How should the media cover the Goyim Defense League?
Should I even write about the Goyim Defense League, and if so, how?
That question pops up every time the group does, which has been often. Last week its flyers blaming Jews for COVID appeared in the East Bay city of Danville. The week before, the same flyers littered San Francisco’s upscale Pacific Heights neighborhood. This week at least one of them appeared in Toronto, tagging along with the anti-vaccine mandate truck convoy.
I know this because each time it happens, coverage follows in the local and Jewish press, and in countless social media posts. A toxic ecosystem has developed in which the flyers feed the press, which brings notoriety to the flyer-makers, who make more flyers.
In organic gardening you call that a closed loop. Of course, in this metaphor, the flyers are the manure. But who are the gardeners?
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The uncomfortable answer is that social media and legacy media, including the Jewish press, are instrumental in spreading the manure and planting these seeds of hate.
The more attention and money the people behind the flyers get, the more uneasy the targets of the hate speech feel.
The group first attracted headlines in August 2020, when it unfurled banners from an I-405 freeway overpass in Los Angeles that read: “Honk if you know the Jews want a race war.”
Jweekly reporter Gabe Stutman followed with profiles of the group’s leader, a Petaluma man named Jon Minadeo, Jr., who livestreams on the Goyim TV website, where he solicits online donations as he maintains that “Jews are responsible for the world’s evils.”
I should stop here and point out, in case you are wondering, that none of the accusations the group makes are true. Jews are not behind COVID and they did not manipulate the disease to profit off the vaccine.
When the group’s flyers appeared in Beverly Hills last November, the Forward’s L.A.-based correspondent Louis Keene wrote a long news story on the community and law enforcement reaction.
Since then the flyers have appeared in Alabama, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Vermont and, this week, San Antonio, Texas. In many cases, the flyers were tucked into plastic bags that were weighted with dry beans or rice.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group is “a loose network of individuals connected by their virulent antisemitism” and “includes five or six primary organizers/public figures, dozens of supporters and thousands of online followers.”
There’s only one way a small number of people who spend their precious earthly hours filling plastic bags with beans, rice and B.S. can get an enormous amount of attention: media.
This disturbing fact came up at a Forward editorial meeting this week, as it should. News organizations big and small need to grapple with their role in amplifying hate and inadvertently helping hate groups grow. At the meeting, Jake Wasserman, our social media engagement editor, pointed me to a study by Whitney Phillips in the journal “Data and Society” that directly addressed this dilemma.
Hate groups, Phillips wrote, “don’t have the numbers to steer the cultural conversation on their own, and they should not be given any assistance, inadvertent or otherwise, in these efforts.” Extremist groups, Phillips points out, have become savvy “media manipulators,” using journalists to spread their message.
This is an especially fraught question for Jewish news organizations like ours, because the flyers are appearing amid an increase in violent antisemitic attacks and a consequent increased fear in our communities. We need to be able to uncover and report the facts behind the fear; to assess, not parrot, statistics; and to verify and provide context for stories, not simply echo them.
In the case of those ubiquitous flyers, they are simply no longer new news, and we need to be careful not to be the unwitting handmaidens to hate.
A version of this column appeared in the Forward’s weekly newsletter “Letter from California.” To receive it, sign up here.