Finally, ministers are showing teeth in fight against online hate

Examples of far-right online antisemitism from the CST report in 2018
Examples of far-right online antisemitism from the CST report in 2018

Throughout the centuries, antisemites have always seized on the key communication mediums of the day and warped these to their hideous purpose.

The online space is no different. Antisemites have taken a key advantage of the online era – being able to meet people around the world – and used it to identify like-minded Jew-haters and recruit new members to their cause.

This is a serious concern for our community. In a period where vast swathes of the population are confined to their own homes and spending more time online, those who hate us are busy recruiting. Last month, the UK’s head of counter-terrorism policing warned of growing concern at the rise in online radicalisation during the pandemic.

Hatred of “the other” is a core part of radicalisation, whether on the far-right or among jihadists. And all too often, we Jews are that “other”. This week, the far-right terrorist who tried and failed to break into a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur last year, subsequently murdering two people nearby, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He streamed his attacks on social media platforms.

In the UK, there is now a way to fight back. The websites and social media companies that have, through inaction, allowed their networks to be used to spread hate are being targeted by a new law that could drastically reduce the spread of antisemitism online – if focused effectively. Last week, the government published its response to the Online Harms White Paper, providing further information on its intentions for the forthcoming Online Harms Bill.

The response makes it clear the government is treating this subject seriously. The legislation “will apply to any in-scope company that provides services to UK users, regardless of where it is based in the world”. Additionally, “enforcement powers have been designed to be able to be used against companies with and without a physical or legal presence in the UK”. In other words, it doesn’t matter if your company is based in Silicon Valley with its European headquarters in Dublin; if it has UK users, it will be liable under this new legislation.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, will also take on responsibility for the online sphere. It will be able to levy steep fines  – something the Board of Deputies called for – of up to £18 million or 10 percent of global annual turnover on companies that fail to comply with its directives. In extremely serious cases, senior managers of such companies could even face criminal charges.

This is clearly a bill with teeth – as such, it is vital these punishments also be in place for companies that fail to take antisemitism seriously. The Board of Deputies has made it clear that for this to happen, Ofcom will need to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism and judge the companies’ protection of Jewish users against that standard.

Had something of this sort been in place earlier, we and other Jewish communal organisations might not have had to spend years pleading with social media companies to ban Holocaust denial. Requests to ban high- profile social media accounts that were spreading virulent antisemitism might have been responded to in minutes rather than days, weeks or months. And numerous reported examples of obvious hate might not have been met with the standard response that “this post/tweet/video does not violate our community standards”.

Additionally, it is important social media companies be required to appoint UK teams to moderate UK users suspected of breaching community guidelines; they are more likely to have political, cultural and linguistic context for cases than a team based elsewhere in the world.

We will continue to stress to the government and to Ofcom, the vital importance of ensuring the Online Harms Bill cracks down on online hate. Failure to do so would be a missed opportunity of catastrophic proportions.

About the Author
Marie van der Zyl is the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews
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