As social networks clamp down, antisemitism moves to the darknet

Amid pandemic, extremist groups connect on fringe websites that are nearly impossible to monitor, experts warn.

A picture posted on Twitter shows a man holding an anti-Semitic poster.  (photo credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
A picture posted on Twitter shows a man holding an anti-Semitic poster.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing and amid growing crackdowns on hate speech, antisemitic discourse has shifted away from mainstream social networks and is making itself cozy on the darknet, a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through specialized anonymity-providing tools.
Prof. Dina Porat, the head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that lockdowns have led to a decrease in violent antisemitic attacks. Unlike previous years, no Jews were killed in antisemitic attacks in 2020, according to Porat.
“But by the same token, people are at home glued to their screens and their cellphones… and so antisemitism is on the rise in social media,” Porat said.
Under growing pressure, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks in recent months have stepped up efforts to crack down on misinformation and antisemitism. These policies have not stopped the hate from spreading in other ways, however.
Far away from the prying eyes of the authorities and content moderators, extremist groups are flourishing on fringe websites and mobile applications that are nearly impossible to track or monitor. More and more extremist groups are moving to the darknet and to platforms thought to be particularly secure, Porat warned, including social sites like 8chan, Gab or Telegram.
In this picture shared on Telegram, the virus is depicted as a caricature of Jewish men. (Credit: ADL)In this picture shared on Telegram, the virus is depicted as a caricature of Jewish men. (Credit: ADL)
“The darknet is a no man’s land,” she explained. “There are extremist groups opening up sites and changing them frequently so that they [can’t get] caught. It’s very difficult to monitor them because they take care not to be accessed [except] by those they want.”
While difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem, evidence of such groups’ growing influence came to the fore earlier this month, when rioters stormed the US Capitol as Congress convened to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral-vote win. It was later found that far-right supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement fueled much of the attack.
“Extreme antisemitism comes from them,” Porat stressed. “The coronavirus changes life and the venues of antisemitism change accordingly.”
Some of the antisemitic conspiracy theories that have recently surfaced accuse the Jews of being “virus spreaders” and of attempting to make an enormous profit from COVID-19 vaccines.
“It goes hand in hand with the conspiracy theory of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: that the Jews are in fact a global entity with a goal of world domination,” Porat explained. “Their belief is that the Jews — together with Israel — have orchestrated the virus.”
An example of an anti-Semitic caricature linking Jews to the COVID-19 virus. (Credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)An example of an anti-Semitic caricature linking Jews to the COVID-19 virus. (Credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be marked on January 27, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry has cautioned that Jews around the globe would likely face a spike in antisemitic incidents over 2021 due to the spread of such unfounded theories. In an annual report on antisemitism that was released on Sunday, the ministry said that there was a sharp increase in online expressions of antisemitism in 2020, including via an Iranian-led social media campaign that compared the state of Israel to COVID-19.
Last April, several Twitter users began posting tweets with the hashtag #COVID1948 or #COVID48, linking the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to the virus. Since then, the hashtag has been used tens of thousands of times across social media. A study by Stanford University published in August revealed that a network of 507 Iranian accounts began popularizing the use of the hashtag last spring. Around that time, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also tweeted the hashtag and compared Zionism to a “long-lasting virus.”
“This is something that we definitely saw coming into the UK social media space from other places: this idea that Israel is comparable to the virus and that the world should fight Israel the way it has to fight the virus,” Dave Rich, director of policy at Community Security Trust (CST), told The Media Line. “That demonization of Israel as the world’s ultimate evil and a threat to world peace.”
Early on in the pandemic, CST, a British charity that monitors and combats antisemitism, found that antisemitic hate speech had shifted as a result of the virus.
“Antisemites and extremists will exploit any big news story or any major world issue to spread their conspiracy theories and their prejudice,” Rich said, adding that fringe social media platforms were taking on a more important role in such narratives.
Other Jewish leaders are also concerned about the Diaspora Ministry’s findings.
Robert Singer is chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact, a recently established non-profit organization that promotes and develops initiatives for Jewish communities around the world.
Singer, former CEO of the World Jewish Congress, believes that online antisemitism is likely to increase over the coming years as the crisis continues to unfurl, especially with Israel leading the world in its vaccination campaign.
“It has the potential to explode,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t think anything has changed in the last 2,000 years. The Jews were always blamed during different pandemics that happened in the past. It’s much more severe now because it’s a combination of an economic and a health crisis.”
For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Center for Jewish Impact will be launching a video campaign aimed at fighting antisemitism. With the help of elite athletes such as NBA Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo and former NBA and current Maccabi Tel Aviv star Omri Casspi, the campaign explores how sports can help fight racism and prejudice worldwide.
In the videos, the athletes speak about antisemitism and give their thoughts on the lessons from the Holocaust.
“This year will mark the 85th anniversary of the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin,” Singer emphasized, referring to the international sporting event held in Nazi Germany.
With their massive audiences, Singer continued, “sports celebrities are among the most powerful as far as delivering the message is concerned.”
Daniel Sonnenfeld contributed to this report.