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Opinion One year after the Tree of Life attack, anti-Semitism is still on the rise — and social media isn’t helping

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, shown at a House hearing Wednesday, refuses to ban false political ads.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, shown at a House hearing Wednesday, refuses to ban false political ads. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
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Jonathan A. Greenblatt is chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

One year ago this week, a white supremacist stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and gunned down 11 worshipers. It was the single deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States, a violent climax of months of anti-Semitic, racist and other hate incidents that had been building all around the nation.

I had hoped that this would be a turning point, a moment when the anti-Semitic fever broke and leaders from all sectors of society moved to condemn this ancient scourge and make clear that it — and other bigotry and hatreds — would not be tolerated in America.

But one year after Pittsburgh, that is not the case. From charging that Jewish money controls Washington to saying Jews aren’t truly loyal to America, the use of anti-Semitic slurs has continued across the political spectrum. Anti-Semitic incidents have not abated — nor have other incidents of virulent racism, a fact that is not unrelated.

Micro-targeted data intended for advertising on social media is being used to to change power structures globally, says Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. (Video: The Washington Post)

Data released this week from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism shows that the United States continues to experience record numbers of anti-Semitic incidents; preliminary reporting shows 780 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the first six months of 2019, almost mirroring the 785 incidents reported during the same period in 2018.

These acts are not just the work of right-wing extremists, nor are they limited to murderous occurrences. They include anti-Semitic taunts and graffiti, and harassment and assaults directed at religious Jews. In the first half of this year, there were 200 such incidents in New York City alone. They form an arc of extremism that is accelerating as hate is normalized and as individuals are radicalized with alarming ease, due in part to the growth and design of social media.

While platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have fostered global connections and reshaped society, they can also be a magnifier of and catalyst for anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of hate and discrimination. Spread and sustained by social media, white supremacy has mutated into a global epidemic. That’s why it is incumbent upon the companies that run these platforms to act now.

Twitter, Facebook and many of these businesses already have taken some steps, but with limited effect. Social media companies often attribute this to free speech and problems of scale. The latter is a fair point: There are hundreds of millions of posts worldwide every day, so even if the companies’ policies were 99.9 percent effective, that would still leave millions of posts and people impacted by them.

But the platform companies are not addressing how their business models allow bigotry to thrive. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, for example, has admitted that the company needs to do a better job removing hate on its platform, but has also inexplicably given a green light to some of the most hateful actors in the world, including Hamas and Hezbollah. And Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg refused to take action to stop politicians from spreading clear falsehoods on that platform, writing in an op-ed, “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy.”

The tech chiefs also fail to acknowledge that private companies decide what content gets magnified or minimized through their actions and algorithms — thus essentially shaping the public conversation for billions of people. With this unprecedented scale, disinformation or other content incites bigotry, instability and violence.

But this can be stopped. Private companies are not government entities and are not constrained by the First Amendment. If you went into a cafe and started yelling “Die, Jews” or “Go back to Mexico” at the patrons, the owners would throw you out. Why should the online world be any different?

Facebook, Twitter, Google and bad actors such as Gab and 8chan should do the same if someone breaks their rules and spews hatred. What’s more, perpetrators of online hate often engage in completely unprotected activity: making criminal threats, stalking, harassment. Platforms can and should adopt policies that significantly decrease virulent and toxic hatred.

Of course, making these determinations when you have hundreds of millions of users is not easy; there is no quick fix. Still, these companies need to recognize their responsibility. They should make modifications to their core products complemented by regular, external audits. Transparency is vital to ensure the proper accountability that any entity operating at this scale with this much power must have.

Anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry predate the Internet. Cracking down on social media will not cure society of this hatred, nor will it end violence against Jews or other vulnerable communities. However, social media companies need to recognize how their extraordinary creations are emboldening extremists. They need to act far more responsibly than they have to date.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: What Jews think about anti-Semitism

Marc A. Thiessen: The rise of anti-Semitism on the left

Jennifer Rubin: Trump shows us again what he thinks of Jews

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: The good news about the Democrats’ resolution on anti-Semitism

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans have a choice, but they prefer the racist anti-Semite

Paul Waldman: No, President Trump, America’s Jews will not be joining you in the GOP