(August 18, 2020 / JNS) The Israeli parliamentary hearings of July 29 and Aug. 3 with social-media platforms Twitter, Facebook and Google exposed a troubling reality of double standards that many of us sense—that inconsistent applications of incomplete policies drive erratic decision making on what content is blocked or flagged, and what content is not. The fact that TikTok bailed on the hearings, in the midst of allegations of serious accountability shortcomings in the United States, was disappointing, to say the least, and reveals the global nature of this challenge—getting digital platforms to acknowledge the tremendous responsibility that comes with the power they hold in their hands.
In the now viral video clip from the hearings, online anti-Semitism expert Arsen Ostrovsky asked why tweets by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini that call for violence against Jews and the Jewish state remain unmarked, while tweets by President Trump are flagged. Countless other examples exist, making the question not about President Trump or Khamenei, per se, but about the intolerable double standard in the implementation of Twitter’s so-called hate speech policy.
The response from Twitter to this particular question, which has now reverberated around the world, only served to reinforce these double standards, referring to the calls for genocide as “saber-rattling.” Indeed, it seems that calls to violence against other minority groups are addressed by Twitter, but when it comes to Jews or the singular Jewish state and its citizens, no action is mandated.
It is important to recognize too that these double standards do not affect Jews alone, as their very existence undermines policy intended to protect all individuals and/or groups from hatred. History has taught us that it does not take much for this hatred to spill over, resulting in mass atrocities on a global scale.
The hearings in parliaments around the world, including in Israel, are only a first step in taking action to expose this culture of impunity. The next step must not be the trend of “canceling” and must instead incorporate clear definitions and transparent and consistent policies. In this particular case, the solution is adopting and implementing the consensus working definition of anti-Semitism.
In an effort to create a comprehensive definition, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism recognizes that delegitimization, demonization, and yes, double standards, against Jews and the Jewish state are anti-Semitism. This definition has been adopted by over 30 countries, enabling and guiding the ability to address anti-Semitism offline. It is time that digital platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and TikTok, similarly recognize the importance of this tool, and adopt and implement it online.
Practically speaking, this means that IHRA can be used by the digital giants not to cancel or remove content, but rather to “flag” or label it. Under this new paradigm, content such as Khomeini’s tweets would come with a warning that they are anti-Semitic and violate the IHRA definition. In this way, social media can take responsibility and positive action to afford users the opportunity to learn and recognize what anti-Semitism is. This same model can surely be applied to other forms of hate speech and racism and be used to eliminate all online double standards.
Cancelling is a quick-fix “solution” that temporarily removes content or individuals from the discourse but exacerbates the challenges by failing to prevent future hatred. For the sake of us all, social-media platforms must instead take positive steps to flag problematic content and educate people regarding it, thus ending the double standards, taking responsibility and preventing unchecked hatred online.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh is a member of Knesset for the Blue and White Party in Israel. She is also an international law, human-rights and free-speech expert.
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