Decency in the public sphere

After publishing a recent article on the Holocaust, Yahoo became a hub for mass anti-Semitic comments. How was this allowed to happen?

Yahoo talkbacks 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yahoo talkbacks 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, Yad Vashem announced that it had identified four million of the six million victims of the Holocaust. The project to discover the names of all of those who were murdered is a profound and moving testament to the Jewish people’s commitment that the victims of the greatest single crime in history should never be forgotten. When Yad Vashem makes announcements of this kind, all decent men and women pause, reflect and bow their heads.
But the world we live in is not solely comprised of decent men and women. Here is a selection of comments representative of a disturbingly large proportion of the 443 entries posted by readers following the publication of a news report on the Yad Vashem announcement by Yahoo, the world’s second most popular search engine and Internet portal after Google: “What about the 50,000+ Palestinians that have been murdered since 1948 by the Nazi A.K.A Zionists?” “What about the Armenians? I saw worst pictures of them being slaughtered than I did of the Jews.” “What about those who were not Jews? Do they deserve to be counted? Do they even count?” “When did America become so easily manipulated. AIPAC controls your Congress and even lobbies them with your taxpayer money and you’re too busy being distracted.”
“The other third changed their names and went to Palestine... how else you think Israel was created. Where do you think all these angry Jews came from? Poland, Russia, Germany... they showed up in Palestine and terrorized the British into letting them destroy Palestine.”
“When will we hear the end of this Holocaust story? I give it another 200 years.”
“Is there any third party checking on this so called database by a self-serving group in Israel? And what about the Jews who moved away, or starved, or died of disease or old age, or were murdered in Allied terror raids. Were they too ‘killed by the Nazis’?” “Keep milking it israel. I’m sure you can parlay those names into a few billion more of American tax dollars.”
“Throughout recorded history Zionists/Jews have been instigators of hate, murder, ethnic cleansing and general crimes against humanity. They were thrown out of Rome, Germany, Russia and many other countries for committing crimes against humanity, and created one of the worst holocausts in history against African Americans and Palestinians to mention a few. Their crimes against humanity have been consistent for over 2000 years.
Always they use the same bromide of whining and play the same old tattered and torn victim card whenever they are caught and punished. Forever, they are the ‘victim.’ One of their most recent use of the victim card was after they attacked the Germans in 1933 and their plan failed.
The 500,000 German Jewish residents paid dearly for Jewish crimes as did the Jewish people in Russia before them.
Now Zionists have attacked the innocent people of Palestine and before this crime is finished they will be punished and pass the same whining bromide as they always do with their worn out victim card. Zionists are not now nor have they ever been victims, they are criminals that will once again be held responsible for their crimes against humanity”.
AND THAT is just a sample from the first five pages which are generally the most widely read. There are 40 more such pages (which according to the dateline may have been tagged on from previous such discussions) and browsing through them are things like this: “Be ready for the real survivor this time,” “The biggest scam in history !” “HOLOCAST my ass. Jews looking for sympathy while murdering the Palis in their own land”.
What to make of all this? The fact that there are some sick and twisted people out there is sadly unsurprising, though quite how many of them there are is nonetheless a shock to the system. But the key point here is that these comments form part of a media package to consumers that is being put in the public domain by Yahoo with the Associated Press brand name attached. These are extremely prestigious organizations.
Now, social media is still in its infancy. Working out how to strike a balance whereby readers can participate in a public discussion provoked by any particular article or blog entry while retaining basic standards of decency or even legality (many of these comments will be illegal in some jurisdictions) is not easy.
In the old days it was more straightforward. If you got out your typewriter and sent a letter to The New York Times, the editorial team would make a decision to publish or not to publish on the basis of taste, decency and your letter’s effectiveness in contributing to enlightened debate. If you peppered your letter with racist abuse, you wouldn’t get published and the public domain would be protected from your bigotry.
Nowadays, it comes down to the website policing itself and protecting its own brand name from reputational damage, since the website in question becomes the publisher of all the comments that appear below any given article. That costs time and money and a concomitant commitment to decency in the public sphere. You either have to have moderators watching every single move who can remove inappropriate postings as soon as possible, or you have to have a system of so called pre-moderation where comments are stored for subsequent approval before being published.
Yahoo does not appear to have either system in place, which raises serious questions about its commitment to ensuring a public discussion free from hate speech and bigotry. The Associated Press, while not responsible for Yahoo’s failure properly to police its website, might also like to reassess its policy of distributing news to organizations that will not take their own responsibilities seriously.
My hope is that this is just an oversight. Both Yahoo and the Associated Press are great organizations, and I have no doubt that they will be as shocked at this episode as I am. Nonetheless, they urgently need to review their procedures to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
The writer is director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society in London. He is the author of A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel.