Anti-Semitism on the Internet

Communications technology has long enabled the spread of hatred, but the internet and related tools have expanded the reach of anti-Semitism by orders of magnitude.

In recent decades, the internet and its associated communications tools have both revolutionized and democratized the ability of committed anti-Semites to promote hatred of Jews. Anti-Semites have always found ways of deploying new technologies—from written books to printed texts to radio and television—to support their cause, but websites and social media platforms have given them unprecedented new abilities to coordinate their efforts and disseminate their hatred to billions of people.

In its early days, the internet and related technologies enhanced the ability of anti-Semites to communicate with one another on forums and listservs and to create online libraries of hateful content. Some of the earliest anti-Semitic websites were created by neo-Nazis and white supremacists — including groups like the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations and the National Alliance, and individuals like Don Black (creator of Stormfront) and David Duke. The 1990s saw the rise of several important sites devoted to Holocaust denial, including the site of the Institute for Historical Review, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust, and the Zundelsite (named after Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel). Collectively, these tools made hardcore anti-Semitism accessible to a larger number of people than ever before.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the reach of anti-Semitic websites was often limited by their page ranking in search engines. In 2004, an anti-Semitic site called Jew Watch, which was created by a white supremacist, attained notoriety after Google’s algorithm elevated it to the first hit when searching for the term “Jew.” Despite a public outcry, Google refused to artificially demote Jew Watch in its search results, but it did include a note expressing its condemnation of the site.

The advent of social media sites in the early 2000s, and especially of streaming audio and video, increased the amount of anti-Semitic content and its accessibility to regular people by an order of magnitude. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which may have first been articulated on an explicitly anti-Semitic website, could spread and metastasize on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter with frightening speed. In 2008, as the financial crisis cast millions of Americans from their jobs and wiped out many people’s savings, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories swept across mainstream platforms, especially in discussion boards related to finance that were hosted by Yahoo! In some cases, specific anti-Semitic allegations could be traced back to an article that had originally appeared on the website of the anti-Semitic publication American Free Press, which had then been shared widely on mainstream platforms. Anti-Semitic videos blaming Jews for the financial crisis also appeared on YouTube and other social media platforms.

Further evidence of social media’s potential to rapidly spread and entrench anti-Semitic ideas could be found in 2010, when a false claim that Israeli humanitarian relief workers dispatched to Haiti in the wake of an earthquake were harvesting the organs of victims. The allegation originally surfaced on a YouTube video posted by an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activist in Seattle, but quickly spread to the conspiracy-oriented website of Alex Jones and to a variety of platforms around the world.

Islamist extremists also used social media to disseminate anti-Semitic messages. In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League documented how the ISIS terrorist group and its supporters used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram platforms to spread propaganda. For example, a recruitment video released by ISIS on Twitter railed against Jews and called for their humiliation and defeat. Twitter began aggressively removing Islamist accounts in 2015, and reported in 2016 that it had suspended over 360,000 handles.

In recent years, mainstream social media companies have had mixed records on enforcing their terms of service, many of which prohibit hateful content. Watchdog groups have criticized them for a lack of transparency about their moderation practices, and reports that companies employ low-paid, poorly-trained moderators have raised questions about their commitment to keeping their services free of hate and anti-Semitism. To date, no tech company has released any data on the levels of anti-Semitism on any of their platforms, thus making it impossible to gauge whether efforts to address anti-Semitism have been at all effective. In some cases, companies have pushed back against excluding certain types of anti-Semitism. Facebook, for example, explicitly refused to prohibit Holocaust denial on its platform until 2020—possibly in response to a pressure campaign conducted by civil rights groups.

Despite the lack of consistent enforcement on mainstream platforms, enough pressure has been put on anti-Semites that an alternative ecosystem of websites has emerged where anti-Semitism is able to thrive with few impediments. Of particular note is Gab, a Facebook alternative whose founder, Andrew Torba, has stated that he believes that hate speech “does not exist” and is “not a real thing.” Right-wing extremists and white supremacists have flocked to Gab. White supremacist Robert Bowers, who murdered eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, used Gab to announce his murderous plan with the chilling message, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Bitchute has emerged as a cesspool of hateful and anti-Semitic video to replace YouTube. 4chan and 8kun have similarly achieved notoriety as hotbeds of radical anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories.

Deplatforming extremists and anti-Semites from mainstream platforms is thus a double-edged sword; ordinary users may be moderately less likely to encounter hardcore anti-Semitism on major platforms, but the fringe sites that allow hateful content develop into echo chambers where some studies suggest users may be even more radicalized.

Anti-Semites, who are quick to take advantage of new technologies, began using crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe, Patreon, FundRazr, Indiegogo and Kickstarter to further their cause. Cases of white supremacists using Indiegogo were documented as early as 2014. These projects often run afoul of the terms of service of these platforms, and in response to numerous cases where the platforms have suspended their projects, extremists and anti-Semites have set up several alternative crowdfunding websites, such as GoyFundMe, Hatreon, and WeSearchr. Cryptocurrencies are also an increasingly important part of white supremacist and anti-Semitic fundraising efforts. Jihadi groups that also incorporate anti-Semitism into their ideology have also been known to fund their activities with cryptocurrencies. Anti-Semites have also used “super chat” functions on YouTube to raise funds.

As anti-Semites have adopted various online technologies to promote their ideas, watchdog groups, legislators, public policy experts and other interested parties have stepped up their efforts to confront the spread of hatred. Individual users also have an important role to play in flagging problematic content and utilizing the power of pressure campaigns to push for better policing by internet and technology companies. There is no end in sight to the challenge, but the fight against it must continue if we want our public online spaces to remain free of anti-Semitism and hatred.

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