Twenty-eight years ago, I launched the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Digital Hate Project (which after 9/11 became the Digital Terrorism and Hate Project). Even before the internet and social media, an undercover operation we launched in Germany and South America revealed that neo-Nazis were more adept at using computer technology than the police agencies who were trying to track their activities, which were generally computer illiterate.
Soon enough, racists, antisemites, Holocaust deniers, and white supremacists in the Americas were also drawn to the computer and emerging software. Here was their opportunity to more efficiently organize, raise funds and, most importantly, inject their hate – unchallenged, unedited and unfiltered –directly into the mainstream of society.
That led us to begin to monitor the online activities of bigots and terrorists and to launch an ongoing dialogue with new tech companies in Silicon Valley, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Our goal then and now is simple: We urge tech companies to adopt terms of usage that would degrade or remove individuals and groups who promote racism, antisemitism and terrorism. We back up that call with face-to-face meetings providing real-time hate postings and annual reports detailing the mushrooming use of the internet by bigots and terrorists.
Over the course of a quarter of a century, there has been some progress in degrading the online marketing capabilities of bigots. However, companies have often reminded us that they have a responsibility to safeguard free speech (except for China) and that they are committed to maintaining a level playing field for anyone who isn’t breaking the law or calling directly for violence or illegal activity.
Inevitably, these for-profit companies have emphasized over and over again that they are not in the business of censorship. The whole idea of the internet is to create a global marketplace of ideas where virtually any topic can be presented and debated.
For years, company officials also insisted that there were technological limits to what they could do to block hate and that to get these tech giants to agree to a single standard about anything was basically impossible.
And then one day it all changed.
In the midst of a US presidential campaign, unelected gatekeepers of information decided to cripple a sitting president of the United States’ ability to communicate his views. Overnight, they began to block articles they deemed harmful to the Democratic candidate; they set limits on discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic; they decided what was “fake news.” And a few days ago, Reuters confirmed that a Google-owned (GOOGL.O) streaming service removed videos about the suffering of the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese Communist regime.
Meanwhile, it took 15 years to get Facebook to finally remove Holocaust denial from its platform and, even now, Twitter continues to ban private citizen Donald Trump but continues to allow antisemitic, genocide-seeking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei full access to their service to market his evil agenda.
The internet companies are no longer just social media giants, they are social warriors. This is reflected not only in overt political censorship online but demands for companies to take public positions on controversial issues of the day.
Which brings us to, arguably, the most powerful information gatekeeper of all: Google.
In recent weeks there have been a number of deeply troubling moves by the tech behemoth that have an impact on Jews.
*Google refused to fire its chief of diversity, Kamau Bobb after his antisemitic blog post surfaced wherein he wrote that Jews “have an insatiable appetite for war.” Instead of being fired immediately, he was moved to another post in Google, his antisemitic views to be hidden from the public. Had the target of his loathing had been LGBTQ, Latinos, Blacks or Asians, he would have been shown the door immediately. A dangerous double standard, with no real price to pay for antisemitism.
*In wake of the recent Hamas war, wherein the terrorist organization with support from Iran hurled 4,300+ rockets into Israel proper (not so-called West Bank ‘settlements’) generating a powerful Israeli response, anti-Israel activists exported Hamas’ hate, violence and talking points to the rest of the world. This led to violent assaults and threats against Jews in Germany, France, and the UK, and in major cities in Canada and the US. Not to be outdone by the pro-Hamas thugs, high-profile pro-Palestinian academics, social media influencers, politicians and entertainers weighed in to defend Hamas and denounce Israel for killing Palestinians. A number of self-declared anti-Zionist Jews demanded that Google do the same.
*Google defended the right of an employee who touted the terrorist rallying cry, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” despite the objection of a Jewish co-worker. That slogan promotes the elimination of the democratic state of Israel. No word on what would happen to the 9.5 million citizens of the Jewish state.
Anti-Israel activists know that other major companies are watching how Google manages this crisis. They are hoping it will do for Hamas what it did for Black Lives Matter a year ago.
Following the lead of tech giants weighing in on political and social issues, many companies have made pronouncements and support for “equity” and “social justice.” This was followed by statements of solidarity for the unfair targeting of Asian Americans with hate and violence linked to COVID-19. But when American Jews suffer anti-Semitic hate crimes from coast to coast, it’s been mostly crickets from corporate America. So much for a level playing field.
Jews of all political and religious affiliations are awakening to an unprecedented situation. In 2021, Jews in America – whatever their feelings about Israel – don’t fit neatly into the narratives contrived by intersectionality and cancel culture, and hammered home by academia and the media.
The Google situation must serve as a wake-up call for American Jews to engage and push back on all fronts – in Washington, on the streets of our cities, and in the board rooms of powerful companies – to demand our rights as Americans and as Jews. If we fail to act, we will find ourselves and our children marginalized and isolated.