Social Media Giants: Free Speech Is Not Hate Speech | Opinion

A caricature of a Chinese person is coughing on Uncle Sam, infecting the United States with COVID-19.

A German celebrity chef and author, Attila Hildmann, asks in a poll on his Telegram channel with over 60,000 subscribers: "Who financed the Holocaust? A. the Japanese B. The Zionists C. The Arabs"—87 percent of nearly 6,000 votes went to "the Zionists."

A cleric on Twitter deemed my country a "deadly, cancerous growth" which needs to be "destroyed."

The world today is infected with two pandemics: COVID-19, infecting people, and online hate and antisemitism, as in the examples above, infecting all major social media platforms. Like COVID-19, online hate starts with a few infected individuals and spreads, oftentimes unnoticed, to the mainstream. Sometimes its symptoms are mild or innocuous; and in certain cases, they are deadly.

Along with other minorities, Jews have been speaking out and warning about this virus of hate for over a decade and, like LGBT, Blacks, Asians and Muslims, are bearing its brunt for years. Just measuring the scope of online hate speech has daunted researchers. According to the Anti-Defamation League, in 2017 there were an estimated 4.2 million antisemitic tweets posted on Twitter in a sea of hate. At the beginning of July, YouTube removed 25,000 pages for hate speech, including of French antisemitic comedian Dieudonne, and U.S. neo-Nazis Richard Spencer and David Duke.

But here is the really worrying part. If the history of antisemitism has taught us one thing, it is that what starts as hateful rhetoric can quickly turn into violence, physical harassment, and worse. Many of today's hate crimes—wherever they take place, against whomever—started with hate speech online, especially on social media platforms. That is why our concern goes beyond the realm of people's laptops and mobile devices or legitimate arguments about freedom of speech. It stems from a determination to prevent future violence.

For years, while acknowledging there was a problem and saying they have more to do, social media giants for the most part let the problem fester and took few proactive measures to deal with online hate. Their terms of use are verbose and subject to interpretation when it comes to implementing them. While there are signs that they have finally begun to take the issue seriously, we'll believe it when we see it—through action taken.

Speaking of action, there are two first steps where we must begin.

The first thing to do in fighting incitement and antisemitism online, as in the real world, is to define it. While calling for the murder of Jews is obviously antisemitic hate-speech, what about other important, if a little less obvious forms, such as "Jews control world finance", or "Israelis are Nazis" or the Holocaust was exaggerated.

There is a need for a clear definition of what constitutes antisemitism on social media. In order to fight it, you need to define it. Fortunately, there is a definition. The multinational International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) formulated the Working Definition of Antisemitism in 2016 which has since been officially adopted by two dozen countries and the European Union. If so many countries adopted the Working Definition, I hope that the "sovereign entities" of Facebook, Twitter, Google and TikTok might do the same. Criticism of minorities or of the state of Israel is not hate speech or antisemitism; the definition explicitly states that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism.

The second step is transparency. Reporting. Germany requires social media companies to publish regular reports on complaints they receive, including on hate speech, and what actions they have taken. Last year, Germany fined Facebook two million euros for under-reporting complaints. A policy of open reporting should be embraced by social media companies, and these reports should be produced by an unbiased external auditor.

A clear understanding of what comprises antisemitism and an independent, transparent reporting policy is the way to begin. With no exceptions. The example of the cleric I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is none other than the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. Despite Twitter's clear policy, the post are online, untouched. The company adamantly refuses to remove or even to label the post, noting in its reply to a letter I sent calling them out for such, that world leaders are upheld to a different set of rules. But I ask: if calling for a country to be destroyed is not inciting violence or hate-speech, then what is? Incitement is incitement, and when coming from dominant leaders even more so. Referring to the Jewish State a "cancerous growth" is classic and inexcusable antisemitic rhetoric.

Mark Zuckerberg recently announced Facebook's intention to prevent attempts at voter suppression and violence in the upcoming U.S. election; following that, Sheryl Sandberg admitted "Facebook has to get better at removing hate speech." Well, it is about time all social media leaders start acting on it regarding hate speech and. The sooner the better. It is social media platforms which control today's perception and public opinion. Such immense influence must be accompanied by accountability. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to spread hate.

This is a pandemic of society's own making, and if left untreated, will get worse and cost lives.

Minister Orit-Farkash-Hacohen serves as Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs and is a member of the country's National Security Cabinet.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​