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Online extremism too dangerous to ignore, study shows



Online extremism including antisemitism in South Africa calls for urgent action, a new study by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) has shown.

The study, titled “The dynamics of racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia on social media in South Africa”, was born out of conversations between the Kaplan Centre, Tali Nates at the JHGC and Christoph Plate of KAS Media Africa. They were struck by “the distressing, inflammatory nature of discussions on social media in South Africa”, says Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre, and one of the authors of the study.

The Kaplan Centre wanted to understand how online antisemitism related to other forms of hatred on social media. This was of particular interest because a recent survey by the centre found that South African Jews were far more concerned about antisemitism than they had been in the past. It was concerning, Mendelsohn said, because there had been “no appreciable spike in everyday incidents of antisemitism. We speculated that this sense of unease reflected encounters with online hate.”

The study explores the dynamics of racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism on Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok from 2020 and 2021. “We wanted to understand how pervasive antisemitism is online, who’s involved in propagating antisemitism, and the relationship between those obsessed with Jews and those who propagate other forms of hatred.”

“One of the most striking trends is the way that South African social media users resort readily to invoking the Holocaust, Hitler, and Nazism,” said Mendelsohn. “This provides an indication of the tone of much online discussion – often vitriolic, intemperate, and drawn to extremes – and reveals the symbolic place of Nazism within the South African imagination.

“Comments and images comparing Julius Malema and the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] to Hitler and the Brown Shirts were plentiful. While these were used as a means of demonising the EFF and their political ideologies, they also fed into the increasingly prevalent notion of ‘white genocide’. This often drew on broader narratives of white victimhood, degeneration, decay, and of the peril of black majority rule.”

This “coexisted alongside familiar forms of antisemitism, none of it unfamiliar or particularly novel”, Mendelsohn said. “We were, however, struck by evidence that the social media platforms are somewhat better at policing antisemitism than racism and xenophobia. In part, this reflects the way in which antisemites draw on a repertoire that’s global in nature. This ensures that the algorithms used by the social media platforms to identify hate speech work somewhat better when it comes to antisemitism than they do for racism and xenophobia, which typically draws on a more local repertoire of words, phrases, and ideas. It also reflects the efforts of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and others to force social media companies to take antisemitism seriously.”

It wasn’t easy to understand if antisemitic ideas were inspired by social media, Mendelsohn said. “I suspect that in certain circumstances, encounters with hatred on social media can act to normalise forms of rhetoric that are taboo in polite society, introduce pernicious ideas into the public square, and give a megaphone to those with malicious intent.

“We found plenty of evidence of how savvy social media users have worked out how to use the platforms to best advantage, evade content moderation, and drive conversation in ways that are polarising and extreme.”

However, he said he didn’t see any evidence of antisemitism on social media translating into real-life antisemitic actions. But he gave the example of Operation Dudula as a warning of how online mobilisation can lead to real-world action.

“We began to track Operation Dudula before it burst into ‘the real world’. Activists involved proved savvy in mobilising support and building a movement first online and then on the streets. There’s no reason to believe that anything of this kind is afoot when it comes to antisemitism, but it does suggest the ways in which online ideas can seep out. We also know from the United States context that online content can provide inspiration to ‘lone wolves’ who are radicalised by material they encounter online.”

Mendelsohn said the study found evidence of how social media amplified divisive agendas by exploiting social fissures along racial, national, and economic lines.

“Online discussion quickly became polarised,” he said. “Again and again, the terms of the online conversation were dictated by the white far right and the black radical left; paradoxically, these habitually fed into and off one another. Again and again, racist tropes surfaced, and discussion morphed into fear mongering. Vitriolic and sometimes violent language was normalised.”

The study looked at a variety of “flashpoints” in 2020 and 2021. One of these was the protests at Brackenfell High School, when videos were posted online of EFF supporter Jack Markovitz, who is white and Jewish. “During the protests, Markovitz was repeatedly identified as a ‘race traitor’ on social media. This followed a widely distributed interview in which Markovitz called the DA [Democratic Alliance] a white supremacist party, claimed Mandela had ‘sold us out’, and called for the transfer of ‘generational wealth and land to the disenfranchised people of apartheid’. His comments elicited classic antisemitic responses, which often imputed an affinity between Jews and communism,” Mendelsohn said.

The Israel-Gaza war of May 2021 was another flashpoint examined by the study. “Unsurprisingly, the conflict generated a large amount of online discussion that at times included classic antisemitic tropes: the charge that Jews are a cruel and heartless people, the charge that Jews are guilty of deicide, and the accusation that Israel engages in apartheid (if not genocide). The Israel-apartheid analogy was a recurrent feature, as was the use of ‘Zionist’ as a slur.

“Some of the discussion was more complicated,” Mendelsohn said. “There was a lot of debate about whether it was appropriate for South Africans to focus so much time and attention on Israel. One of the more fascinating threads was the view that the South Africa government shouldn’t get involved in the conflict as South Africa has problems enough of its own.”

Mendelsohn said the key message from the study was that social media is too important to ignore, and that “there’s an urgent need for action”.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Jessiica

    Dec 6, 2022 at 10:06 pm

    Social fissures aren’t just exploited “along racial, national, and economic lines”, but overwhelmingly under the pretext of “social justice”. Ideology-fueled antisemitism is one of wokery’s most ingrained obsessions, not only locally but internationally, and is per definition the most insidious and widespread because of the woke Globalist asgenda. In fact, wokery, aka internationalist socialism, has amplified antisemitism to unprecedented levels of perniciousness and must be rooted out at all costs.

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