hatred in the countries in which they lived.
In France, a shocking 95% of Jews responded that online anti-Semitism was a big problem; in Poland and Belgium, 92%. “The internet is polluted by anti-Semitism,” a French respondent in their 60s told the FRA, while a Dutch woman in her early 30s said “on social media, anti-Semitism runs wild.”
The internet has made it easier to be anti-Semitic. Where once Holocaust deniers had to print pamphlets and organize conferences, now social media acts as a free platform for the dissemination of their pseudo-academic and pseudo-intellectual ideas. It is far easier to open a Twitter account and find prominent Jews to harass online than it is go out in the street and deface a synagogue or a gravestone, or find a Jew to spit at. Indeed, the internet made it possible for new, quasi-fascistic movements like the American alt-right and the Islamic State to flourish, propagandize, and, in the case of the former, take power.
Social media in particular, the CST concludes, has proven itself to be an “essential and convenient vessel, through which those who wish to harass, abuse, and threaten Jewish individuals and institutions, as well as those who simply wish to disseminate their prejudice, are able to freely express their anti-Semitism.”
The lack of accountability and the possibility of anonymity — especially on that well-known cesspit of anti-Semitism, Twitter — contribute to the rise in online anti-Semitism, having removed from over the heads of the abusers the threat that there might be any consequences to their actions. Social media accounts provide a mask behind which anti-Semites can hide.
The explosion in online anti-Semitism shows that thinking about it as something less real, less threatening, as distinct from other forms of anti-Semitism, is increasingly futile. In Britain, there was a clear uptick in recorded instances of online abuse in February and March of this year — precisely the time when the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal was back in the news.
The political and media discourse fueled debate online, especially on social media, creating situations in which people were likely to get into arguments that would allow anti-Semites to interject and express themselves.
But of course, part of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem is that members and activists have been discovered harassing its Jewish MPs online or posting anti-Semitic comments in closed Facebook groups, the uncovering of which then, in turn, prompts further discussion of anti-Semitism in politics and in the media.
This same relationship is observable, for example, when American politicians give speeches in poorly-coded anti-Semitic language or tweet anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros. Far from being separate realms, the physical and the virtual worlds feed one another.
Though there may not necessarily be more anti-Semites than there were before, the virtual realm makes it easier to access anti-Semitic ideas and for anti-Semites to assert themselves and make their presence felt.
“Social media means that dozens of anti-Semites can send thousands of anti-Semitic tweets to the same Jew, leaving them feeling as if the world wants them dead,” Dave Rich wrote after the publication of the CST’s findings. If your phone “is full of people telling you that you are a ‘dirty Zio whore’ who deserves to die,” then anti-Semitism naturally becomes something that feels inescapable, a constant presence in your everyday life. A threat is a threat, no matter the form it takes.
When it comes to dealing with online abuse, be it misogyny, homophobia, or anti-Semitism, too often the onus is placed on the abused to do the work of the social media companies. It is for the victim to act as the enforcer: to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitic comments; to mute or block anti-Semitic users; to leave replies and personal messages unanswered; to apply stringent criteria to those who appear in their mentions, filtering out new users, users without profile pictures, or those with fewer followers, all of whom are, after all, more likely to be abusive. Social media remains a kind of Wild West where disputes have to be settled by the participants themselves one way or another.
It is the duty of social media companies to police the spaces they have created and from which they handsomely profit. Yet instead of showing an interest in this extremely important work, these cash-laden behemoths are more concerned about cosmetic changes to their products or misguided efforts to foster community that will ultimately backfire.
In particular, Facebook’s pivot to groups will prove to be a disaster. Those who have followed Labour’s aforementioned anti-Semitism crisis understand the hatred, libels, and falsehoods that are all too easily spread in hermetic Facebook groups where there is no one around to challenge people’s bigotry and ignorance.
If these companies would have it, though it can feel at times like a horrible game of whack-a-mole, online anti-Semitism is something that we, at the very least, do have some idea of how to contain: by shutting down the accounts of anti-Semites and driving them off of these platforms. Yet online anti-Semitism continues to thrive, and the number of reported incidents grow, precisely because social media platforms wish to tolerate as opposed to tackle it.
Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist and critic based in Vienna.