It was with those words that I started my Baltimore Jewish Times Editor’s Notes column on Nov. 14, 2013.
Then, I could not have envisioned the anti-Semitic shooting attack that would strike the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and the Village Shalom retirement center in my hometown of Overland Park less than six months later. The Tree of Life massacre was unimaginable. Poway, Halle, Jersey City — distant nightmares.
“I am afraid,” I wrote then, “because no one wants to talk about the fact that antisemitism, which we think belongs to the past, has somehow survived. Sometimes it now takes the form of anti-Israel sentiment.
“Antisemitism is … covert in America,” I continued, explaining that it was becoming increasingly less covert throughout the rest of the world, such as in England, where Jewish day schools are surrounded by razor wire, and in France, where a year before an anti-Semitic attacker murdered three children and a rabbi in Toulouse. “What I am seeing reported as one-off anti-Semitic or isolated incidents are becoming increasingly consistent, with uncomfortable echoes of 1930s Germany.
“No problem,” I concluded, “is solved by ignoring it.”
Fast-forward as we begin 2020 and the story of antisemitism and hate speech in general has infiltrated our websites and newspapers and, ultimately, our lives. It has become one of the most perplexing and complicated phenomena and is almost assuredly guaranteed to plague us into the new year.
The internet, which allows messages of hate to spread unbridled — and no one has figured out how to control them.
“Hate speech can cause a lot of damage,” Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, the head of the Media Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Magazine. She said that this “damage” can be the Christchurch mosque or Halle shootings or “simply cause people to be afraid to speak, hurt their ability to work – and this is just the known damage.”
She said there is a fine line between taking action against the spread of hate speech online and curtailing freedom of speech, and that there is a delicate balance between white supremacists and terrorists using social media for radicalization, recruitment, planning and execution and their “simply” posting pre-existing beliefs on these platforms.
“The social networks don’t want to be responsible for the conversation,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “Even though hate speech is forbidden on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, they are afraid to be responsible or found guilty for this hate speech.”
In 2020, she said that we can expect to see greater regulation of electronic communication — “and that’s a good thing.” In addition, she said Facebook, for example, will be rolling out an oversight board that will serve as the “Beit Din or High Court” of the platform.
Shwartz Altshuler sat on the committee that helped map out the role of this board, which will include overseeing and advising the team that takes down content for the social media site and informing policy. She noted that Facebook is investing around $100 million in this project.
Moreover, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and natural language processing tools will enable social networks to monitor for hate speech in real time and better understand what is being shared on their platforms.
In some states, there are those that don’t allow certain kinds of hate speech to be shared, such as in Germany or Singapore.
Two years ago, Germany clamped down on harmful online content, instituting 50 million Euro fines against tech companies who fail to respond quickly enough against hate speech shared on their platforms.
In Singapore, social media sites are required to remove posts or run corrections when the government finds information it deems false.
French lawmakers are now debating similar hate speech rules. And American politicians, too, realize that its current laws are not fit for the digital age.
But what content should be defined as illegal? What posts do Facebook or Twitter really have to take down?
It is a very difficult question, especially when anti-Israel sentiment can border on antisemitism and support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement can quickly veer into hate speech, discrimination, and bullying.
Shwartz Altshuler added that “there are all kinds of places where anti-Semitic content can sneak into these channels and remain unseen,” such as Facebook Groups, which are rarely monitored by Facebook, Messenger or WhatsApp, whose messages are encrypted.
And there is Gab, which according to Vice News experienced a huge growth spurt in 2019; 4chan; and 8chan — all platforms that are known for their constituents spreading hateful ideologies and radicalization.
“These are platforms where there is more ability to spread things because there is no one taking responsibility and no tools in place,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “They give everyone freedom of speech to say whatever they want to say, and as a result, we see a lot of hate speech, antisemitism and more.”
Shwartz Altshuler said that one does not even have to “go into the dark Web to see antisemitism; it is right there, in these communities.”
And she does not envision that this will change too fast.
What can we do in 2020?
Shwartz Altshuler said that the Jewish community should engage on these networks to help counter the messaging and work with the large social networks like Facebook and Twitter to identify inappropriate speech.
She said that people who want hate speech curtailed on platforms like 4chan and Gab will need to appeal to lawmakers and the police.
If we don’t enter the fray using the same social networks and tools that the foes of the Jews are using online, then we will be condemned to antisemitism only becoming even more intense.
This is the time to put all the energies of Jews around the world together in a way that has never been done before in order to win this imperative struggle.
By effectively being on social networks, Jews can win this fight and make 2020 a year in which this serious problem starts getting solved and the tide finally starts to turn.
If this is done now, then the column I write seven years from now will be looking back victoriously.
— Maayan Jaffe Hoffman
This article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post and is republished here with the author’s permission.