What could Goebbels have done with 140 characters?
The question, disturbing as it might sound, can no longer be approached only as theoretical.
As the archpropagandist of Nazism, Joseph Goebbels spread the demonic messages of his Fuehrer via the written word, mass demonstrations, radio and film. He used those avenues to near perfection, promoting what perhaps was the most evil publicity campaign in the history of humankind.
Some eight decades later, the tools are different, but the motivations are the same. In the place of vitriol-filled radio broadcasts and Berlin stadia filled to capacity with saluting Nazis, the resources employed today by bigots are increasingly the Internet and social media. Undoubtedly the #HeilHitler hashtag, if launched in 1933, would have had followers in the many millions, likely surpassing even the numbers of the most revered celebrities who employ resources such as Twitter.
With all the tremendous good it does, and the hundreds of millions of people it entertains, inspires and educates daily, at its core the Internet is the most capable propaganda tool ever invented.
The online community is both largely uncensored and without any natural borders or limits — a combination that makes it so effective and so dangerous. With the same speed it takes to reach millions with videos of laughing babies or talented Korean dancers, hate-filled messages pour into the world’s social media feeds and email inboxes.
The reality in the online war against hate is that our enemies are smarter than any anti-Semitic forces we have ever seen. They understand the power of the Internet and embrace the protections under law it offers.
Today’s most effective anti-Semites are not the flag-waving, storm-trooping skinheads of yesteryear. While those forces still exist, their reach pales in comparison to the computer users who are able to spill their messages of hate to millions of people around the globe in a matter of minutes.
The peace-loving forces within the international community are therefore faced with a daunting challenge — yet it is not insurmountable.
First, we need to recognize the scope of the problem. Online hate is difficult to impossible to quantify. While perhaps we can try to count the number of problematic websites, there is no real way to know how many people those sites reach. All the more so with social media, where the trail of content can split into literally thousands of directions in minutes. The scope of the problem is unprecedented and enormous and thus deserving of massive resources and international cooperation.
Second, and perhaps more fundamental, the world must change its mindset for what deserves protection within the online community.
Most often, when people speak about the Internet and the world of social media, terms bandied about are “marketplace of ideas” or “common ground for expression” or similar terminology professing that users should be allowed to disseminate whatever ideas come into their minds at a given time. This position is defended by those who advocate that freedom of expression should be interpreted literally to allow people to express whatever they feel, regardless of how inflammatory or incendiary it might be. This must be rethought.
Freedom of expression indeed means that people’s right to free speech must be protected. But the protection should never be extended to expressions that come at the physical expense of the other.
Without entering into legal discourse that is far too complex for this forum, there is no disputing that hate speech on the Internet and in social media has the very real potential to inspire acts of violence. This has been proven countless times since the advent of the Internet and is realized every day through the examples of young and impressionable people who turn to the Web for inspiration for all sorts of devious ideologies and beliefs.
In order for the Internet to sustain its openness, all responsible parties must commit to guarding against the use of online hate mongering.
This new medium is so different from anything faced previously by the civilized world that it requires re-evaluated understandings of what is and is not acceptable. It will be a challenging process and requires an underlying commitment to protect the interests of all viewpoints while rooting out those messages that cross the fine line between valid speech and dangerous incitement.
The success of this effort will require the participation and involvement of the relevant commercial players who allow the Internet to flourish, along with national governments and international law enforcement. It will not be achieved overnight.
If the past has taught us anything, however, it is that the stakes are far too high to do nothing. This time the world must be sure to respond.
Gideon Behar is the director of the Department for Combatting Anti-Semitism of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and chaired the Global Forum for Combatting Anti-Semitism (May 28-30 in Jerusalem). This column was originally written for the JTA Wire Service.