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Combatting Online Hate

Updated: 4 days ago

These are complicated times. There can be little doubt that antisemitism in all its forms has surged significantly in recent months and is reaching unheard of peaks online and at every level of civil society. Our sense of security as Jews in the heart of Europe may not be as strong as it was. Listening recently to young Jewish students in the US reporting their unease and fear led me to reflect on our European campuses, aware that pop trends are not the only thing that inevitably migrates from the US to Europe. How long will it take before the same unease and fear confronts our own students? In some instances it is already happening.

There can also be no doubt that tragic geopolitical crises are enabling a very vocal return to ‘traditional’ antisemitic tropes. The ‘socials’, whatever we think of them, are now ensconced, unavoidable, and profoundly influential, and they are clearly facilitating the barely-censored spread of antisemitism and its transformation to fit our altered circumstances. When I enrolled last year in a certificate programme on contemporary forms of antisemitism, little did I know how relevant it would become – the programme started on October 9th, 2023 – and indeed how relevant IJC’s Neighbours Coalition Against Antisemitism, Islamophobia and Hate would become. Recent events have made it clear that we need to be prepared to respond to this new conduit for the spread of hate towards Jews and other vilified minorities.

Response Strategies

This was the topic of the Neighbours Coalition webinar facilitated by experts from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and its subsidiary Coalition to Counter Online Antisemitism (CCOA). One important strategy developed during the webinar focused on best practices in our response to hate speech via ‘counter speech’. What is counter speech? “The basic idea is that hateful and derogatory comments are not left unchallenged but are responded to with arguments and conviction, dismantling and discrediting them (addressing the silent listeners). In doing so, the strategies of hate speech are exposed, and one’s own stance is made transparent. The facilitators underlined some important features of ‘counter speech’: “…demonstrating solidarity with victims; advocating for values (like respect, fostering a healthy culture of debate); requesting sources; contradicting: demanding a differentiated worldview, pointing out contradictions.” They also repeated the need to be aware that engaging in ‘counter speech’ on social media is not primarily about addressing the ‘immediate interlocutor’ who may not be open to (en)counter, but rather the many secret listeners standing in the wings. One useful point is derived from psychology’s analysis of conversation. “Conversations have two levels: a motivational level (goals, values, needs) and a behavioural level (expressing content).

This allows us to reject hate speech in terms of content while acknowledging what might be motivating it (e.g. fear, uncertainty). Whatever the circumstances, it is vital to remain respectful, not to combat hate with hate, to try to differentiate between opinion and hate. And while it might not be easy, it remains important that we do not let ourselves be provoked. A first response might be to step back and ‘take a breath’. The facilitators also outlined the circumstances in which online counter speech works best: “with posts that have high attention/large reach; by setting our own positive narratives for democracy and diversity (not just reacting); by addressing the empathy of the counterpart, if there is space for open discourse; when our primary aim is not to convince the counterpart, but to address ‘silent listeners’ and the community.”

Hate Speech at a Personal Level

Perhaps the most important question remains: how do we deal with hate speech on a personal level? The facilitators recommended the following strategies: “seek support: family, friends, colleagues; talk about it, don’t keep it to yourself (no reason for shame!); report hate via reporting and monitoring institutions; hand it over to experts: do not read hate comments yourself if you don’t want to. Hate is not an opinion nor constructive criticism. Seek professional help (legal, psychological)! You are not alone!”[1]

ISD’s toolkit for understanding and combatting online antisemitism can be downloaded here.

IJC’s Neighbours Coalition is organising an in-person seminar on May 26th on Jewish Muslim Allyship, facilitated by experts from Germany and Austria. They observe that Jewish and Muslim communities tend to be marked as ‘special problems’ for society, and that they face discrimination and marginalisation due to antisemitism and anti-Muslim racism. Many also assume, at least implicitly, that Jews and Muslims have a ‘special problem’ with each other. The seminar will endeavour to dismantle such assumptions and create a foundation for dialogue and interaction. Registration opens soon and I hope many community members will participate.

[1] Quoted text is Copyright © Institute for Strategic Dialogue (2024).



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