Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Something started changing in the United States a few years ago. One could almost taste the air of hostility that started wafting across the country. Prejudices that in the past might have been expressed in private are regularly blasted on social media. Conspiracy theories can now be heard on major networks. Promoters of hate can now dine with the powerful. And violence is on the rise.
In keeping with an ancient pattern, the evidence that something is wrong in society can be found in a surging wave of antisemitism, now confirmed by yet another study – this one released Thursday by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – showing record levels of antisemitic incidents, getting worse at an accelerating rate.
A separate study has found that on one particular social media platform – guess which – antisemitic posting has grown exponentially.
Antisemitism is a complex problem, but the solutions are not a mystery. And for those who feel the problem is somebody else’s – after all, Jews make up only about 2% of the US population – history shows that when the virus of antisemitism infects a society, it can turn into a pandemic.
Something is rotten in America, but where is it coming from? Is it from irresponsible social media platforms chasing profits, from partisan “news” networks with little respect for the truth or from politicians seeking to bolster their electoral chances?
There’s no need to choose. These overlapping forces are harming the country and the evidence is visible in the data.
The ADL’s recent report found that antisemitic incidents reached their highest level in the US since the organization started keeping records in 1979. The number of incidents targeting Jews – from verbal insults to physical assaults – have almost tripled in six years.
They started climbing in 2016, when the political atmosphere shifted; when extremists started feeling empowered to chant “Jews will not replace us;” when a new president defended them and conspiracy theorists started expanding their audience. The country’s polarization, already intense, went into overdrive. But that’s only part of the story.
There’s social media, often a digital vehicle for hate, which last year became turbocharged by a change of ownership: Elon Musk bought Twitter, and the platform became an even more powerful conduit for antisemitism and other forms of hate.
A study by the nonpartisan Institute for Strategic Dialogue and CASM Technology, an organization that researches online hate speech and disinformation, used machine-learning tools to sort through Twitter posts and identify those containing antisemitic language. From June 1 to October 27, 2022, the day Musk bought Twitter, it found 6,200 posts per week that qualified as antisemitic. From that day until February, the number more than doubled to 12,700.
The study also found a surge in the number of newly-created accounts posting antisemitic content just after Musk took over.
Researchers tried to get a comment from Twitter, but the response was an email showing a poop emoji. That’s the same response Musk sent after another study, back in December, found an explosion of racist tweets after he bought the platform.
In November, Musk claimed that “hate speech impressions” had dropped, congratulating the Twitter team. But there’s no independent evidence that it happened, or that the team he was congratulating still exists. He has fired many of Twitter’s former employees, including content moderation staff. That was part of his effort to slash expenses after his costly purchase, open the platform to unpopular views – according to his claim to be a “free speech absolutist” – and rid the company of employees who criticized him.
As a platform, Twitter has become easier to use for nefarious purposes. After the Ohio train derailed spilling toxic materials, pro-Russian accounts used the incident to promote anti-American propaganda. Twitter’s new account “verification” system, open to anyone who pays $8 a month, enhanced the disinformation campaign’s credibility and reach.
Adding to the flames of hate, there’s television, where some networks have become purveyors of conspiracy theories and other lies. Fox News, the network whose owners admitted it knowingly “endorsed” lies, is another platform where antisemitic conspiracy theories have also found a home.
Rantings on social media and conspiracy theories spewed on television help fuel beliefs that can produce deadly violence in the real world.
The number of Americans who believe anti-Jewish conspiracy theories is exploding, doubling in the past couple of years to reach a 30-year high, according to an ADL survey released in January.
The responsibility for stopping this lies on everyone’s shoulders, from local and national government officials to community leaders and individuals.
Students everywhere should learn about the Holocaust. Most states don’t require it, and there’s evidence that a shockingly low number of young Americans even know basic facts about it. That should change. Young people, in particular, must understand the scale of what occurred and what brought about the murder of six million Jews in the middle of Europe.
Public safety agencies need to do a better job of identifying, reporting and protecting against hate crimes, including antisemitism. To do that, they need a commonly accepted definition of antisemitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Association, an intergovernmental association to which the US belongs, has a concise definition:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
IHRA offers examples of antisemitism, including making “dehumanizing, demonizing or stereotypical allegations about Jews,” but also noting that certain types of criticism of Israel fall under the definition. Some have claimed – falsely – that the IHRA framing bars criticism of Israel. It specifically says that criticism of Israel “cannot be regarded as antisemitic” as long as Israel is not held to a different standard from other countries.
Local legislatures should empower their law enforcement agencies with a working definition of antisemitism to couple with strong hate crimes law.
Both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, must do a more forthright job of calling out antisemitism in their midst. No party is immune from it, from the bizarre rantings about “Jewish space lasers,” to the offensive claims saying support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.”
It’s also time for Congress to tackle the jungle of hatred that has grown on social media. Owners and leaders of these platforms have a duty to prevent them from becoming recruiting grounds for extremists and bigots. That now-largely-shirked ethical responsibility must become a legal one, with penalties attached for negligence.
Last December, President Joe Biden established an interagency group to develop a national strategy to combat antisemitism. That was an important move. But government cannot do it all.
Individuals have a duty to call out antisemitism – just as they do any other kind of prejudice. Hatred burrows deep inside the psyche, then it shows itself when it feels safe.
It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure hatred never feels safe. It is everyone’s responsibility to help remove that air of hostility that has been poisoning America and make the United States a country that forcefully rejects prejudice.