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April 28, 2020 4:54 pm

Tech Companies Must Take Further Action Against Surging Online Antisemitism Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Experts Say

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

A man types on a computer keyboard. Photo: Reuters / Kacper Pempel / File.

Online antisemitism is spiking as coronavirus-related conspiracy theories fester, and while tech companies are realizing the extent of the problem, more action must be taken, three experts said during a webinar held by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on Monday.

On the “Advocacy Anywhere: Coronavirus, Conspiracy Theories, and the Current State of Global Antisemitism” webinar held via Facebook and Zoom, Katharina von Schnurbein — the European Commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism — noted that conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the coronavirus were “dangerous not only because they create an atmosphere for the Jewish community that is very unpleasant,” but also “we know that conspiracy myths have translated into attacks in the past.”

She noted that new regulations on combating hate speech online had been adopted by the EU and “what will be the next step is to ensure this is not only done on a European level, which is important, of course, but unless it trickles down and every mayor, every school director understands what needs to happen, there will be no change for the Jewish community. So, this will be the challenge now.”

Nikita Malik — director of the Center on Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society in the UK — emphasized the importance of legislation, particularly in regard to far-right antisemitism.

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Malik said she was struck by the “difference between hate crimes legislation — which is what is usually used in the United Kingdom for antisemitic hatred and antisemitic violence in the real world — and terrorism legislation.”

“Neo-Nazi imagery and white supremacism deserve to be classified as terrorism,” she said, “because it is that serious. It’s not hate crime, it’s not an opinion against a certain category of people, it’s actually looking to enact violence and often eradicate an entire group of people. It’s very serious and it has a political objective, and as a result, it deserves to be designated.”

Holly Huffnagle, the AJC’s US director for combating antisemitism, addressed the free speech issues raised by combating antisemitism online, noting that in the US, the First Amendment did not apply to private online platforms.

“If I post something or say something that goes against those tech companies’ rules,” she said, “it’s not a freedom of speech issue, its actually a corporate responsibility issue for them to clean out their platforms.”

Huffnagle sounded an optimistic note, however, saying, “We have seen improvement. If you look at just 10 years ago, where we were in this space, tt’s leaps and bounds for what tech companies are able to respond to, what they’re doing now. There is movement, but we’re in the middle of it right now and we can’t stop.”

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