Civil society must work together to address antisemitic hate speech online

In response to the spread of antisemitism on the internet, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue and B’nai B’rith International, in partnership with UNESCO, published a toolkit to build capacity among civil society to tackle this form of hate speech. In this interview, Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, and Susan Benesch, founder and director of the Dangerous Speech Project, reflect on the need for civil society to counter antisemitic hate.

What makes the need to counter antisemitism online so urgent?

Daniel: Countering antisemitism online is an urgent matter but hardly a new one: for more than a decade now, the challenges presented by the digital space have been coming into sharper and sharper focus, competing with its many opportunities.

The live-streaming of violent extremist attacks and the spread of hate filled manifestos by extremists have been particularly heinous manifestations of hate online. But what may have seemed like a fringe problem has fast polluted the entire highly polarized digital public square. The conspiracy narratives emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic and more recently the malign justifications underpinning the war in Ukraine are the most recent and pressing proofs of this. They show us in real time the power of the antisemitic virus to morph with every social crisis and the danger of its amplification online. And they constitute not only a threat to Jews, but an unmistakable warning sign for our democracies.

When and why is antisemitism online dangerous?

Susan: Antisemitism is dangerous when it is convinces people that Jews are seriously harming them in some way. That kind of rhetoric, which is called dangerous speech, can persuade people to condone or even commit violence, since it makes them see such violence as defensive and therefore morally justified. Describing Jews (or any other group) as harmful is not the same as teaching people to hate them. It is more powerful in some ways than hate. It is especially dangerous online when it circulates in groups or spaces where it’s uncontested, endorsed by group leaders, and presented so that it seems like a valuable truth, revealed only to select people. All of those features make it more convincing and therefore more dangerous.

How does hate speech spread on social media and how can it turn into violence?

Susan: Hate speech and dangerous speech often surge in response to offline events that leave people feeling angry or afraid. A relatively small number of influencers (people with many followers online) begin to spread messages blaming a target group (such as Jews or Muslims) for the misfortunes or distress of others. Large numbers of followers chime in, endorsing and spreading the messages. This can inspire violence when one person decides to act alone, for example by committing a massacre, or when a like-minded group gathers and attacks together.

What effective actions civil society can take to counter antisemitism and hate speech on social media?

Daniel: First and foremost, we must remember: antisemitism online is antisemitism. Educating against anti-Jewish hate and against all prejudices is the basic work that must be undertaken to address their online manifestations. But beyond this, we must accelerate our work with both governments and platforms to mitigate the threats posed by online hate.

Civil society must work to inform and educate platforms about manifestations of antisemitism online. We must ensure online monitors are well equipped to make determinations about content reported to them. In that sense, B’nai B’rith International considers that the IHRA definition of antisemitism constitutes an essential tool and standard.  We must advocate for more transparency, to ensure users are not purposefully nudged towards increasingly extreme content. We must hold governments and platforms accountable to the fact that what is illegal offline is illegal online: prosecutions of hate speech online are limited in number, and this must change.

But there is also a lot of work to be conducted within our communities – to build resilience, active citizenship, to give users the tools to act effectively against hate online when they see it. We must ensure victim support and build trust – so that those experiencing hate online can come to civil society organizations and seek support.

What type of counter speech measures are effective in responding to antisemitism?

Susan: Research indicates that when many people respond to antisemitism (or racism, xenophobia, and other forms of bias) with facts, discourse norms shift away from antisemitism, in part because the counter speech convinces more people that it’s safe to chime in. Even if counter speech doesn’t change the minds of the people who posted antisemitism in the first place, it can influence the (much larger) number of people who witness the exchange. Counter speech can also be helpful in another way: it reassures Jews and others who are distressed and frightened by antisemitism.

What do you consider should be the priorities of governments in their efforts to address online antisemitism ?

Daniel: Antisemitism is the canary in the coalmine of democracy. When we speak of antisemitism online, we cannot fail to address the colossal challenge of disinformation, the proliferation of conspiracies, political polarization. To address the spread of antisemitism online effectively, we thus must take a panoramic look at the online landscape.

Some governments have started to intensify their efforts in addressing online harms head-on, particularly in Europe. Emerging legislation that looks to tackle systemic issues: to demand more accountability from platforms, while protecting the freedom of expression and privacy of users is promising and can serve as a model in other parts of the world including the United States. That is one area of focus.

But again, antisemitism online is antisemitism, and demanding governments enable civil society to scale up their efforts to educate, to inform, to sensitize against anti-Jewish hatred is essential.