#iComment: Twitter a hornet’s nest for anti-Semitic speech

by Ana Ribeiro

In the battle against hate speech and fake news, Facebook has taken a lot of flak, especially from Germany. But watchdogs are now also turning the spotlight to promotion of anti-Semitic messages on Twitter.

This specific phenomenon is more prevalent on Twitter than any other social network, according to research published this year by academics and monitoring agencies. Media outlets are picking up on these developments.

Tel Aviv University's Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry recently released a study noting differences in the way anti-Semitism is currently expressed. It has now largely moved online: the report cited research estimating anti-Semitic posts were popping up on social media every 83 seconds in 2016, nearly two-thirds of them on Twitter.

Anti Semitism graphic The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that "nearly two-thirds of the 382,000 posts deemed anti-Semitic in the [World Jewish Congress] study appeared on Twitter, followed by 11 percent posted on Facebook, 6 percent on Instagram and 2 percent on YouTube. The posts were in various languages." (Chart: ECPMF)

According to Kantor's latest "Antisemitism Worldwide" analysis, which covers 40 countries, the recorded number of physical violence related to victims' Jewish background continues to decrease incrementally. There was a 12-percent dip from 410 incidents in 2015 to 361 in 2016, and the recorded murders of Jews last year happened in conjunction with others' (e.g. during the Paris terrorist attacks). Meanwhile, violent attacks are on the rise specifically against Muslims in Europe.

“Threatening, cruel and violent”

 "Antisemitism Worldwide" warns that despite the decrease in physical violence against Jews, there is a sense of foreboding as "the discourse on the internet has become more and more threatening, cruel and violent; it escalates the real situation on the ground and inflates it a hundred times in no time at all." In Germany, with its Holocaust-related past, this type of speech is considered a crime; police raids took place last year due to illegal hate speech on social media.

In the opinion of the Kantor Center report, attacks against Jews are increasingly going online both due to the lure of social media as an effective channel for disseminating cruelty and to the perpetrators' youth and social situation:

Even though the networks are, as said, but a tool and a virtual reality, they have become the major means for an easy and swift transfer of messages and an actual reality, first and foremost for youngsters."

The report added that "indeed, some of the perpetrators caught by the authorities on the ground turn out to be hooligan teenagers, inspired by the nets, void of any ideology or direction and deeply bored. A survey of Europol found a high percentage of such teenagers with criminal background, imbued with the feeling they are marginalized and discriminated against."

Meanwhile, Reuters, quoting the UK-based Community Security Trust, pointed to a 36 percent-increase in "anti-Semitic incidents" in Britain in 2016. The non-profit calculated there were 1,309 such incidents, a record since it started its surveys in 1984. Most of the incidents involved hate speech in the form of "verbal abuse, hate mail and graffiti". 

The power of Twitter

Twitter has become the preferred channel for world leaders to communicate with the public, and literally the whole world is watching. Besides the reach of the platform itself via users’ retweets, media outlets frequently quote the tweets of the rich and powerful and further broadcast them.

These stakeholders' actions on Twitter can cause wide-reaching chain reactions. These, in turn, can give ordinary people a chance to jump on the bandwagon and leverage their own importance and message. Meanwhile, organisations in Europe have been working to recruit the youth in the fight against cyberhate.

All it may take is for one tweet to go viral, and myriad tentacles of vitriol are likely to sprout from it and become a Herculean task to quash – like the mythical Hydra.

The Kantor Center report gives the example of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taking to Twitter to compliment US President Donald Trump’s executive order for the construction of the wall on the Mexican border. Netanyahu's tweet prompted the Jewish community to reply in rejection of the position, "government authorities and media leaders" to acknowledge the community’s response and, finally, it "triggered a wave of anti-Semitic remarks on social media".

The hashtag #antisemitism on Twitter is currently very active. People from different sides of the political and ideological spectrum post under it.

Twitter, the elections and journalists

Recent presidential elections have been particularly infamous for anti-Semitic and other hate-tweets.

Legislation Survey: Regulating Online Hate Speech in Europe

The Kantor Center has also published a series of reports on the obstacles to regulating cyberhate specifically in Europe. The overall December 2016 report listed the following:

  • [Difficulties in] a multinational approach to regulating online offences
  • Different types of intermediaries are governed under different laws
  • [Lack of liability in] monitoring, reporting and removing obligations
  • Online anonymity
  • Broader reach and accessibility of the internet

The full series of reports (some country-specific) can be accessed online.

According to a March 2017 article in The Independent, French candidate François Fillon publicly "apologised for tweeting a caricature of his main rival Emmanuel Macron, admitting that it evoked anti-Semitism. Mr Fillon's party The Republicans tweeted an image of the independent candidate with a hooked nose — apparently referring to Mr Macron’s past as an investment banker for Jewish company Rothschild — wearing a top hat and cutting a cigar with a red sickle."

Further, the Kantor Center report cited findings from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that journalists have been disproportionately targeted by anti-Semitic tweets, especially in connection with the 2016 US presidential campaign.

ADL pointed to "a total of 2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech" being posted network-wide between August 2015 and July 2016. At least 19,200 of those were directed at specific US journalists, mostly coming from 1,600 Twitter accounts whose bios tended to feature the keywords "Trump", "nationalist", "conservative" and "white".

The tweets multiplied into "an estimated 10 billion impressions (reach), which ADL believes contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements – on a massive scale."