What starts online... never stays there

Farrakhan, despite being a notorious antisemite, has been widely embraced by “progressive” leaders such as Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, co-chairs of the Women’s March.

November 8, 2018 20:14
4 minute read.
What starts online... never stays there

WOMEN’S MARCH organizers Carmen Perez, Tamika D. Mallory and Linda Sarsour take the stage during a protest called March for Racial Justice in New York City. (Reuters). (photo credit: REUTERS)


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My heart was broken by the tragic events in Pittsburgh – and only days later the antisemitic graffiti attack on a synagogue in California. In the days following, there were numerous other antisemitic hate crimes in the United States, shockingly many. But having worked in the field of digital diplomacy for close to a decade, I cannot say I’m surprised, given the ever-rising tide of ugly rhetoric online inciting violence. Online hatred has real-life consequences, and it’s high time we acknowledge that.

During the wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks in Israel in 2015-2016, Arabic language social media was overflowing with antisemitic calls to violence – a trend that has only recently been reduced by tremendous pressure (and lawsuits) against social media giants like Facebook to remove hate speech.

Social media was one of the primary means of drumming up support for attacks, with hashtags like “Knife Intifada” (in Arabic). Among the most shared content during the wave of attacks were tutorial videos and graphics on “How to Stab a Jew.” But leaving aside the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a moment, we also see ongoing trends on Arabic social media of Holocaust denial and antisemitic conspiracy theories, with videos spouting horrific antisemitic rhetoric in Arabic garnering tens of millions of views.

There’s no question that the impact of this content leads to real-life violence. Look no further than ISIS to see how social media incitement (and recruitment) can be used to carry out horrific acts of violence. Hate that begins online doesn’t stay there.
Fast forward to the present with the rise of antisemitism on the extreme Left and extreme Right, and you see the same pattern occurring in the Western world. Antisemitism has long existed in Europe, but after the Second Intifada, it blossomed. European antisemitism has exploded from the far Right in Europe, such as in Austria, and from the far Left as well, with leaders like Jeremy Corbyn actually being taken seriously and rising in popularity. As online antisemitism expands in various communities, so too does “real life” antisemitism. Is it any surprise then, that there has been a steady uptick of online antisemitism in the United States as well? Sadly, we failed to heed the warnings of Jewish communities and organizations which have been sounding the alarm on this pernicious, hateful trend.

DAYS BEFORE the tragedy in Pittsburgh we saw public figures such as Louis Farrakhan proudly tweeting a video of a speech he gave detailing how Jews are “termites.” Farrakhan, despite being a notorious antisemite, has been widely embraced by “progressive” leaders such as Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, co-chairs of the Women’s March. Yet despite outcry, Twitter did nothing to remove Farrakhan’s hate speech.

Since then, he’s made headlines for his visit to Iran, chanting “Death to Israel” and “Death to America” with Iranian students. Similarly, for months leading up to Pittsburgh, we’ve seen a continuous increase in antisemitic hate speech from neo-Nazis and the far Right, yet social media networks, the press, and even world leaders have done next to nothing to stamp out this age-old hatred. When these types of calls to violence, like Farrakhan’s, become mainstream, we cannot be surprised when people who used to leave a hateful comment on YouTube, suddenly feel empowered to carry out real-life violence.

Instead of coming together with those who have different views to educate about the dangers of antisemitism, both sides are guilty of accusing those they disagree with politically, of antisemitism. Shutting down free speech has sadly been used as a tool selectively against political opposition, instead of against actual hate speech that emboldens violence. This is a dangerous and ineffective means of fighting one of the world’s oldest forms of bigotry. Perhaps even more shocking, even in response to the attack in Pittsburgh, there were journalists and politicians who posted on social media blaming Israel and Jews for the attack – an act that falls well within accepted definitions of antisemitism.

While rising intolerance and discrimination is a problem, sadly the rise in antisemitism isn’t new. As noted, it’s been flourishing in Europe for years, long before Trump’s election, and we see it growing stronger every day, on the Left and the Right – and most obviously online. If the past is indicative of the future, we are in real trouble. Free speech is important because it is powerful, and precisely because it is powerful, it becomes dangerous when wielded as a weapon to incite violence. Censoring political beliefs or ideas is wrong, but the failure to censor or fight back against calls to violence is just as wrong.

It’s time for an overhaul in education about antisemitism in the West. We cannot sit idly by while toxic, deadly ideologies recruit and incite violence online – be they white supremacism, Islamic extremism, or left-wing extremism. Our communities, survival, and humanity depend on it.

The writer is a digital marketing expert and the digital director of StandWithUs.

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