The Internet has changed the face of data sharing and communication. Anyone with a connection online can now share information and opinion to a global audience faster and with less effort than at any time in history. But while the Web enormously enhances people’s lives and offers almost endless new and exciting opportunities, it also has a darker aspect as those with violent or bigoted agendas exploit the Internet to advance their agenda, exacerbating prejudice and anti-Semitism around the world.
“It’s a new frontier of hatred,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and co-author along with Christopher Wolf of Viral Hate a new book examining anti-Semitism and hate speech online.
“Every new technology is adopted by haters,” said Wolf, who has acted as a lawyer in cases involving the Internet for over two decades as well as being the national chair of the ADL civil rights committee.
Anti-Semitism, much like other kinds of bigotry, was once spread almost exclusively via word-of-mouth. Whispered stories of poisoned wells, murdered infants and evil schemes pervaded everywhere that Jews lived. In the modern age, they started to appear in books and performing arts from Easter plays where Jews screamed for the death of Jesus to perhaps the most influential anti-Semitic screed ever written, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the long-debunked hoax purporting to show the sinister world domination machinations of the Jews. The Internet, according to the authors, enormously expands the audience and scope of possibility for the inheritors of that same bigotry.
“The computer revolution provided a new platform for anti-Semitism,” Foxman said.
One aspect of that new platform the authors discuss is how people who would once have been isolated and unlikely to speak up about, or act on, their prejudice are now far more easily reached by organizations and groups that share that same bias, reaffirming their beliefs and limiting the likelihood of them becoming educated or well-informed enough to grow out of them.
“There’s more exposure for anti-Semitism in more places and with higher frequency than there could have ever been before,” Foxman said.
According to Wolf, the expanded forum of the Internet didn’t change the core goals of the ADL in its efforts to combat hate groups, but it is much more challenging to try and seek them all out, since the sheer breadth of the Internet makes a comprehensive culling impossible.
“Everyone can be a publisher now,” he said.
Though some might believe it to be trivial to catalog and fight online hate speech, the Internet is also a breeding ground for real-world action. Organized pushes to promote bigotry via legislation, disseminate anti-Semitic books like the Protocols and Mein Kampf (a book otherwise illegal and almost impossible to get in countries like Germany), and even post personal information of adversaries, thus encouraging harassment and physical violence, are common. And because of the nature of the Internet, much of it is done anonymously.
“The Internet has put the mask back on the bigot,” Foxman said.
To fight against hate on the Web requires a combination of efforts from Internet giants like Google and Facebook along with the contribution of anyone who sees something untoward online.
“When you see something, you should report it,” Wolf said.
He explained that at least on mainstream sites like Facebook, the pages that encourage racism and bigotry can be, and are, banned by the administrators and reported to law enforcement if it seems as if violence is imminent. Everyday Internet users who report these kinds of things make a real impact on limiting hate on the Web, he said.
“It’s difficult but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight against it,” he said.
Ultimately, to effectively push back against hate speech requires education and counter-speech that can directly address the hate speech and expose the prejudice behind those who promote it.
“You have to answer bad speech with good speech,” Foxman said.
Using a combination of educational material and technology to fight against online hate will work far better than any sort of legislation, Wolf said, especially as it would be nearly impossible to try to curb hate speech in a way that wouldn’t be able to be misused as censorship.
“There needs to be a flexible, nuanced approach,” he said.
Hate speech is very unlikely to go away in the near future, but the outline of its current state and methods and suggestions of how to limit it make Viral Hate relevant and likely to remain so for a long time to come. Still, the authors remain hopeful that with enough people awakened to the reality of bigotry and hatred online, its influence can be marginalized.
“I’m an optimist,” Foxman said. “I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t believe it would get better.”