No Lone Shooter: How Anti-Semitism Is Winning New Converts on the Internet

1 min
Detail of a word cloud showing terms (many of them anti-Semitic) associated with “Jew” on the Internet from the nonprofit Network Contagion Research Institute, which combed through nearly 100 million comments on social media channels from July 2016 through the end of 2017. (Courtesy of Network Contagion Research Institute)

The man accused of killing a woman and injuring three people in a shooting at a Poway synagogue in late April is expected to appear in court this week to face more than 100 federal charges, including obstruction of the free exercise of religion and hate crimes.

John T. Earnest, 19, allegedly acted alone, but he posted an anti-Semitic "open letter" on 8chan, in which he credited the online forum famous for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for helping to shape his views. He also expressed the hope his actions would serve as inspiration for a new set of memes to spread these ideas.

Conspiracy theories have been at the core of anti-Semitism, and the internet is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theorists. Exactly how this genre is evolving was the subject of an event held last week at the Computer Science Museum in Mountain View by UC Santa Cruz's Data and Democracy initiative.

"Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest hatreds in the world," said Rachel Deblinger, co-director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative and director of the Digital Scholarship Commons at UC Santa Cruz. "The internet provides the tools of creation and dissemination to everyone."

She argues, as do others, that social media platforms of all kinds are effectively resurrecting and refreshing ideas and visual tropes — or "memes" — stemming back to Medieval Europe.

At a recent forum on anti-Semitism and the Internet, Rachel Deblinger, co-director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative at UC Santa Cruz, demonstrates how new, digital memes draw on ancient, non-digital tropes. Shown here: a recent cartoon of Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros, depicting him as a world-dominating spider, alongside something similar but much older.
At a recent forum on anti-Semitism and the internet, Rachel Deblinger, co-director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative at UC Santa Cruz, demonstrates how new, digital memes draw on ancient, non-digital tropes. Shown here: A recent cartoon of Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros depicts him as a world-dominating spider, alongside something similar but much older. (Courtesy of Melody Nixon)

You can see modern versions of images used to demonize Jews all over social media and not just on forums where you might expect to find openly, virulent anti-Semitism, like 4chan, 8chan and Gab.

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As The Associated Press recently reported, Facebook is inadvertently repackaging propaganda by militant groups, auto-generating videos and pages the same way it reminds you to celebrate anniversaries with your Facebook friends.

At the Computer History Museum, Deblinger pointed to one Pinterest page filled with historical imagery. Without any explanatory text, it's hard to determine the page owner's interest in the material. But Deblinger and others agree anti-Semitic content presented without context leaves the consumer of that material free to cement opinions in any direction.

They also said the images reinforce anti-Semitic thinking already present in our online culture. Some of today's anti-Semitic ideas sound eerily similar to those espoused by Nazi Germany: pseudo-science theories identifying Jews as a separate race, or as being disproportionately responsible for the emergence of a host of modern social and economic ills.

Deblinger said journalists can unintentionally promote anti-Semitism by even just publishing anti-Semitic imagery.

Vlad Khaykin, associate director of the Anti Defamation League’s regional office in San Francisco and Rachel Deblinger, co-director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative at UC Santa Cruz. The two spoke at a forum on anti-Semitism and the Internet at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
Judah "Vlad" Khaykin, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s office in San Francisco and Rachel Deblinger, co-director of the Digital Jewish Studies Initiative at UC Santa Cruz. The two spoke at a forum on anti-Semitism and the internet at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. (Courtesy of Melody Nixon)

Take for example, the recent controversy involving the New York Times. The Times came under fierce public criticism when its international editorial section republished a cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented as a dog, leading a blind President Trump, dressed in the garb of Orthodox Jews. The Times later apologized.

The Portuguese cartoonist, António Moreira Antunes, denies his work was anti-Semitic. He may have primarily intended to comment on the power dynamic between two political figures — but the imagery mimics a long line of anti-Semitic visual tropes stretching back centuries.

Those include cartoonish images of Jews animalized as dogs, pigs, rats and spiders, and of Jews leading "blind" non-Jewish world leaders as part of a conspiracy to dominate the world for nefarious ends.

The incident at the Times happened in April, the same month the Anti-Defamation League’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported a total of 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions across the U.S. in 2018 — a near-historic high in the period since ADL started tracking this data in the 1970s.

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The incidents include everything from fliers to robocalls, but the ADL picks out a troubling trend: "While most anti-Semitic incidents are not directly perpetrated by extremists ... In 2018, 249 acts of anti-Semitism (13% of the total incidents) were attributable to known extremist groups or individuals inspired by extremist ideology."

"The internet serves as the latest battleground in the fight against anti-Semitism," said Judah "Vlad" Khaykin, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s office in San Francisco. "These people are collaborating with each other. They’re sharing 'best practices.' They’re fundraising. They’re organizing, and so on."

"The internet has allowed anti-Semitism to morph and to change, and that poses new challenges," said UC Santa Cruz history professor Nathaniel Deutsch who, along with Deblinger, co-directs the Center for Jewish Studies at UC Santa Cruz.

Deutsch was referring to a relatively modern narrative of Jews somehow organizing or promoting non-white immigration to Western Europe and the United States, thus threatening to effect "white genocide."

It's this narrative that a growing number of hate speech watchers see as cultivating a sense of urgency among online readers that they must take up arms against Jews and others.

"Some of those challenges, you can address through the internet itself," Deutsch said.

How exactly? He means public education campaigns, like #ManyVoicesOnePrayer, featuring more than 100 faith leaders. Posted in the wake of the Poway shootings, it addresses a larger truth about extremism online: It’s breeding attacks on all sorts of worship.

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