Good morning. I am honored to speak with you today on this important subject. But first, I want to thank MP Housefather and Congresswoman Wasserman-Shultz for the kind invitation, and for convening everyone here to discuss this critical topic. As many of you know, before I started in my position at the State Department, I was a historian and university professor. So, if you will indulge me, I would like to put on my university regalia once more.
As a historian, I look for trends. But it doesn’t take a historian to notice the growing trend we are here to address; a trend we are all witnessing, which should be of the utmost concern to all governments: Antisemitism, commonly accepted as the world’s oldest hatred. These days we see classic, age-old antisemitic tropes online and elsewhere with increasing frequency — including rhetoric from government leaders and public figures implying outsized Jewish control of national, regional, and even, global matters. We also see increased physical manifestations of antisemitism across the world: marchers carrying Nazi symbols in parades, people painting swastikas on synagogues or near Jewish sites, and violent physical attacks on Jews in the streets of major cities. But the spread of antisemitism is also changing and manifesting in new and unpredictable ways. And much of that is because Jew haters are operating in online spaces.
As with other forms of hate, antisemitism online is on the rise. According to The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, between January 2020 and March 2021, Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram saw a 700 percent increase in antisemitic posts in France. In Germany, those same platforms saw a 1,300 percent increase. The ADL reports that, in the United States, 36 percent of Jews report experiencing antisemitic harassment online in 2021. Antisemitism is everywhere. It’s in the streets and it’s in the tweets.
As Americans, when we talk about how to address hate online we must remain mindful of the protections of the First Amendment, of which I am a staunch advocate. Not just because I now represent the U.S. government, but because of my own personal experiences. When I was sued for defamation by Holocaust denier David Irving, he tried to infringe on my freedom of speech. He tried to silence me. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of American democracy, although it is subject to certain limits. The American view is that the answer to even hideous, bigoted, and hateful speech is, not to censor, but more speech — the idea being that the best ideas will ultimately win out against the small-minded speech of those who peddle in hatred. That is why we can and must call out and condemn and counter antisemitism whenever and wherever we see it. However, I am also not so naïve as to believe the same strategies that have served us well in the past will be fully sufficient to counter the rising antisemitism of our modern world.
When I began to study antisemitism, and specifically Holocaust denial, if I wanted to read related material where people had engaged in denialism, I had to order materials, and they would arrive in a plain envelope delivered to a P.O. box from a P.O. box. No one wanted to be tracked. But now, with social media and other online platforms, all someone has to do is type a few words into a search engine and they can get all kinds of hateful content. Even more concerning is that, sometimes, users don’t even seek this kind of content, but rather algorithms aimed at keeping the user glued to the computer screen all day provide it to them. Users can inadvertently fall into black holes of disinformation, and we’ve seen the consequences. I recently spoke to a young woman who went online to order the Turner Diaries for a project she was working on about violent extremism. After her order, she received a list of other suggested alt-right, hate-filled books from the platform. There are too many cases of individuals falling down this rabbit hole—who start exploring the internet in their free time, only to fall victim to these automated systems. Before they knew it, they spent 12-15-20 hours consuming hate-filled conspiracy theories they never knew existed. Radicalization to violence is happening online every day, and its consequences were recently seen in Buffalo New York.
It is evident that online antisemitism can fuel violent extremism, which then seeps from the virtual into the real world and eats away at the foundations of democratic societies. When the Jew-hater posts, the uninformed may listen. With each algorithm, comment, like, and share, antisemitic conspiracy theories can indoctrinate a new generation of followers as lies and calls to violence spill from the margins into the mainstream.
One difficulty with combating hate online is figuring out how to do so effectively while upholding freedom of expression and using digital technologies to respond with counter messages. My office has benefited tremendously from amplifying some of our diplomatic efforts through social media channels. Just last month, Commissioner Khotari, one of the three members of the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Israel invoked in a media interview the “Jewish lobby’s” purported “control” over social media and questioned whether Israel should be a UN member state. Ambassador Michèle Taylor and I took to Twitter and issued a joint statement condemning the antisemitic remarks. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield amplified the statement on her social media accounts. My team and I also engaged with various interlocutors at the UN and High Representative Miguel Moratinos publicly reaffirmed his commitment to combating antisemitism on Twitter. All these public actions, that everyone could follow in real time, resulted in an apology from UN Commissioner Khotari for the inappropriate and offensive language. These are real, meaningful benefits of effectively using online platforms to increase government transparency and hold public officials responsible for their words.
I often liken social media to a knife—a knife in the hands of a killer can do terrible damage. A knife in the hands of a surgeon can save lives. It is how we use it that matters. We must remember this as we engage in these conversations. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to combat antisemitism online; rather, we can use already existing resources. We can encourage social media platforms and companies to abide by their own commitments to counter hatred online by ensuring they uphold, their own terms of service agreements. We can work together to help companies strengthen the language of these policies and support them in staying true to their own company values. Social media platforms, by design, are adaptive and creative and can lead the way in creating more tolerant, inclusive, and safer online spaces. We can work together, government, civil society, and social media platforms, to try to dismantle the “highways to hatred,” but we must commit to concerted action and be prepared to sustain it.
Though the means of disseminating antisemitism may be changing with technology, our commitment to combat it must remain steadfast. We must use all mechanisms at our disposal, as well as creative partnerships. I know we face an uphill battle as we fight antisemitism online, but I am optimistic that together we can make a difference. Members of Congress and Parliaments, civil society organizations and NGOs, and tech platform executives, all have critical roles to play in addressing hatred online. I am grateful to you all for your partnership in this important work, and I look forward to an engaging and productive conversation. Thank you.