We must stop antisemitism from spreading on digital platforms - opinion

Online hate learned that referring to “killing Jews” triggers an algorithm to remove the content, but calling for “death to Zionists” is acceptable.

 THE WRITER sits alongside President Issac Herzog, who served then as Jewish Agency chairman, at a task force hearing in the Knesset, 2020. (photo credit: Courtesy Michal Cotler-Wunsh)
THE WRITER sits alongside President Issac Herzog, who served then as Jewish Agency chairman, at a task force hearing in the Knesset, 2020.
(photo credit: Courtesy Michal Cotler-Wunsh)

Over the last several years, there has been an alarming increase in antisemitic incidents across the globe. Today, the apparent majority originate online, as part of the larger hate and disinformation campaign seen on both mainstream and dark-web platforms. 

Research shows that antisemitic tropes, memes and rhetoric are often incorporated in other online conspiracy theories, with a Swedish expert on combating antisemitism stating that “at the core of the threat to liberal democracy is antisemitism,” labeling antisemitism online as “the mother of conspiracy theories.” 

The case and cause of online antisemitism presents an opportunity for digital platforms and policy makers to examine the problem and create comprehensive recommendations, legislation and new institutions that can be utilized in the broader context of addressing online hate and disinformation. 

This hate seen online is not just harmless chatter relegated to dark corners of the Internet – it spills onto the streets, and dangerous propaganda can quickly transcend the geographic borders of any country. Combating this global hatred, therefore, requires a global solution.

In July 2020, the #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate campaign took place, serving as a global call to action to combat the virulent antisemitism that goes unaddressed or inadequately addressed on social media platforms. 

People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)People holding mobile phones are silhouetted against a backdrop projected with the Twitter logo in this illustration picture taken September 27, 2013. (credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)

Growing urgency to hold social media platforms accountable

Growing urgency led to my initiating and leading four hearings in the Knesset, in which social media giants, civil society organizations and technology experts engaged to identify and understand the problem, and to discuss possible solutions. Subsequently, the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism was launched, together with multi-partisan partners from Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

This task force serves as a consistent platform committed to protecting all from online hate, underscoring that the fight against antisemitism is a non-partisan consensus in democratic countries. 

Transcending real and perceived differences of geography, politics, religion, language and more, the task force works to: Establish consistent messaging and policy from parliaments and legislatures around the world to hold social media platforms, including Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and Google, accountable; advocate for the adoption and publication of transparent policies related to hate speech and their transparent application; raise awareness about antisemitism on social media platforms and its consequences to acknowledge the tremendous responsibility that comes with the power the platforms hold; and emphasize that if one minority cannot be protected by hate speech policies, then none can be. 

The Task Force 2021 Interim Report central recommendations were that national, state/provincial, local governments as well as social media providers should adopt a clear definition of antisemitism, for without first defining a problem, we cannot combat it. 

Further, social media platforms should enhance transparency regarding algorithms, how content is removed, what content is removed and what tools are used to direct users to certain sites or redirect users away from hate and/or harms and provide regular quarterly reports on these issues. 

It is important that social media actually be a marketplace of ideas and that individuals are not simply directed to content that reinforces existing opinions. Legislators should create an independent oversight body or regulator in each country to efficiently, regularly and transparently monitor the online space.

As the international consensus definition, established after 20 years of democratic processes and adopted by nearly hundreds of entities – including countries, cities, sports leagues, corporations – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition is the logical and recommended definition of antisemitism for social media giants to turn to. 

This comprehensive working definition critically enables, as Canada’s former justice minister and current Antisemitism Envoy Prof. Irwin Cotler explained, to track the mutation from its “traditional” form, barring the individual Jew from an equal place in society, to the mainstreamed, “modern” form, barring the Jewish nation-state from an equal place among the nations.

The late Elie Wiesel underscored that the Holocaust did not begin in gas chambers, it began with words, and that the hate being spewed online today against the Jewish people and their state is something of significant concern. 

Online hate has learned that referring to “killing Jews” will trigger an algorithm to remove the content, but calling for “death to Zionists,” regardless of the fact this description represents the majority of Jews, is somehow acceptable.

The continued task force discussions, including those that will take place in US Congress on September 15-16, 2022, recognize that we have a shared responsibility to work together, to identify and combat mutating hate in our midst and to stop the downward spiral of antisemitic vitriol.

The imperative to raise the public’s awareness to digital information dissemination and to the fact we are not consumers in the current digital platform business model, rather the product, assumes and reclaims compromised free will and agency, at a time of supposed ultimate freedom and agency. 

The upcoming hearings are not about blame. They are a call to action – to legislators, tech giants, civil society, and the general public– to engage and hone the ability and responsibility of our generation – to ensure that humanity continues to evolve and develop, gathering necessary tools to address the fundamental changes in the way we all consume information, while ensuring that the spread of conspiracy theories of which antisemitism is a predictive example, does not collapse the entire shared infrastructure.

The writer is a lawyer, research fellow and policy and strategy adviser on issues of human rights and the fight against antisemitism. She served as an MK in the 23rd Knesset, and is a founding member of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.