Measures to remove hate speech from social media are targeting the wrong people and being abused for political purposes.
On August 29, a campaigner against hate speech was suspended from Twitter. Jeffrey Samuels QC, a distinguished British lawyer, was locked out of Twitter for allegedly violating its rules against “abuse and harassment.”
Neither of them had done anything other than challenge online hatred. The hatemongers, meanwhile, went unpunished.
Their experiences highlight the failure of YouTube, Facebook and other web platforms to regulate hate speech through pattern-seeking algorithms, or by acceding to organized campaigns by users, themselves trolls and abusers, to silence political opponents, without proper oversight.
It also underscores the urgent need to redefine these social media platforms as publishers and hold them accountable for the hatred, inaccuracies and fearmongering that create their huge profits.
In Britain, anyone who criticizes the problem of antisemitism in the Labour Party – a problem that party leader Jeremy Corbyn himself now acknowledges is serious – can expect a flood of unrestrained abuse. Victims range from TV personalities like David Baddiel and Tracy Ann Oberman, to local Labour councillors like Jack Deakin. As Deakin notes, many of the worst offenders claim to be members of the supposedly progressive Labour Party itself.
Oberman, a popular TV actress, now hosts a podcast titled simply Trolled. Baddiel, one of the UK’s best-loved comedians whose Twitter handle is simply “Jew,” is a non-Zionist who simply isn’t very interested in Israel. But his fierce opposition to antisemitism, including on the football terraces and inside the Labour Party, has led to so much trolling by antisemitic abusers on Twitter he has written a new stage show about it that he is now performing in British theatres.
“A lot of people don’t really understand what racism about Jews is. I’ve got into online debates where people are being racist about Jews but don’t even understand the idea they’re being racist. They think racism can only be directed towards people of colour,” Baddiel told the Guardian.
Twitter does little or nothing to moderate this abuse, apparently believing – like Facebook and YouTube – that there’s no such thing as bad controversy if it drives “engagement” and increases revenue.
Samuels, whose Twitter bio describes him as a “retired QC on a mission to fight online antisemitism,” didn’t actually violate any of Twitter’s rules, as a list of the supposedly offending Tweets supplied to him clearly illustrates.
“You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. This includes wishing or hoping that someone experiences physical harm,” Twitter informed Samuels on Aug. 29, inviting him to delete 25 Tweets and serve a 14-day suspension. Each deleted Tweet would be replaced by a notice saying it had been removed for violating rules against abusive conduct.
Both as a lawyer, and as a sentient human being, Samuels is reluctant to accede to Twitter’s demands.
More worrying is that the ban on Samuels and the accusations against him appear to be part of an organized campaign by a group of Twitter users with whom he was engaging. While these users – mostly pro-Palestinian activists whose hatred of Israel is so visceral they often descend to threats, harassment, abuse and even antisemitism – gaily fling all sorts of unfounded abuse and accusations, in Twitter’s warped process they can gang together to remove someone whose arguments they are unable to defeat with logic.
Samuels notes that the move to block him occurred after he had challenged Kerry-Anne Mendoza, editor in chief of The Canary, a website that has repeatedly belittled the antisemitism crisis in the British Labour Party. Mendoza blocked him, and then a group of Twitter users who had regularly added their abusive voices to his exchanges with Mendoza sought Samuels’s suspension from the entire platform.
“Twitter is a veritable cesspit of antisemitism,” Samuels says.
Twitter is “facilitating antisemitism by acceding to the demands of an antisemitic mob,” Samuels says. “I am unable to access my account unless and until I kowtow to antisemites. That I will not do.”
Nor is Samuels alone in his assessment of Twitter’s strange capacity to crank up the volume of hatred.
Rosena Allin-Khan, the British Labour MP for Tooting in London, and an outspoken campaigner for Palestinian rights, described “how anti-Semites hijacked my work with vulnerable Palestinian children.” Allin-Khan was subjected to a vicious online hate campaign after meeting with Israel’s deputy ambassador in London to try and secure travel permits for the parents of Palestinian children from Gaza hospitalized inside Israel.
“Astonishingly, the response on social media to my meeting with the deputy ambassador was horrific,” Allin-Khan wrote in The Guardian. “Some people who purport to support the Palestinian cause unleashed disgusting antisemitic abuse. These views do nothing to support the most vulnerable Palestinians – they are racist, misguided, ill-informed and unhelpful. I wanted to put the spotlight on this, as I believe such behaviour needs to be called out. In so doing, I prompted a further backlash, this time from people unable to even recognise antisemitism in the abuse that had been aimed at me. It is startling that there are those who cannot recognise the most basic antisemitic tropes.”
“The pushback was just horrific, unlike anything I have ever experienced,” Allin-Khan told The Observer. “I didn’t anticipate a backlash of this nature at all. I was genuinely astonished, and deeply disappointed, at this unleashing of antisemitic abuse on Twitter.”
Algorithms used to automatically sniff out online hatred proved their inadequacy in June when YouTube banned David Collier’s Beyond the Great Divide channel because it mistook his educational illustrations of online racism for advocacy.
Collier was told by YouTube that his account was suspended “due to repeated or severe violations” of the platform’s guidelines and banned him from “accessing, possessing or creating any other YouTube accounts.”
YouTube restored the channel after admitting it had been flagged “in error.” The regular appeals process takes weeks but after prominent British Jews protested on Twitter – including the editor of the London Jewish Chronicle, who called the decision “deranged” – the account was restored the next day. But Collier, who features clips from Nazi sympathizers and other racists in order to educate, noted that several videos from hatemongers including Holocaust denier David Irving and others peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories remain on the platform.
“YouTube may talk about fighting Holocaust denial and Jew-hatred but it still seems as if only antisemitism campaigners and historians really have to be concerned by the new crackdown,” Collier says.