Social Media Antisemitism in the 21st Century
In the current era, we continue to see the proliferation of antisemitism and antisemitic ideology. Vandalism, violence and verbal attacks are all forms of antisemitism that remain prevalent today. In January 2021, the Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal was vandalized with Nazi swastikas. The shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 remains etched in our memories, and vehement antisemites continue to raise their voices, both verbally and in print. Yet, the problem does not end there. Recently, we have seen these views infiltrate social media, exacerbating the issue. In the 2020 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, B’nai Brith Canada reported that 71% of harassment incidents in 2020 occurred online, an 11% increase from the previous year.
Types of Online Antisemitism
In an analysis of online antisemitism, Dr. Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute, identifies four key categories for this form of hate – traditional antisemitism, Holocaust denial, new antisemitism and the promotion of violence against Jews.
Traditional antisemitism echoes the rhetoric of the past, with claims on social media suggesting that the Jews control the world, or were even responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. These claims are not far from those made by WWII-era groups such as the Canadian Nationalist, which in 1937 cried that, “International Jewry is the cause of wars, depression and world unrest!” Documents making antisemitic claims, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903) were also used throughout the 20th century, and are still used today to justify attacks on the Jews.
Holocaust denial and distortion
In addition to traditional antisemitism, we have seen the prevalence of Holocaust denial and distortion. Holocaust denial opposes the fact that the Holocaust truly happened while Holocaust distortion warps the event’s place in historical memory. The latter can play a more harmful role than one may expect – historian and IHRA honorary chairman Yehuda Bauer notes that, “a half truth is worse than a full lie.” In addition, while Holocaust denial has often been limited to fringe groups, social media has allowed these ideas to spread.
New antisemitism, another form of online antisemitism, can be harder to identify on the surface, as it seems to target the state of Israel rather than the Jews. Dr. Oboler notes that this form will often demonize the state of Israel in an attempt to demonize the Jews by association. New antisemitism, according to the IHRA definition, can also look like the application of double standards to Israel, criticizing the state for actions that would be considered acceptable if executed by any other democratic state.
Promotion of Violence Against Jews
Finally, the promotion of violence against Jews is exactly what it sounds like. This sentiment has been propagated via hashtags such as #HitlerWasRight (which effectively condones the killing of Jews). Alongside recent anti-Israel protests (some of which fall into the previous category of new antisemitism) over 17 000 tweets containing a variation of the slogan “Hitler was Right,” were posted between May 7 and 14 this year. Beyond the safety of a screen, research has shown that social media can even serve as a vehicle for motivating hateful action in the real-world.
The Root of the Problem
The types of online antisemitism discussed above demonstrate the rapid propagation of antisemitic hate on social media. In addition, there is an accompanying lack of Holocaust education in our country, especially among young people. In a survey of Holocaust knowledge and awareness, the Azrieli Foundation found that more than half of all Canadians and 62% of Millennials did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Research has also found that social media can lead to the formation of harmful echo chambers, which can serve as a breeding ground for the hate we see across social media. Antisemitic views can grow without voices of opposition, and a lack of education among young people – who are among the largest adopters of social media – can make it difficult to discern the truth.
Clearly, the issue of online antisemitism must be addressed. However, tackling this problem can be difficult, as it is often based more on rhetoric than physical acts, in contrast with violence or vandalism. Researchers acknowledge that “the lines between what constitutes free speech and hate speech can be blurred,” making “regulation” on social media a challenge. In addition, while a statement on social media may not be physically threatening towards someone, it can still have a significant emotional and mental effect. Online antisemites will often take advantage of the fact that legislation in the United States, and even Canada, focus on physical threats.