Online anti-Semitism: Difficult to Fight, but Even Harder to Quantify

Amid the Jew-hating, anti-Israel and Holocaust-denying conversations, 12 percent of the anti-Semitic discourse one Israeli company monitors is Trump-related.

Journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted in anti-semitic tweets after writing a profile of Donald Trump's wife Melania.
Screenshot/Twitter

Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, becomes the target of anti-Semitic attacks, and even death threats, from Donald Trump supporters on social media after she publishes a profile of his wife Melania.

Jonathan Weisman, a Jewish editor at The New York Times, finds himself inundated with anti-Semitic epithets from self-identified supporters of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate after the editor tweets an essay on fascist trends in the United States.

Erin Schrode, a young Jewish Democrat running for Congress in California, receives a torrent of Jew-hating messages on Facebook (“Fire up the ovens” was just one of the gems) in what appears to be an orchestrated attack launched by American neo-Nazis.

A Google Chrome extension (removed a day after it was discovered) marks members of the Jewish faith online by placing three sets of parentheses around their names.

Mere coincidence, or is this the dawn of a new and dangerous era in online anti-Semitism?

The honest answer, say those in the business of tracking attacks on Jews, is that it’s hard to tell. In the old offline world, life was far less complicated. You counted acts of vandalism, physical assaults and whatever else was quantifiable, compared the total with the previous year, and then determined whether things were getting better or worse for the Jews.

With the advent of social media, however, those sorts of calculations have become virtually impossible. Not only is it difficult to know what to count (Tweets? Retweets? Likes? Posts? Shares? Follows? Reports of abuse?), but also, with billions of people posting online, how do you begin searching?

“Back in the days when online anti-Semitism was confined to websites like Stormfront and Jew Watch, we were able to keep statistics,” says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who runs the Digital Terrorism and Hate Project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in California. “But in the era of social networking, the numbers have become meaningless. If you get one good shot in and it goes viral, how do you count it? Social networking has changed the whole paradigm.”

Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, has been keeping himself busier than usual this election season, calling out anti-Semites, their supporters and apologists. Yet, even he is reluctant to describe the current level of online attacks as unprecedented.

“Back in 2000, when Joe Lieberman was on the presidential ticket, there were anti-Semitic attacks against him, too. So there’s certainly a history of these things,” he notes. “But we didn’t have Twitter back then. What social media has done is offer a platform that circulates some of the most noxious ideas in ways that were never previously possible, allowing bigots and racists, once marginalized by mainstream society, to now come out of the woodwork.”

Even if it were possible to make accurate numerical calculations about online anti-Semitism these days, says Greenblatt, there is no way to know if the situation has become worse, “because we don’t have a sample set from previous elections with which to compare.”

Probably the closest thing to hard statistics related to the phenomenon appear in a recent report compiled by Buzzilla, an Israeli company that monitors and researches discussions in various online arenas: responses to articles, blogs, forums and social media. In preparing the report – commissioned by an Israeli nonprofit that promotes Holocaust remembrance – Buzzilla scoured the Internet for key phrases associated with anti-Semitism (“Hitler was right,” “burn the Jews,” “hate the Jews” etc.).

“We define anti-Semitism as content that is against Jews, not against Israel per se,” says Merav Borenstein, Buzzilla's vice president for strategy and products. Regardless, she notes, Israel serves as a lightning rod for online anti-Semitism.

Examining anti-Semitic discourse over the course of a 12-month period ending in March 2016, the report found a spike in the three last months of 2015, coinciding with the spate of Palestinian stabbing attacks against Israelis. “We have found that whenever Israel is in the news – and this was true during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014 as well – it translates into a rise in online anti-Semitism,” says Borenstein.

Statistics compiled by Israel's Buzilla web-monitoring firm, relating to discussions in various online arenas: responses to articles, blogs, discussion forums and social media.
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Cooper, of the Simon Weisenthal Center, confirms this pattern. “You can almost write the script,” he says. “Within an hour of any terror attack against Jews or Israelis, the images of the perpetrators are up online, and they are touted as heroes who should be emulated.”

According to the Buzzilla report, roughly 600 anti-Semitic conversations took place in the arenas it monitors in April 2015. By March 2016, that number had almost tripled. (The peak month was December 2015, with 2,500).

At the request of Haaretz, Buzzilla also examined how much of the recent anti-Semitic discourse on the Internet has been fueled by the Trump campaign. It found that since the beginning of this year, 12 percent of the total volume of anti-Semitic discourse in the arenas it monitors is related to the presumptive Republican presidential candidate although not posted by him personally.

Flagging offensive content

They Can’t is the name of relatively new Israeli nonprofit devoted to fighting online anti-Semitism. Through a network of grass-roots activist, the organization flags anti-Semitic content, mainly on YouTube and Facebook, and demands that it be removed. Its founder, Belgian-born Eliyahou Roth, says their track record is unmatched.

“Over the past three years, we’ve managed to remove more than 45,000 accounts, pages, videos, posts and photos with anti-Semitic content from the Internet,” he says. “About 41,000 items were what we call classic anti-Semitic items, another 1,000 dealt with Holocaust denial, and the rest, which were in Arabic, fell into the category of terror incitement.” That was out of a total of 78,500 anti-Semitic items that his organization tracks on an ongoing basis.

Over at the Simon Weisenthal Center, Cooper says that the number of anti-Semitic items his organization has succeeded in removing from the Internet is “probably in multiples of tens of thousands.”

But such success is not the norm, according to a report prepared earlier this year by The Online Hate Prevention Institute. Titled “Measuring the Hate: The State of Anti-Semitism in Social Media,” it found that out of 2,000 anti-Semitic items the Australian-based organization had been tracking over a period of 10 months, only 20 percent had been removed from the Internet.

The report did take note, however, of significant variations in the response rates of different social media companies. Facebook was hailed as the company most responsive to demands to remove anti-Semitic content, whereas YouTube was the least.

A breakdown provided in the report of anti-Semitic content by category found that 49 percent was “traditional” (defined as containing “conspiracy theories, racial slurs and accusations such as the blood libel”), 12 percent was related to Holocaust denial, 34 percent to Israel, and 5 percent promoted violence against Jews.

Acknowledging the difficulties of quantifying online anti-Semitism, David Matas, a prominent Canadian human rights lawyer, points to a key indicator that social media companies adamantly refuse to divulge, although it could provide a useful benchmark: the number of complaints they receive about anti-Semitic content. Speaking at a recent conference in Jerusalem, Matas, who also serves as senior legal counsel of B’nai Brith Canada, lamented that “unless we have a solution on metrics, we cannot even know the problem.”

Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland and an expert on online harassment, is not sure whether online anti-Semitism is spreading or simply drawing more attention. “What I can say is that it’s become more mainstream,” she notes. “It is no longer hidden in the dark corners of the internet like it once was. We are now seeing it on very mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”

At the same time, Jew-haters are clearly feeling more emboldened – not only by the anonymity provided by social media, says Citron, but also, more recently, by the nod they’ve received from the Republican presidential hopeful. “Trump gives people permission to be hateful, whether that is to women, to the disabled or to Jews,” she explains.

How much of what seems like an uptick in online anti-Semitism can be blamed on extreme right-wingers who support Trump and how much on extreme left-wingers who hate Israel?

“I see two twin vectors converging here,” says the ADL’s Greenblatt. “One is right-wing anti-Semitism, steeped in white supremacist ideology, and it’s very anti-Jewish. Then there is the left-wing anti-Semitism, steeped in anti-Israel ideology. In my estimation, though, the end result is the same: Jews are being attacked for being Jewish. It’s prejudice plain and simple.”