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ADL warns of rising extremism even during Biden presidency

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A representative of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has warned of a rising trend of extremism and hate in the United States (US) and across the globe in spite of the incoming US administration’s focus on unity.

“We monitor chat rooms and listen to extremist groups. We don’t them see stepping back, if anything, they are leaning in,” said Dr Sharon Nazarian, the senior vice-president of international affairs for the ADL. Nazarian, an Iranian-born American social activist, academic, and philanthropist, was speaking on a webinar hosted by the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

“The US election campaign was bitter and divisive. It truly felt like a global election and a pivotal moment for the global community,” she said. The ADL’s assessment is that it was a clear win for the Biden/Harris ticket, and that a major task of their administration will be combating extremism.

The ADL was established 107 years ago with two clear missions, she said, namely to fight against antisemitism and defamation of the Jewish people, and for just and fair treatment for all. This work continues today through its 25 offices across the US and in working with Jewish communities and minorities worldwide.

“Antisemitism is a concern in the US and internationally,” said Nazarian, pointing out that President-elect Joe Biden had stated that he chose to run for president after the horror of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “Fighting hate and extremism and for racial justice was a prime issue of his campaign, and we hope he will continue to pay close attention to it as he forms a government,” she said.

“During the campaign, numerous examples of antisemitism and extremism seeped in. For example, [President Donald] Trump telling the white supremacist group, Proud Boys, to ‘stand down and stand by’ was very impactful. We monitor sites of extremist groups, and their reaction to that phrase was that they saw it as a vote of confidence. It energised them, as if the president was messaging that he was aligned with them,” said Nazarian.

“Then, just recently, former Republican speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich, pushed a conspiracy theory that Jewish billionaire George Soros helped to finance and ‘steal’ the 2020 election for Biden. Spreading such conspiracy theories enables and emboldens extremist groups. They feel their job is only just beginning.”

She noted that a specific extremist group that came to prominence in this election cycle was QAnon, an online movement peddling conspiracy theories that has deeply antisemitic roots.

“It started on the fringes and is now mainstream, seeing Trump as its leader.” This group has footprints in Germany and the United Kingdom, and the ADL is “monitoring the internationalisation and export of American extremist ideology to the world”, said Nazarian. “Hate no longer knows any borders. These groups use every means available to them to connect, co-ordinate, and partner with likeminded groups.

“The internationalisation of extremist ideology is a global threat to all of us,” she said. “We no longer have the luxury of only worrying about groups in our own country. They’re continuing to collaborate, mimic, and livestream attacks. Their writing becomes a manifesto and inspiration to others. We saw this in Christchurch, Charlottesville, and Pittsburgh.”

As most people know, “The tool that has enabled extremist groups to amplify their hateful message is social media. The ADL is at the forefront of working with social media companies. We established our Center for Technology and Society in Silicon Valley five years ago,” said Nazarian.

“Being on the ground, we felt we needed to work together with all major social media companies and come up with solutions to combat hate online. We looked at machine learning, artificial intelligence, code design, and engineering. But we reached a point in 2020 that we felt ‘enough is enough’ and the need to change our posture into a much more aggressive, offensive posture. This was because we realised that after almost a decade of advocacy, we didn’t see enough results.”

In 2020, the ADL started its first campaign targeting Facebook called “stop hate for profit”.

“We did an advertising pause, asking more than 1 000 companies and corporations to hold off from purchasing advertisements from Facebook for one month. The goal was to say that algorithms that push extremist groups and ads that include extremist language and ideology can no longer continue,” she said. “Just because there is a first amendment, doesn’t mean that they have to include hateful rhetoric and language on their site. They are private entities, and just like any sector of economy, safety measures are expected for the protection of citizens. So they too need to put safety measures in place so people aren’t exposed to or ‘fed’ extremist ideology.”

The campaign was successful, and “we saw it hit their bottom line”. It was a wake-up call to other social media companies who took notice, and soon after, Facebook banned Holocaust denial from its site. However, “there is still so much work to do”.

Regarding hate or extremism on the left, Nazarian said that “the extremism we monitor at the ADL comes from all sides. We go wherever we see it. Since 9/11, this has mostly shifted to white supremacists. We have found that threats of acts of violence emanate mostly from right-wing extremist groups.”

She said the ADL’s assessment of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was that it is “a movement of social justice”. The ADL monitors antisemitism on the left closely, and there are examples of antisemitism or rhetoric and actions “crossing a line” into anti-Israel and antisemitic language. “However, regarding BLM as a whole … antisemitism is minor and secondary to its goal. We try not to compare, but the bottom line is that the ADL sees physical threats and violence primarily from right-wing groups more than any other sector.” The antisemitism that manifested in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was also a major concern.

Nazarian said that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the chance of Jews and Israel being blamed for being “behind the virus”, and being made scapegoats for the economic mayhem it has unleashed.

Asked if Biden’s message of unity could end divisions in the US, Nazarian said, “No. We know that over seven million Americans voted for Trump, and extremist groups and their views of what America should look like are still there. If anything, they are emboldened, and will continue their efforts on the streets, in communities, and everyday life to say that ‘we still feel our ideology is the right one’. Their fear of being ‘replaced’ by minority communities and loss of power will only get stronger and become more mainstream.”

She and Cape SAJBD Director Stuart Diamond said that every individual can and must play a role in combating hate wherever they find it.

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