As World Marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, Anti-Semitism Moves to the Darknet (with VIDEO)
Amid social media clampdown and pandemic. extremist groups connect on fringe websites that are nearly impossible to monitor, experts warn
With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing and amid growing crackdowns on hate speech, anti-Semitic discourse has shifted away from mainstream social networks and is making itself cozy on the darknet, a part of the internet hosted within an encrypted network and accessible only through specialized anonymity-providing tools.
Prof. Dina Porat, the head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that lockdowns have led to a decrease in violent anti-Semitic attacks. Unlike previous years, no Jews were killed in anti-Semitic attacks in 2020, according to Porat.
The darknet is a no man’s land. There are extremist groups opening up sites and changing them frequently so that they [can’t get] caught. It’s very difficult to monitor them because they take care not to be accessed [except] by those they want
“But by the same token, people are at home glued to their screens and their cellphones … and so anti-Semitism is on the rise in social media,” Porat said.
Under growing pressure, Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks in recent months have stepped up efforts to crack down on misinformation and anti-Semitism. These policies have not stopped the hate from spreading in other ways, however.
Far away from the prying eyes of the authorities and content moderators, extremist groups are flourishing on fringe websites and mobile applications that are nearly impossible to track or monitor. More and more extremist groups are moving to the darknet and to platforms thought to be particularly secure, Porat warned, including social sites like 8chan, Gab or Telegram.
“The darknet is a no man’s land,” she explained. “There are extremist groups opening up sites and changing them frequently so that they [can’t get] caught. It’s very difficult to monitor them because they take care not to be accessed [except] by those they want.”
While difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem, evidence of such groups’ growing influence came to the fore earlier this month, when rioters stormed the US Capitol as Congress convened to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral-vote win. It was later found that far-right supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement fueled much of the attack.
“Extreme anti-Semitism comes from them,” Porat stressed. “The coronavirus changes life and the venues of anti-Semitism change accordingly.”
Some of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that have recently surfaced accuse the Jews of being “virus spreaders” and of attempting to make an enormous profit from COVID-19 vaccines.
“It goes hand in hand with the conspiracy theory of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: that the Jews are in fact a global entity with a goal of world domination,” Porat explained. “Their belief is that the Jews – together with Israel – have orchestrated the virus.”
Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which will be marked on January 27, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry has cautioned that Jews around the globe would likely face a spike in anti-Semitic incidents over 2021 due to the spread of such unfounded theories. In an annual report on anti-Semitism that was released on Sunday, the ministry said that there was a sharp increase in online expressions of anti-Semitism in 2020, including via an Iranian-led social media campaign that compared the state of Israel to COVID-19.
Last April, several Twitter users began posting tweets with the hashtag #COVID1948 or #COVID48, linking the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 to the virus. Since then, the hashtag has been used tens of thousands of times across social media. A study by Stanford University published in August revealed that a network of 507 Iranian accounts began popularizing the use of the hashtag last spring. Around that time, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also tweeted the hashtag and compared Zionism to a “long-lasting virus.”
“This is something that we definitely saw coming into the UK social media space from other places: this idea that Israel is comparable to the virus and that the world should fight Israel the way it has to fight the virus,” Dave Rich, director of policy at Community Security Trust (CST), told The Media Line. “That demonization of Israel as the world’s ultimate evil and a threat to world peace.”
Some argue that the Zionist regime is a reality that the region must come to terms with. Today the #Covid_19 is a reality; should it be accepted or fought?!
The long-lasting virus of Zionism will be uprooted thanks to the determination and faith of the youth. #Covid1948
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) May 22, 2020
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in late May compared Zionism to a “long-lasting virus” that will be “uprooted.” (Twitter)
كان عام مليء بالإنجازات و نعدكم بالأفضل 🇵🇸✌️
حملة #Covid48 من أنجح حملاتنا في عام 2020 التي كان هدفها المقارنة بين وباء كورونا و وباء الإحتلال
و إثبات أن وباء الإحتلال أشد خطورة من وباء كورونا pic.twitter.com/gqKal1qvuv
— Emad Alajouri 𓂆 (@EAlajouri) January 1, 2021
In this tweet shared on Jan. 1, 2021, a Jordan-based man writes: “This was a year full of achievements and we promise even better ones. The #COVID48 campaign was one of our most successful 2020 campaigns, whose goal was to compare the coronavirus plague to the plague of the occupation and to prove that the occupation plague is the more dangerous of the two.”
Early on in the pandemic, CST, a British charity that monitors and combats anti-Semitism, found that anti-Semitic hate speech had shifted as a result of the virus.
“Anti-Semites and extremists will exploit any big news story or any major world issue to spread their conspiracy theories and their prejudice,” Rich said, adding that fringe social media platforms were taking on a more important role in such narratives.
Other Jewish leaders are also concerned about the Diaspora Ministry’s findings.
Robert Singer is chairman of the Center for Jewish Impact, a recently established non-profit organization that promotes and develops initiatives for Jewish communities around the world.
Singer, former CEO of the World Jewish Congress, believes that online anti-Semitism is likely to increase over the coming years as the crisis continues to unfurl, especially with Israel leading the world in its vaccination campaign.
“It has the potential to explode,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t think anything has changed in the last 2,000 years. The Jews were always blamed during different pandemics that happened in the past. It’s much more severe now because it’s a combination of an economic and a health crisis.”
For International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Center for Jewish Impact will be launching a video campaign aimed at fighting anti-Semitism. With the help of elite athletes such as NBA Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo and former NBA and current Maccabi Tel Aviv star Omri Casspi, the campaign explores how sports can help fight racism and prejudice worldwide.
In the videos, the athletes speak about anti-Semitism and give their thoughts on the lessons from the Holocaust.
“This year will mark the 85th anniversary of the infamous 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin,” Singer emphasized, referring to the international sporting event held in Nazi Germany.
With their massive audiences, Singer continued, “sports celebrities are among the most powerful as far as delivering the message is concerned.”
Daniel Sonnenfeld contributed to this report.