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How anti-Zionist freedom of speech normalizes antisemitism on social media

Since the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and ensuing protests on college campuses across the West, antisemitism has risen alongside an insistence by pro-Palestinians that calling out such sentiment seeks to stifle criticism of Israel. Indeed, the organization CyberWell reported a plethora of undetected antisemitic social media posts in Arabic spouting Holocaust denial and other libel. That said, while non-English content flying under the radar could be partially explainable by a potential language barrier, social media platforms might be caving to pressure by antisemites masquerading as anti-Zionists to allow more readily recognizable anti-Jewish content.

The fine line that often exists between anti-Zionism and antisemitism can make it difficult to not only distinguish the two but also identify when the former slips into the latter. An examination of classic antisemitic tropes could serve as a determinant – for example, the stereotype of Jewish power and privilege, physical appearance, and comparisons between Jews and animals such as insects. In fact, similar to X (formerly Twitter)’s policy invoked for Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic statements comparing Jews to “termites” back in 2019, Facebook (Meta)’s community standards surrounding hate speech count these comparisons to warrant content reporting.

Facebook community standards on hate speech

However, as a former Facebook content moderator, I found a recent incident particularly concerning. When reporting the following comment denigrating Orthodox Jews as “cockroaches”, I was surprised when Facebook refused to remove the comment.

Antisemitic comment on Facebook

While working in content moderation at Facebook in 2016, referring to any group as animals of any kind would have been a no-brainer for removal. Nowadays, the recent adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) in support of human content moderation should facilitate this process even further, especially with AI’s capability of binary classification. Ideally, this automation would by default flag any comment containing keywords pertaining to both a protected group and an animal. A human moderator would then double check that this content actually goes against platform policy by drawing an analogy.

Facebook declined to remove the hate comment

In the above case, Facebook not only ignored the protected group-to-animal analogy but also a specific keyword stated to violate their content policy. Although Facebook presented the option to request a second review, the platform again failed to remove the content, with the specific excuse that the COVID-19 pandemic is still causing challenges in moderation.

Stated reason for no-repeat content review policy

Even if a pandemic that broke out four years ago and is largely mitigated by now still presents challenges, certainly this wouldn’t be as much of an issue for specific keyword detection by AI. Moreover, one would expect the initial refusal to remove the comment to have included the COVID-19 disclaimer regarding a second review.

In terms of context of the overall comment, a human moderator very well could have overridden AI keyword alerting. The specific reference to “Israeli Jews soldiers” introduces Israel and, for some viewers, “Zionism” into the mix. Therefore, under the guise of anti-Zionist freedom of speech, a reviewer could easily have determined the comment as not violating hate speech policy. This presents yet another example of how protecting “legitimate criticism of Israeli crimes” often supersedes what would – or should – count as antisemitic hate speech.

Although many eyes remain on Israel lately due to its offensive in Gaza and impending Rafah invasion, this type of slippery slope could potentially affect any cultural, religious or other protected group. Popular representation of Israel, as ever, paints the country’s very existence as “colonial” in its existence and “genocidal” in its aspirations for self-defense. Critics therein continue to lament many attempts to curb antisemitic hate speech as an alleged campaign to suppress freedom of expression. Many universities and apparently even social media platforms have begun succumbing to this pressure to allow supposed free speech that has grown bold enough to incorporate classic antisemitic tropes that, one would hope, would have long qualified as hate speech.

Indeed, despite the popular claim that the pro-Palestinian narrative is being silenced, the widespread praise of the pushback by both students and professors at these institutions shows the sweeping support for the narrative pushing calls for both the dissolution of Israel and dehumanization of Jews. The emergence of an upcoming generation of educated elites indoctrinated with antisemitism at both their universities and on social media could end up normalizing anti-Jewish sentiment.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is an author, screenwriter, and security professional with a bachelor degree in Middle East Studies from UC Berkeley and a master degree in counterterrorism. Her work has appeared in the Jewish Journal and Middle East Forum as well as Cyber Defense Magazine, Cyber Security, Dark Reading, Geopolitical Monitor, Infosecurity Magazine, ISACA Journal, 365 tomorrows, AHF Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review and Thriller Magazine. Her book "Back to the Tribe: Intersectionality through a Global Jewish Lens" discusses the dangers of stealth antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism on the Western left.
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