During the now-infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last month, members of the so-called alt-right movement marched past the local Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, holding flaming tiki torches and yelling “Jews will not replace us” and “Sieg Heil!” In the aftermath of one of the most public displays of anti-Semitism and white supremacy in years, condemnation came from far and wide. And on social media, the response was also swift: Facebook reacted by removing or restricting some of the most extreme groups that were using its platform.
And yet, even amid the clampdown, racist and anti-Semitic groups and individuals in Canada continue to spread hateful messages and organize demonstrations on Facebook.
The “alt-right” movement, which contains white nationalist, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, emerged out of websites like 4chan, Reddit and the neo-Nazi news and the comment site Stormfront – platforms that are largely anonymous and thus make it difficult to trace individual contributors. But on Facebook, the situation is quite different. A lot of individuals associated with the “alt-right” have been using the site to form groups and organize events. And as the “alt-right” movement moves from an online subculture to a political force that’s staging public demonstrations, social media, and specifically Facebook, has become their go-to destination.
In the wake of Charlottesville, there were a “higher than usual” number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League. Here in Canada, schools were targeted with anti-Semitic and white supremacist graffiti in the following weeks. And given that B’nai Brith’s latest audit of anti-Semitic incidents found that “2016 was a record-breaking year for anti-Semitism in Canada,” it’s likely that 2017 will be even worse.
“A considerable portion of anti-Semitic harassment cases occur online, including social media platforms such as Facebook,” says Aidan Fishman, interim national director of B’nai Brith’s League for Human Rights.
The Students for Free Discourse is one Facebook group that has earned the attention of anti-fascist and anti-racist activists, as well as Jewish community advocacy groups like B’nai Brith, for its anti-Semitic posts. It was started by University of Toronto students and now has over 3,700 members. The Facebook group’s rules forbid sharing screenshots, warning that “if you are to [sic] sensitive to hearing racism … then this is not a suitable group for you.” It also warns members that they will be banned if they “report anybody for anything to Facebook.”
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Screenshots provided to The CJN show several recent anti-Semitic comments in the group’s online conversations. The Jewish “persecution complex is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote one individual on the Students for Free Discourse’s Facebook page. “Your people seek to be dominated because it’s demanded by them subconsciously. So bow to your white masters, let us run the show, reclaim our nations and most importantly – stop f–king b–ching.”
The same individual has posted anti-Semitic, anti-black and anti-Muslim comments in other Facebook groups, some of which have been removed by the social network.
Meanwhile, in September of last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a Facebook statement to honour the memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. “How many did the communist jews kill in the soviet union,” wrote one commenter, “60 million plus christians … that is why Hitler went after them … funny we never hear about the killing of 60 million but the 6 million lie goes on and on.”
That same month, York University fired a laboratory technologist following a series of anti-Semitic Facebook posts. He shared a photo on his wall with the caption, “Jewish Bolshevik mass murderer Genrikh Yagoda was responsible for between 7 and 10 million deaths. The fact that you’ve never heard of him is exactly why the Jews should not have total control of the media.”
On a Toronto Star article about the firing, one person commented: “That’s like firing someone for not liking Harry Potter … who cares if someone hates Jews? The Torah is a terrible book.”
The racism found in many comment threads is not limited to anti-Semitism – much of it is also directed toward Muslims. Another commenter targeted several Muslims who participated in the comment thread of the article in the Toronto Star, saying: “I can send your family to your grave ‘Syed’ … I got 5 other (Facebook) accounts and I’m 27. Hail Sathan [sic].”
In Canada, the anti-Muslim movement is home to a large number of white nationalist and white supremacist groups. Groups like the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam (WCAI) and the Cultural Action Party, which recently organized the failed extreme-right rally in Vancouver, have members in leadership positions who have made numerous racist and anti-Semitic posts on Facebook. The Soldiers of Odin (SOO), another anti-Muslim group, take their name from a neo-Nazi group in Finland. The group Anti-Racist Canada has documented how several early members and leaders of SOO have links to Canadian neo-Nazi groups.
‘questions remain about whether shutting down hateful Facebook groups is the right way to combat anti-Semitism’
Right-wing extremist groups like WCAI and SOO will often put up public statements disavowing racism and anti-Semitism on their public Facebook pages, while their leadership and members make racist comments on their own profiles and in comments on other pages.
The WCAI Facebook page has been taken down several times. But every time, the group launches a new page with a slightly different name. Jesse Wielenga, vice-president of WCAI, has a history of making anti-Semitic posts, such as “1488” (the “14” refers to a white supremacist slogan and “88” is code for “Heil Hitler.”) And his associates aren’t much better – a comment on one of Wielenga’s posts called this journalist and the editor of an online news organization “f—–g KYKES.” Wielenga has faced multiple suspensions from Facebook and his profile was no longer available as of press time.
While some Facebook pages are used for organizing, others exist for white nationalists and white supremacists to share racist comments and memes, and to find like-minded people. These groups are usually international in scope, with members from Canada, the United States and Europe. Individuals who are a member of one racist Facebook group are almost always connected to several other groups and individuals that share their views. These Facebook groups often communicate their true meaning through coded language and symbols.
One of these groups is Open Borders for Israel. Pepe the Frog, a defining symbol of the “alt-right” movement, is on its profile picture. The group is home to a number of racist posts and its cover photo reads: “To bestow upon Israel the wonderful gifts of multiculturalism.” For context, the individuals in the group make it clear that they consider this a negative thing that they are wishing upon Israel.
‘Facebook differentiates between opinions and hate speech. For example, calling Israel an apartheid state may be extremely offensive to some, but Facebook would consider that an opinion’
Another group, called Elders Of The Black Sun, also features imagery of the “alt-right,” as well as the Black Sun, which is a neo-Nazi symbol. It includes posts like, “A (((EEw))) (Jew) cannot be a true patriot. He is something different, like a bad insect. He must be kept apart, out of a place where he can do mischief – even by pogroms, if necessary.”
The figure in the group’s photo has an armband with the logo of the Identarian movement – the white nationalist movement that launched the Defend Europe anti-migrant ship, which intended to hamper the rescue of migrants coming across the Mediterranean and turn them back to their countries of origin.
Some members of the Black Sun and Open Borders for Israel Facebook groups are part of a network of “alt-right” types in Toronto, who often interact on Facebook and like the same groups and pages. Some members of these groups attend anti-Muslim and other demonstrations in Toronto.
But amid the chaotic hatred online, at least one Facebook group is fighting back.
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The Hate Busters! Facebook page says it reports “pages on Facebook from terrorist organizations and anti-Semitic groups that try to do harm to Israel and the Jewish People around the world.” Daniel Levin, the founder of Hate Busters!, tells The CJN that in the last two months, they have successfully reported over 3,200 posts, groups, pages and profiles to Facebook. He says well over 200 of those were from Canada.
Levin says that about 60 per cent of what they have reported from Canada is “independent” – which means that it’s anti-Semitic, but not connected to other groups, movements or ideologies. The other 40 per cent is connected to other movements, such as white supremacy, neo-Nazism, BDS, Palestine Solidarity or groups that promote terrorism. About 90 per cent of the groups they report are closed groups – meaning they are private and invite only.
The process by which Facebook suspends accounts, closes pages or removes posts is largely complaint driven, and it’s completely opaque. Anybody on Facebook can report hate speech anonymously and its moderators may take action if they deem pages, groups or posts to violate community standards. Levin explains that Facebook differentiates between opinions and hate speech. For example, calling Israel an apartheid state may be extremely offensive to some, but Facebook would consider that an opinion. Posts that, for example, dehumanize or threaten Israelis are more likely to be removed.
‘While many anti-fascist and anti-racist activists want racist posts to be reported and removed, some have questioned the long-term effectiveness of reporting hate groups on Facebook’
Levin says it’s getting better now that Facebook has hired more moderators. He says that complaints are now being investigated in hours or days, instead of weeks. But the process isn’t perfect. Last August, B’nai Brith was informed about an anti-Semitic post. Facebook initially said it didn’t violate community standards, but then removed it without explanation.
Still, questions remain about whether shutting down hateful Facebook groups is the right way to go about combatting anti-Semitism.
While many anti-fascist and anti-racist activists want racist posts to be reported and removed, some have questioned the long-term effectiveness of reporting hate groups on Facebook. They point out that the pages go back up again and, in the meantime, they’ve lost a source of information about bigotry happening in their midst. On the other hand, whenever a group, page or profile is suspended or removed, it disrupts the group and at least temporarily slows down its recruiting and organizing efforts. When a group is removed, it loses all its old posts and any event pages that were created.
“I hope that what my group is doing is having an effect on reducing the amount of either hate speech, vandalism, terrorism – whatever it may be,” says Levin. He says he’s made 200 reports this month on his own and he hopes that more people will report anti-Semitic content on Facebook. He emphasizes that reporting things on Facebook is completely anonymous.
Evan Balgord is a freelance journalist and researcher. Follow him on Twitter: @ebalgord