When Hate Goes Viral


In “Viral Hate: Containing its Spread on the Internet” (Palgrave MacMillan), Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman and attorney Christopher Wolf, national chair of the ADL Civil Rights Committee, investigate the “dark side” of the World Wide Web — its use by the disseminators of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate.

The book coincides with the announcement that the ADL has received a multimillion-dollar grant to expand its polling on international anti-Semitism and establish an ADL Global Anti-Semitism Index. The Jewish Week reached Foxman, who is in Israel this week, via e-mail. This is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: The danger of the Internet is an old story. What’s new that you talk about in your book?

A: The book is about the same kinds of hate we have seen before — anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia — being transmitted using new technologies and reaching a vastly wider audience. “Viral Hate” is our effort to underscore how hate has metastasized on the Internet, especially with the advent of social networking.

How is the anti-Semitic message — both the content of the message and the identity of the messengers — changing with the emergence of the Internet?

Anti-Semitic messages take many forms online. There are both overt and “stealth” anti-Semitic websites, including those promoting Holocaust denial. There are also social media pages, games with hateful content, and sales of anti-Semitic merchandise. Chris Wolf and I point out that the ways in which the Internet is being used to disseminate and promote hateful and violent beliefs and attitudes are astounding, varied and continually multiplying. In terms of the identity of the messengers, purveyors range from old-fashioned crude haters to more sophisticated conspiracy theorists to public figures, some of whom cloak their anti-Semitism in attacks demonizing or attempting to delegitimize Israel.

Who are the worst offenders?

We are not in the business of labeling some purveyors of anti-Semitism as worse than others. But we do believe that the explosive growth of social media represents perhaps a greater threat than anti-Semitic web sites. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have provided an environment where hateful materials are disseminated and can go viral. For example, Facebook pages like “Kill a Jew Day” and the “Third Intifada” gained an alarming number of followers is a very short time.

How big a threat is the Internet to the Jewish community?

The Internet poses threats to the Jewish community on different levels. The spread of anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes as “truth” is quite troubling. But the threat is also more specific, and can have real world impact of online hate. One obvious example is James von Brunn, the self-proclaimed white supremacist, anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who shot a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009. In the old days, von Brunn would have been relegated to using mail to communicate his rage to like-minded individuals. The Internet changed all that. For years, von Brunn maintained a website called Holy Western Empire where he touted his views and provided excerpts from his book denying the Holocaust and praising Hitler.

The anonymity that can be achieved on the Internet is also a serious concern, because it makes our efforts to monitor, exposing and counteract anti-Semitism much more difficult.

What has the ADL, or like-minded organizations, done to fight fire with fire, to use the Internet and social media to get its message across?

We have been encouraging people to get involved with social media, to flag offensive content, to speak out, to applaud positive messages and to think before acting. ADL also actively participates in international coalitions that promote civility and counter-speech online, such as the Task Force on Internet Hate of the Inter-Parliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism, as well as the International Network Against Cyber-Hate.

Education is a critical tool in the virtual world just as in the real world. As we write in the book, teaching respect is everybody’s business – and it’s a more potent tool for vanquishing the hatemongers than the blunt instrument of law.