We as a society are still grappling with how to combat identity-based hate expressed on social media: how to contend with the speed at which content is spread on social media, whom to hold accountable for its spread, how to contain its reach, and how to respond to it. Social media is a newer addition to more traditional levers of power—a lever wielded by celebrities, politicians, and influencers with millions of followers, then fortified by everyday users who like and repost tweets, memes, or videos until they achieve viral status. Algorithms often mark social media engagement without discerning whether users are responding to content favorably or critically, leading not only to the amplification of hate online but, on certain platforms, to users receiving more unwanted racist or bigoted content. Hate on social media can take many forms, including text-based posts, such as tweets, comments on others’ posts, and the focus of this lesson, memes.
Tracking the fluctuation of identity-based hatred on social media poses myriad challenges, as both social media platforms and our engagement with them are constantly evolving, but it’s clear that antisemitism has a persistent and robust presence in these spaces. On TikTok alone, antisemitic comments increased 912% from 2020 to 2021.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate reported that 714 anti-Semitic posts on social media received 7.3 million views in two months in 2021. Of these anti-Semitic posts, only 16% of the posts were removed by the social media companies.
In a 2022 ADL youth survey, three out of four marginalized youth reported being harassed online because of their identity.
Such harassment can harm the mental health of those whose identities are targeted, making them feel fearful and isolated. It can also lead to identity suppression. Young people report leaving their Jewish identities off of their social media presence in order to avoid anti-Jewish responses.
It’s also critical to understand that antisemitism on social media does not stay there; it leads to antisemitic incidents in non-virtual spaces. For example, in the weeks following Kanye West’s antisemitic tweets in November of 2022, a neo-Nazi group hung an antisemitic banner referencing his tweets from a freeway overpass in Los Angeles; the Holocaust Museum LA (whose invitation for a private tour West rejected) was flooded with hate mail; and antisemitic messages referencing his tweets were projected at a college football game in Jacksonville, Florida. Online hatred has also been linked to acts of mass violence around the world, including the shootings in mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; a supermarket in Buffalo, New York; and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Recognizing online antisemitism in both visual and text-based forms is a critical step in effectively responding to it, one that requires an understanding of the mythology—the tropes, coded language, and conspiracy narratives—that fuel antisemitism. Providing young people with the tools to critically analyze and deconstruct antisemitic messaging online will help them better navigate virtual spaces where they will almost certainly encounter antisemitism as well as other forms of identity-based hatred without falling victim to this propaganda.