New media need a new approach to anti-Semitism

Why should something condemned by society were it published in print suddenly become legitimate simply because it appears on-line?

April 27, 2010 23:25
4 minute read.
Screenshots of an anti-Israel Facebook group with

anti israel facebook group 311. (photo credit: screenshot)


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The US Congress and the Italian parliament deserve credit; last week both held hearings into combatting on-line anti-Semitism. The differing testimony, however, highlights the gap between the US and the rest of the world. As one of the experts to appear before the Italian parliament, I had the opportunity to focus on the heart of the problem and to explore the ineffectiveness of the approach advocated to Congress just days earlier.

The hearing in Rome examined both Italian-language Web sites that distributed anti-Semitic literature and imagery, and the international problem in social media. The Web 2.0 examples I presented came from Facebook, YouTube, Google Groups, MySpace and Flickr. They included conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, blood libel, demonization and other classic and modern forms of anti-Semitism – all easily found across the spectrum of social media sites.

The heart of the problem is that such material is largely accepted as legitimate expression. Why should something condemned by society were it published in print or placed on posters on city streets suddenly become legitimate simply because it appears on-line?

Social media sites are incredibly powerful. YouTube, for example, has a user base 50 times larger than the combined circulation of the top 10 newspapers in America. Can such a powerful medium really exist free of governmental control? With the power these companies wield, is no obligation owed to society?

Anti-Semitism 2.0 is the spread of the social acceptability of anti-Semitism through Web 2.0 technology. It creates an environment in which to be racist is no worse than to support the wrong soccer team. In such an environment, hate spreads, and society is conditioned to accept it. The danger is not just for the Jewish community, but reflects a wider breakdown in society’s values. If on-line society continues to develop in a moral vacuum, the lack of respect for human dignity may soon be reflected back in the “real” world.

THE US Congress focused on violence motivated by hate. In Italy we focused on the promotion of hate itself. Incitement to hate is a danger to public order, whether or not violence follows. Freedom of expression comes with responsibility – a point clearly made in the UN Charter on Civil and Political Rights. While Congress heard, once again, the tired argument of counterspeech as the best response, the Italian parliament discussed in technical detail the limits of counterspeech on platforms like Facebook.

On Facebook, having one group denying the Holocaust and another remembering the Holocaust would not be counterspeech, but rather two unrelated dialogues. To try to engage in debate in the Holocaust denial group is to promote it to all your contacts, not to mention entering a space controlled by the deniers where counterarguments can be deleted and those attempting counterspeech banished. It’s like responding to an anti-Semitic newspaper by sending it letters to the editor.

What’s worse, the curious might then view Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic propaganda, some of it direct from the Nazis, as something “contentious” and “debatable” rather than as a known and dangerous falsehood that has led to the death of millions.

There is no reason for platforms like Facebook and YouTube to facilitate the spread of hate. There is no reason on-line communities should be free of social values and human rights. The challenge is to create a civil society on-line. Such a society is not made through groups promoting NGOs, but through the adoption of ethical behavior by platform providers, on-line community leaders and the public.

Counterspeech certainly has its place, but it cannot be relied upon as a silver bullet. The correct place for counterspeech is with friends, where hate can be exposed and explained while we wait for the platform to remove it.

THE FIGHT for civil rights has been a long one. We should not have to start from scratch simply because of a change in technology and the emergence of social media companies with more reach than any newspaper. At minimum, companies that allow anyone to publish should allow anyone to complain. At minimum, such complaints should be reviewed in a reasonable time, and if they are dismissed as groundless those who file them should be given the option of recourse through the courts if the content is illegal.

In Europe, and indeed almost everywhere beside the US, hate speech against minorities is already illegal. If companies get it wrong, if they insist on harboring hate either by rejecting valid complaints or through excessively slow response rates, it should be governments who hold them to account.

We have tackled copyright as a result of the music industry; we have tackled privacy largely as a result of government officials in Canada and Italy; next we must tackle the promotion of racism and hate.

It is up to governments and intergovernmental organizations to make this a priority for social media companies. Yes, there will be costs, but it is no more than the cost of doing business in what remains a very lucrative market.

The writer is director of the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia, and cochairman of the working group on on-line anti-Semitism for the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism.

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