The perils of Internet apathy

Sitting out the digital debate means surrendering it to haters.

youtube insurgents (photo credit: )
youtube insurgents
(photo credit: )
There has much discussion lately about anti-Israel expression in digital space. Yet, even after I read articles about anti-Semitism on the web and heard lectures on the topic, I was not moved to action. I am not a member of Facebook, and I am not a particularly avid user of YouTube. So though the proliferation of anti-Israel sentiments on Google, YouTube, facebook, etc. is troubling, I took it less seriously than I would a debate in "grown-up" media. An incident last week shattered this complacency. In the last few months, in a project catering to its younger constituency, the American Jewish Committee created a YouTube style video contest under the title "MyIsrael" for Israel's 60th birthday. Several organizations partnered with AJC for this initiative, including the Inter Disciplinary Center in Herzliya; the IDC then created a short video to promote the site. The video received great attention. In 24 hours, it got almost 800,000 hits - in the last hours it tipped 1 million and garnered over 1,500 comments. These comments were mostly venomous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slurs. Additionally, videos with pornographic or anti-Semitic titles were created and then posted on YouTube, including, for example, a video showing a pile of excretion with a Jewish star on it. The hate was not limited to the YouTube site; shortly after the YouTube postings began, someone broke into the site itself and changed the names of some of the clips so that its original videos - of children and teens expressing love for Israel - were now labeled with new and distasteful titles. Though I scoffed at the notion that serious political debate was taking place in teenage Internet forums, I was wrong. YouTube has become a primary vehicle for the exchange of ideas and the formation of public opinion. In this instance, however, its power - with a tentacle-like reach and an astounding speed of dissemination - was wielded to spread hateful anti-Israel messages. FORUMS LIKE YouTube are a fantastic opportunity for lay people to independently define public opinion; we in the pro-Israel community must begin viewing these forums as opportunities. We can either use these media outlets to combat misinformation about Israel and halt the spread of hateful messages, or we can sit on the sidelines. Before this incident, I believed that the debate on YouTube was secondary; we could turn a blind eye to anti-Israel expressions on the Internet, but make sure to step in when it came to the academy or the New York Times. What I learned last week was that sitting out the debate in this case will mean that those who hate Israel will define the debate for anyone who types "Israel" into a search. If we are too slow in recognizing this new front, we will lose the chance to impact these discussions and ultimately turn the tide. The writer is a Legacy Heritage Fellow working at the American Jewish Committee.