The work of the Board last week was dominated by the visit of Jonathan Vick, Assistant Director: Cyberhate Response at the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith (ADL). Our purpose in having Jonathan come out was two-fold. We wanted to get practical advice from him in terms of pursuing our own specific work in combating online antisemitism and we wanted him to share his experience and expertise with those – both in government and in civil society – who are dealing with the similar online hate issues. In dealing with cyberhate the ADL has made significant advances, particularly when compared with most law enforcement agencies around the world who have barely commenced trying to deal with these types of crimes.
The Board arranged a full programme for Jonathan to engage with government officials, law enforcement agencies and civil society organisations as well as the Hate Crimes Working Group. Internally, Jonathan participated in a “confronting cyberhate” workshop with Board and CSO staff and addressed representatives of Jewish communal organisations in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Cyber hatred is especially prevalent in times of social or political unrest. We saw this locally during the Fees Must Fall crisis, which was marked, and to a large extent fueled by a continual flood of inflammatory, racist and abusive exchanges on social media. It also contributed significantly to this year’s US presidential elections being so brutal and divisive, with civilized discourse being all but drowned out by racist, sexist, antisemitic and xenophobic vitriol. The targeting of Jewish journalists in the US for online antisemitic abuse was so widespread this year that the ADL issued a special report specifically devoted to this issue.
Brittan Heller, the ADL’s Director of Technology and Society, readily acknowledges that eliminating cyberhate while respecting the internet’s norms of free speech is “an ambitious quest”. It can be achieved however, through the international community making a sustained, united effort to confront the problem and devoting the necessary resources to resolving it. As she writes, “We need designers and user experience specialists focused on enhancing empathy and designing tools to eliminate hate. We need like-minded coders, bloggers, and inventors to create solutions that permit free speech but encourage tolerance, civil discourse, and inclusiveness. Additionally, we need the major players—Twitter, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple—to double down on their efforts to hack the solution to this perennial problem”.
I agree with Heller and would add that every one of us has an obligation to express whatever we wish to say online in a courteous, respectful and sensitive manner, even and indeed especially regarding issues about which we feel strongly. It is up to us all to create and enhance a culture of civil and respectful dialogue, both by distancing ourselves from those who abuse these values and by resisting the temptation ourselves to sink to such levels regardless of the provocation.