Tamar Snyder, Anti-Semitism 2.0 Going Largely Unchallenged, The Jewish Week, 20 February 2008
Old-guard groups seen slow in recognizing viral threat from Facebook, YouTube.
More than 35,000 people have joined the Facebook group “Israel is not a country! … Delist it from Facebook as a country!”
Type “Jew” into the search function on YouTube, and you’ll discover a host of anti-Semitic videos, including “911 Jew Spy Scandal 3” and a video clip in which National Polish Party’s Leszek Bubel declares himself a “proud anti-Semite.”
And Google Earth, the satellite-mapping program, recently came under fire when officials from Kiryat Yam filed a lawsuit against Google after the Internet giant refused to take down a note posted by user Thameen Darby claiming that the northern Israeli town was founded on the remains of the Arab village of Ghawarina.
This is the new face of anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism 2.0. And it’s potentially more hazardous than the relatively straightforward smear campaigns and petitions of yesteryear.
Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google Earth thrive on communities in which users generate and share information in the form of videos, photos and blog posts, which are subject to vague terms of service and seemingly arbitrary censorship.
This leaves the door open for anti-Semites across the globe to co-opt these applications to spread messages of hate, often failing to distinguish between Jews and Israel when comparing Jews to Nazis and Israel to apartheid South Africa, observers say.
“This phenomena is spreading anti-Semitism and acceptability of anti-Semitism in new and increasingly effective ways,” says Andre Oboler, a Legacy Heritage Fellow who runs ZionismOnTheWeb.org and is a post-doctoral fellow studying online public diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University.
“Now in the Web 2.0 world, the social acceptability of anti-Semitism can be spread, public resistance lowered and hate networks rapidly established,” Oboler said.
What’s worse, Oboler contends, Jewish organizations are behind the times and are not devoting the resources necessary to stop the hate virus from spreading.
Many at the helm of these large organizations have yet to sign up for a Facebook account, don’t spend much time on YouTube and aren’t all that sure what Google Earth is.
“Community leaders tend to be the sort of people who are too busy to spend time looking at YouTube videos,” Oboler says. “They are very, very focused on old media, which is a bit strange, since a lot of people their age are online.”
The average American YouTube viewer is 39, and 33.5 percent of Facebook users are between 35 and 54 years old.
The more tech-savvy among community leaders realize just how grave the situation is — but have all but shaken their heads at the impossibility of making a dent in the large volume of hate messages being spread. As Myrna Shinbaum, spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League retorted, “We can’t sit here all day monitoring YouTube and Facebook.” (The organization does report objectionable material to service providers. “But the minute they do the right thing and pull something down, another pops up,” says Deborah Lauter, ADL’s national civil rights director. “It takes constant vigilance and policing.”)
Yet we live in a world in which “truth” often belongs to the Web site with the highest Google ranking and the most hits, regardless of its credibility. Therefore, anti-Semitism 2.0 is arguably far more serious than its previous Web incarnations. And when it comes to social networking sites, the stakes are higher since the reach is that much greater, Oboler contends.
On Facebook, for example, information spreads in a viral fashion. When users join a group or sign up to promote a cause, their friends are automatically notified in their “news feeds.” They then have the option of joining, too, spreading the message even further. “The message thus spreads not only across geographic boundaries, but also across social groups,” explains Oboler.
The “Israel is not a country!” group, for example, attracted 35,000 members as of press time. Assuming each member has approximately 150 friends (a lowball estimate), then the group — which decries Israel as an apartheid regime and claims that Israel has no right to exist — will have been advertised to more than 5.25 million people.
In response, several Facebook users established counter-groups, such as the “Palestine is not a country” and even “causes” such as “Facebook needs to delete the group ‘Israel is a terrorist country we all hate Israel!’” which more than 19,000 people have joined. Although “Israel is not a country!” no longer shows up in search results, “Israel: Terrorist State,” “I Hate Israel,” and some 75 groups like it still exist.
With larger Jewish organizations largely failing to combat anti-Semitism 2.0, much of the legwork has been left to individuals (many of them under 40) who lack both financial backing and the time to devote themselves fully to tracking and wiping out anti-Semitism in this new medium for spreading hate. “They see something, get annoyed and have to do something about it,” Oboler says. “But there’s no greater strategy behind it.”
Dovid, an Orthodox businessman in his late 30s, is one of the lone rangers on YouTube, the video-sharing Web site that — according to Alexa, a company that measures Web traffic — is the second-most visited site on the Web. He has posted more than 150 pro-Israel videos on YouTube, generating more than 1.3 million video views — and thousands of hateful and insidious comments (which is why he requested that The Jewish Week not print his last name).
“A little over a year ago, I was searching YouTube and there was so much really, really vile stuff out there,” he says. So he posted trailers from the 2005 movie “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”
“I wanted to get the message out there,” he says.
Using the name “CheckItOutNowNYC,” he continued to spend hours each week searching for videos that highlighted a positive image of Israel and the Jews, including one featuring Bob Dylan performing “Hava Nagilah.” More than 50,000 people have viewed his video, “See the Humane Treatment of a Palestinian Woman by Israel,” a three-minute NBC News clip about a female suicide bomber who entered Israel using a special medical permit but was caught with 20 pounds of explosives.
Dovid labels each video with background information and resources for those interested in learning more. The number of page views is staggering, as are the more than 100 comments he receives a day. But it’s very time-consuming, he says.
“I wish there were 50 guys like me downloading videos and reposting them,” Dovid said.
He’s since posted videos promoting Jewish organizations including Nefesh B’Nefesh and Efrat C.R.I.B. (Committee for the Rescue of Israel’s Babies). Yet he wonders why these organizations aren’t creating their own YouTube channel and posting their videos themselves.
“Super-large Jewish organizations are really slow,” he says. “But the goal is to get the videos out there. We need Jews to take a proactive stance to educate the public.”
A few Jewish organizations are warming up to Facebook. The Consulate General of Israel in New York and the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., both have Facebook pages, but they’ve each garnered less than 1,000 “fans.” The ADL has a Facebook page, too, but it’s a rather dormant unofficial page created by a high school student.
Among the handful of organizations that are first beginning to explore social networking as a possible avenue for promotion, most lack a comprehensive understanding of how Web 2.0 works.
“Various organizations have a policy that they won’t link to other sites,” Oboler says. “This is counterproductive. Web 2.0 is about sharing. The way a Web site gets popular is partly related to the number of links and how high up they are on Google.”
“Organizations — especially the younger ones — are now realizing that Facebook, YouTube and other such Web sites are an important medium for reaching out to Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to talk about Israel,” said Dani Klein, campus director of the pro-Israel activism group StandWithUs. StandWithUs often records on-campus events and lectures and posts them on the Web.
“There will be 50 to 100 people in the room hearing the lecture, but the number of people who can watch it on the Web grows exponentially,” Klein said.
Since 2005, StandWithUs has been actively using Web 2.0 to connect with Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus. It created a Facebook page, posts events and uploaded videos to the Web site, including the protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad’s speech at Columbia University. In addition to the StandWithUs Facebook page, the organization created a Facebook page for Israel, where Klein posts YouTube videos highlighting Israel’s technological innovations and humanitarian efforts, as well as important links and resources.
In what may be viewed as a hopeful sign, the organization is in the process of creating a multinational online task force to monitor Facebook, YouTube and other Web 2.0 applications and find problematic videos and groups that need responses. The task force would then work on posting educated, rational comments on these pages, hoping to sway those who joined anti-Israel groups out of peer pressure.
“The people who started these groups are most likely in the top 10 percent who are staunchly anti-Israel,” Klein said, adding that they are probably not easily swayed. Instead, StandWithUs will reach out to the majority of the group, who he calls “casual Palestinian supporters” who joined because their friends invited them or because “it’s hip to be anti-Israel.”
“We’ve always known it was a problem,” said Klein. “As individuals, we try to combat it. But we need to do more.”