On October 27, 2018, a man named Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven people (Stephens, Matsakis, Robertson). Bowers had been active on Gab, a social media network where hate speech proliferates, and where he had expressed antisemitic views (Matsakis, Beausoleil 2101). His actions provide a tragic example of how the failure to adequately police and call out hate speech in the media can have violent, real-life consequences. Antisemitism is a form of hostile bias directed towards Jews and Judaism. My project focuses on how the media addresses antisemitism in the United States today. Although violent events like the Tree of Life massacre receive widespread condemnation and coverage, mainstream media sources often overlook lesser instances of antisemitic speech, implicitly suggesting that it is acceptable. Moreover, social media companies have not done enough to prevent virulent forms of hate speech on their platforms. My goal here is to outline steps that can be taken to reduce antisemitism and other forms of hate speech in the media.
My Interest in the Problem
Antisemitism has a long and painful history, culminating in the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust (“Background to the Holocaust”). My own interest in the problem stems in part from personal identity. My mother’s family is Jewish. Fortunately, most of her relatives came to the United States from Europe before World War II, but almost all those that did not immigrate before the 1930s died in concentration camps. Unfortunately, antisemitism did not end with the Holocaust, and in recent years antisemitic speech and acts have been on the rise, fueled by social media and by a presidential administration that did little to discourage hateful speech directed towards Jews and people of color. As I watched a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt ransacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, I knew I wanted to learn more about how the media contributes to the spread of antisemitism. How did the American media address antisemitism in the early twentieth century? Why is the problem growing today, and how does the media’s response contribute to it? After addressing these questions, I will consider some possible micro and macro solutions to combat antisemitism and hate speech in the media. Some of these solutions have a lot of potential. It is my hope that less hateful speech will reduce hate itself, and the violence that accompanies it. Read more about why I am interested in this particular issue here.
Antisemitism in the Media in the Early Twentieth Century
Many of the seeds of American antisemitism were sown in the decades between World War I and World War II, and the media played an important role in the promotion of anti-Jewish ideas and beliefs. The media contributed to antisemitism in two important ways. First, some news outlets directly promoted a negative portrayal of Jews in newspapers and other sources; second, even reputable sources like the New York Times often failed to criticize antisemitism sufficiently, allowing it to spread. In the aftermath of World War I, Americans were increasingly concerned about immigration, foreigners, communists, and other perceived “un-American” threats (Ribuffo 438). Jews were among the groups viewed as potentially un-American, and suspicion of them was furthered by antisemitic media outlets. Among the most blatant of these was the Dearborn Independent, a paper owned by Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors. In the 1910s, Ford, who had long harbored antisemitic views, started to use his newspaper to spread false claims about the causes of his financial problems and the broader economic problems in the United States (Ribuffo 453). The newspaper started publishing The International Jew, a column which promoted the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy (Ribuffo 453, Rifkind 73). The first installment of the column, published in 1920, included claims that Jews control the world’s finances, that they control the media, and that they secretly control governments in places where they reside (“The International Jew”).
While Henry Ford’s antisemitism was active and obvious, antisemitism was also promoted by the passive responses of media outlets that downplayed or ignored reports of extreme anti-Jewish violence and bias in the build up to World War II. Even the New York Times, America’s most respected and bipartisan newspaper, failed to fully comprehend or call attention to the growing threat against European Jews in the 1930s. According to one scholar, “the New York Times was at pains not to appear to be a ‘Jewish newspaper’; hence it was particularly critical towards news emanating from Jewish sources, especially after 1933” (Seul 415). Other papers also downplayed the threat that Hitler posed to Jews and to the world (Seul 416, 421). Thus, antisemitism in the United States was able to gain a foothold due to both active promotion of misinformation about the Jews and passive reluctance to call attention to antisemitism or criticize the Nazis in the early 1930s. Read more about the history of antisemitism in United States mass media in my essay.
The Current State of the Problem
Today, antisemitism is on the rise (“Antisemitic Incidents Hit All-Time High”). The Anti-Defamation League has documented 119 instances of antisemitism in my own home community, the San Francisco Bay Area, since 2016 (ADL). In the country as a whole, antisemitic incidents in the past decade range from graffiti on synagogues or in Jewish cemetaries, to violent terrorism (ADL). Drivers of antisemitism include a continued reluctance to call out antisemitism in the mainstream media, and the limited restrictions on hate speech on social media platforms. Although the mainstream media usually covers violent acts like the Tree of Life massacre extensively (Robertson). However, major news outlets sometimes overlook or downplay antisemitic beliefs and acts that are perceived as less extreme or obvious (Stephens). This perpetuates antisemitism by normalizing it and making it appear socially acceptable.
In the internet age, however, many people get their news and information through social media rather than mainstream sources. Although the passivity of mainstream media reporting on antisemitism is problematic, social media is often an active driver of antisemitic beliefs and acts. According to a study by the World Jewish Congress, in 2016, antisemitic posts occurred at an “average rate of 44 per hour or one post every 83 seconds” (Chan). The algorithms used to drive engagement in social media companies are one reason posts like these spread widely and quickly. Designed to feed users information they will click on to drive advertising revenue for the social media platforms, the algorithms help to foster an “echo chamber” whereby people see only information that reaffirms their racist and biased beliefs rather than challenging them. (Beausoleil 2110). These echo chambers amplify hate, sometimes with terrible consequences. In addition to the Tree of Life shooter, other hate-driven mass shooters like Dylann Roof, who murdered Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, were also radicalized on social media (Beausoleil 2102). Read more about recent antisemitic extremism in my essay.
Solutions: Micro and Macro
Hate speech is hard to combat in the United States because even the most virulent and shocking kinds of hate speech are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, (Beausoleil 2104). The Constitution was written in 1787, more than 200 years ago, and it was not designed to address the challenges of the internet age, where hate can be perpetuated extremely quickly and anonymously (Beausoleil 2128-2129). One solution to this problem is a Constitutional amendment which would allow the government to regulate hate speech (Beausoleil 2144). This is a macro-level solution, and one that is worth pursuing. However, amending the Constitution is a long process and needs to be ratified by three quarters of the states.
A more promising angle in the short term is to pressure social media companies to suppress and remove hate speech from their platforms. Unlike the government, Facebook and Twitter are private companies which have the power to regulate antisemitic speech on their sites. Since social media is such an effective driver of hate speech, active regulation and suppression by these companies can make a substantial difference in people’s exposure to antisemitic content. Recently, some companies have started to make some positive changes. In December of 2020, Twitter updated its hateful conduct policy to make their community more inclusive and prevent dehumanization (Ahmed). Driving this new willingness to tackle hate speech is the fact that social media companies are increasingly under pressure from the government and from the public to address it. For example, Stop Hate for Profit, a consortium of organizations dedicated to stopping hate on social media, pressures social media companies by pushing companies that advertise on Facebook and Twitter to pull their advertising dollars until those companies do more to address the problem (Stop Hate for Profit).
My own strategy for helping to combat antisemitism draws on their model. We, as individuals, can write to companies to demand that they advertise only on sites that restrict hate speech and limit the spread of racist and antisemitic content. If enough customers write to companies we patronize and threaten a boycott of their products and services, they will, in turn, pressure social media companies to regulate hate speech more fully. My project includes a sample letter for interested readers to use as a template if they want to pursue this path. Another tier of my strategy is to educate myself about amendments to the Constitution, and write to my Congressional representatives in support of an amendment that will allow the regulation of hate speech. In conclusion, I recommend that readers concerned about antisemitism and other forms of bigotry follow strategies like these and take individual actions that might seem small, but that can slowly push forward macro-level solutions to limit the exponential spread of hate.
I would love to hear your comments on my micro and macro solutions, as well as whether or not they are attainable. Thank you so much for reading!