Study reveals scale of antisemitism online (tldr; no it doesn't)

Researchers analyzing millions of posts across an assortment of popular social media assert that 63% of antisemitic posts were to be found on Twitter. The writers suggest:

The larger proportion of such hate speech found on Twitter could be because it’s easier to search for comments than other social sites – as many Facebook pages will not be public – and it’s easy for individuals to open and run multiple accounts.”

Maybe so, but that’s not the whole story. There is no information given about the methodology used for this, but the nature of the social software systems being studied means that any pronouncement over relative percentages of antisemitic content in these different systems must be inherently flawed. The only thing that the researchers could really have been looking at here was not the extent of antisemitism on different social media, but the ease with which they could find it. Twitter discourse is predominantly public and set-based (only partly network-based), so finding stuff is not just easy but a design feature, notwithstanding Twitter’s own restrictions on quantity of data returned.  There is no reliable way to query the entire blogosphere, nor even a significant or representative part of it, so the fact that 16% of antisemitic comments were found on blogs is neither here nor there and, even if it were, there would be no way to reliably gauge the numbers of individuals affected.  Similarly, there is no ethical way to find such things in predominantly closed social networks like Facebook: access rights and the uneven nature of the social graph mean that much must remain hidden from researchers’ eyes (unless they are Facebook themselves). There could well be clusters of millions of anti-Semites that are entirely invisible to them, so the figure of 11% is equally spurious.

The study’s sponsors use the results to say, “We hope this serves as a wake-up call to all internet forums to maintain moral standards, rid themselves of offensive content, and make the digital world a safer place for all.” This really doesn’t follow.

It is horrible and shocking that antisemitism still occurs at all. I don’t know the solution to that, but I am pretty certain that it is not crass censorship. You don’t kill hatred by hiding it: quite the opposite. You kill it by confronting it, with education, with compassion, with reason, with opposing sentiment, by example, and so on. To use a flawed study like this as a means to promote censorship seems at best contrived, at worst a means to frame the problem as an ‘us vs them’ war that exacerbates an already horrendous problem.

I came across a wonderful example of how to deal with hatred online the other day, at philosopher Dave Webster’s ‘Dispirited’ book blog. In response to Dave’s sensitive, open, and spiritual discussion of his own atheism, a person calling themselves Sheila Hale shockingly wrote:

What confused and empty views you have of faith in the One true God. Not surprising you present as a sad and miserable person.

I was stunned to read this, especially knowing Dave (a thoroughly nice fellow). How unkind, how unchristian, how full of hate. It must be so tempting to mute the response, or to respond angrily, or to highlight the hypocrisy of the comment, or at least to throw in a witty riposte from her One true God to tell her he is angry with her now and will smite her mightily. But Dave didn’t do any of that. He left it as it is, to speak for itself, and it makes a more profound and eloquent point than any other response could hope to achieve. By leaving this hate act visible, raw and jarring in a context of gentle and supportive discourse, Dave lets the comment itself do all the heavy lifting, and rises above it by choosing to both show it and ignore it.

Yes, some things need to be censored: I have removed a ton of junk from my blogs over the years, mostly advertising dubious sex sites, Canadian meds vendors, or fake Rolex sellers. Sure, if it offends you, don’t feel bad about getting rid of it.  If it is illegal, report it. If it breaks your terms and conditions, by all means do what you see fit with it. I don’t have a problem with individuals making their own moral or pragmatic choices in their own literal and figurative domains. And I accept that there are some complex issues involved: Trump’s continuous barrage of blatant lies, for instance, seem to benefit from repeated exposure even when self-evidently false. But censorship is not always the right response, and it is often the wrong response. If we are going to change the world for the better, we need to acknowledge the evil in it and, at least sometimes, to face it directly. And we really have to stop using what Richard Feynman calls cargo-cult-science to back up our choices.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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