The Internet is Making Anti-Semitism Socially Acceptable

February 16, 2009

Remarks of Christopher Wolf
Chair, ADL Internet Task Force and Chair
International Network Against Cyber-Hate (INACH)
To the London Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism
Houses of Parliament, London


Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important conference. It is an honor to be here.

In Washington, DC, where I live, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has just opened an exhibit on the power of Nazi propaganda. The exhibit shows how the Nazi propaganda machine skillfully spread lies about Jews and perpetuated centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes. It also shows how the Nazis crafted racist messages that were more nuanced than one commonly thinks — messages that were designed to appeal to and persuade the general population, not just fanatical followers. The exhibit thus shows how the Nazis crafted propaganda to create a climate of hatred, suspicion and indifference that ultimately led to the elimination of Jews. Nazi propaganda made anti-Semitism socially acceptable, which perhaps was its greatest evil. That acceptance in society of Jews as outcasts created a climate in which the Holocaust could occur.

Today, the Internet is a powerful and virulent platform for anti-Semitism — hate towards Jews that has a direct link to violence, terrorism and the deterioration of civil society. Hitler and the Nazis could never have dreamed of such an engine of hate.

Indeed, the Internet is the new propaganda machine for anti-Semites. But instead of being under central control of a political party or group, its power is in its viral nature. Everyone can be a publisher, even the most vicious anti-Semite. Hate begets hate, and its common appearance makes it seem acceptable and normal.

The Internet allows anti-Semites to communicate, collaborate and plot in ways simply not possible in the off-line world. The Internet inspires and facilitates real-world violence. Today, following the Israeli operation in Gaza, assaults against Jews around the world are on the rise. In Europe and South America, Jews have been threatened and beaten on the street and synagogues firebombed. It is more than likely that the instant coordination and planning by the gangs responsible for the attacks were done with the assistance of all of the communication tools of the Internet, from e-mail, to text messages, to so-called meet-ups.

Beyond the Internet facilitating instant violence toward Jews, the Web sites and other online messages of anti-Semitic hate serve to victimize those especially vulnerable to hurtful words and images, especially the young and survivors of the Holocaust and their families. And perhaps most distressing, Internet hate speech serves to mislead and even recruit young people to become the next generation of anti-Semites.

A few years back, we might have dismissed the crass and blatant web sites of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic groups as outliers — fringe elements not worth taking seriously or worthy of response. But today, we also are in the world of what is called "Web 2.0," which has transformed the way the Internet is being used. Now, everyone can be an Internet publisher (or propagandist). And with the users of Web 2.0 comprised largely of younger people, the impact of the information contained there may persist for generations to come.

With new search technologies, a fringe group's anti-Semitic Web site can be ranked as the number one search result on Google, and achieve worldwide viewership. In the few years since the advent of YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, MySpace and other Web 2.0 technologies, we have seen a sudden and rapidly increasing wave of anti-Semitic videos, "affinity groups," online commentary and images of anti-Semitism across the Internet and around the world.

Videos that glorify Hitler and Nazism, and that deny the Holocaust, are often found online. If offered in an educational context, with explanation of their hateful origins and of how they glorified or played a role in the deaths of millions, perhaps such material would serve history. But they are not offered in that context; they are posted to provoke hate and to recruit haters. The "comments" section on YouTube which allows users to post their reactions to the videos makes clear that the purpose and effect of the videos is to inspire hate and violence.

Blogging and social media sites are changing the way people communicate their reactions to events in the news and interact with each other. Those who harbor anti-Semitic beliefs are comfortable expressing themselves in cyberspace, where they can provoke a reaction from others or find like-minded individuals to affirm their beliefs. That was the case following the news of a $50 billion Ponzi scheme engineered by financier Bernie Madoff. The blogs and online comments to news articles about Madoff were ablaze with anti-Semitic stereotypes blaming the Jews for the current financial crisis.

The perniciousness of anti-Semitism on today's Internet is that the more one sees it, the more one is likely to consider it normal, and acceptable. Good people are numbed by the proliferation, and daunted by the task of responding. And others consider it a reflection of what is acceptable in society. Like the nuanced Nazi propaganda designed for the general population, that is the real danger of online anti-Semitism.

We have seen the impact. A new survey of seven countries across Europe conducted by the ADL shows millions continue to believe the classical anti-Semitic canards that have persistently pursued Jews through the centuries. That is the case notwithstanding the efforts of governments to combat anti-Semitism. Clearly, the message of anti-Semitism is getting through, and with newspaper readership and television viewership in decline, people are getting their information elsewhere — online. And online is where the virus of anti-Semitic hate is being spread.

As a lawyer, you might expect me to say "there ought to be a law" to deal with online anti-Semitism. One response to the presence of such vile material online is through lawmaking and law enforcement. Legislatures around the world have heeded the call for new laws aimed at Internet hate, except notably in the United States where the First Amendment prohibits broad regulation of speech.

The Internet hate protocol to the Cybercrime Treaty is a prime example of a heralded legal solution to the problem. And even in the United States, while there are not new Internet-specific laws, existing laws against direct threats or incitements to violence or terrorism have been used against online miscreants.

There are those who think laws are the way to regulate hate speech, and there are those, like me, who think laws often-time are futile and ineffective, and that those concerned about hate speech should focus primarily on the other tools available to fight online hate, such as the voluntary involvement of the Internet industry and the powerful tool of education.

To be sure, there are clear cases where legal enforcement is absolutely required, such as where an individual or identifiable group is targeted for harm. And there also are cases where legal action serves to express decent society's outrage against speech that goes well beyond the pale of what is acceptable in normal discourse, especially in light of recent history. In countries like Germany and Austria, the enforcement of laws against Holocaust deniers — given the bitterly sad history of those countries — serves as a message to all citizens (especially impressionable children) that it is literally unspeakable to deny the Holocaust given the horrors of genocide inflicted on those countries.

With that said, there are many who believe that prosecutions such as that of David Irving do more to promote his visibility, and to stir up his benighted supporters, than they do to truly quell future hate speech and enlighten the public.

But the reflexive use of the law as the tool of first resort to deal with online hate speech threatens to weaken respect for the law if such attempted law enforcement fails or is used against minor violations. It is simply impossible to monitor and police the proliferation of anti-Semitism being distributed through Web 2.0 technologies. For every take-down of offensive anti-Semitic content, new content multiplies.

Moreover, given that the U.S. with our First Amendment essentially is a safe-haven for virtually all Web content, removing content or shutting down a Web Site in Europe or Canada through legal channels is far from a guarantee that the contents have been censored for all time. The borderless nature of the Internet means that, like chasing cockroaches, squashing one does not solve the problem when there are many more waiting behind the walls — or across the border. Many see prosecution of Internet speech in one country as a futile gesture when the speech can re-appear on the Internet almost instantaneously, hosted by an ISP in the United States.

Certainly the prosecutions under the law of Germany of notorious anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and Frederick Toeben sent messages of deterrence to people that make it their life's work to spread hate around the world that they may well go to jail. And, again, such prosecutions expressed society's outrage at the messages. But all one need do is insert the names of those criminals into a Google search, and you will find Web sites of supporters paying homage to them as martyrs and republishing their messages.

I am not saying that law has no role to play in fighting online hate speech — far from it. I am saying that countries with speech codes should make sure that the proper discretion is employed to use those laws against Internet hate speech, lest the enforcement be seen as ineffectual resulting in a diminished respect for the law. And I am saying that the realities of the Internet are such that with Web 2.0 viral technologies, removing comments or a video or shutting down a Web site through legal means in one country is far from a guarantee that the Web site is shuttered for all time. Certainly in absolute terms, new laws have not stemmed the tide of new web sites and social networking sites containing hate speech.

Last February, I spoke on Internet hate speech in Jerusalem at the Global Forum Combating Anti-Semitism hosted by Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the Minister of the Diaspora, Society, and Fight Against Anti-Semitism.

Coinciding with the conference, Shimon Peres, the 84-year-old leader of Israel recently challenged a group of international students to use their time on Facebook to counter the spread of hate and bullying. He said: "Anti-Semitism is a disease of everyone. Persecuting minorities, discrimination, xenophobia and violence exist in many countries in the world," Peres told the group. "You have the opportunity to teach your friends about the memory of the Holocaust so that these horrors will never be forgotten and will never be repeated." Peres doesn't have his own Facebook account yet as far as I know, but I wouldn't be surprised if he gets one soon. And he is right about the power of viral speech online — if kids see their peers repeatedly speaking out against hate and intolerance, and reminding others of the effects of hate speech historically, it will make a difference.

In addition to counter-speech, education is hugely important, because kids are the most impressionable, susceptible victims of hate speech. Teaching kids how to filter the anti-Semitism they encounter on line, and teaching them why anti-Semitism is woven from lies and hate will have a far greater impact than any set of laws or technology tools.

Still, at the ADL, as well as at INACH, through its member organizations, we seek voluntary cooperation of the Internet community — ISPs and others — to join in the campaign against hate speech. That may mean enforcement of Terms of Service to drop offensive conduct; if more ISPs in the U.S. especially block hateful content, it will at least be more difficult for haters to gain access through respectable hosts. And in the era of Search Engines as the primary portals for Internet users, cooperation from the Google’s of the world is an increasingly important goal.

I have now set the stage for the discussion that will follow here among the Parliamentarians. You have a sense of the problem of online anti-Semitism and its potential to create a culture of acceptance for hatred of Jews. And in the context of European history less than 100 years old, I know you share my urgent concern that the Internet is making anti-Semitism socially acceptable, creating a foundation for real-world hate and violence.

Again, thank you for having me participate in this important gathering.