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– The Surge of Online Racism: Elon Musk’s X Factor

Antisemitism has long festered on the internet, but the Israel-Gaza war and the loosening of conten…

After the assault on Israel by Hamas on October 7th, a Twitter user, @breakingbaht, criticized socialists, scholars, and “minorities” for their support of the violent organization. However, it was only when the user expressed favoritism towards antisemites that Elon Musk, the owner of X, took notice of him.

The user accused Jewish communities of fueling animosity by promoting immigration to the US, welcoming “hordes of immigrants” excluding Jews, and fostering “hatred against whites.”

Musk responded, acknowledging the user’s statements as truth. The baseless and racist conspiracy theory alleging Jews are orchestrating the replacement of white people gained traction online as @breakingbaht garnered thousands of new followers rapidly.

The surge in online hatred, exacerbated by the Israel-Ghast conflict and the relaxation of content restrictions on X, has reached unprecedented levels. This surge aligns with a notable uptick in real-world attacks on Jews, as reported by various monitoring organizations.

The Anti-Defamation League noted a staggering 900% increase in racist content on X since October 7, with over 1,000 documented cases of anti-Semitic assaults, vandalism, and harassment in America—the highest tally since the organization began tracking such incidents. This figure includes approximately 200 rallies suspected of implicitly supporting Hamas.

Experts and advocates attribute this rise not only to the Gaza conflict but also to pre-existing factors, such as the empowerment of certain neo-Nazis during the Trump administration, dwindling tech platform enforcement amid layoffs, Republican critiques, and the 2021 11-day clash between Israel and Hamas, which fueled severe condemnation of Israel’s actions and perpetuated online antisemitism.

Propaganda specialists assert that Musk wields significant influence over this crisis. Antisemitism has become more tolerated on X, a dominant social media platform, due to Musk’s endorsements of antisemitic narratives to his 163.5 million followers, his leniency on content standards, and his amplification of previously restricted voices on the platform formerly known as Twitter.

The “great replacement” theory, championed by neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville in 2017 and the perpetrators of deadly attacks in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Poway, California, in 2019, faced criticism from the White House and prompted disengagement from corporations like IBM, Apple, Comcast, and Disney following Musk’s support.

In a late Friday tweet, Musk decried major publishers as suppressors of free speech rights. An inquiry seeking his response went unanswered.

Joan Donovan, a former research director at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, now teaching at Boston University, described Musk as part of a group of influencers comfortable with condemning Jewish people under the guise of social analysis.

These right-wing figures, according to Donovan, “unmask their true sentiments” during times of turmoil.

Holocaust deniers exploiting platforms like X, Telegram, and others to propagate falsehoods about the Israel-Ghast conflict have experienced a resurgence. Memetica, a contemporary research firm, documented a surge in the use of the hashtag #Hitlerwasright since October 7, peaking during the 2021 conflict. The tag’s monthly appearance increased from less than 5,000 to 46,000 instances.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate discovered 200 articles promoting racism and hate speech during the conflict, with X allowing 196 of them to remain on the platform, as per the organization’s report.

Following an explosion at the al-Ahli clinics in Gaza City on October 17, 76 of these articles collectively garnered 141 million views within 24 hours. Most of these posts were published on X Premium accounts, a subscription service previously exclusive to public figures, journalists, and elected officials.

Emerson Brooking, co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media” and a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, asserted that Musk has transformed X into a platform reflecting his values and preferences, influencing global politics and culture while propagating egregious falsehoods.

Escalation of Antisemitism

Historically, the internet has been a breeding ground for anti-Jewish sentiments. Extremists leveraged early social media platforms to disseminate offensive views, as noted by Brooking.

In the mid-2000s, platforms like Discord, 8chan, and Telegram emerged alongside established services like Facebook and YouTube, facilitating the repackaging of antisemitism into more palatable forms. Symbols were replaced by coded language, memes like Pepe the Frog, and expressions of white supremacy such as “alt-right.”

The ADL’s Oren Segal highlighted a shift in the severity of antisemitism, with even Holocaust denial, once fringe, gaining traction. Notably, by the 2010s, the proliferation of hate speech on these platforms had become more pronounced.

During the Trump administration, the rise of tech platforms embracing racist content coincided with a surge in violent acts by white supremacists citing the “great replacement” theory. Platforms like YouTube and Meta eventually revised their hate speech policies to curb the dissemination of extremist content.

As mainstream platforms tightened their moderation policies, far-right groups migrated to niche platforms like Gab to amplify their hateful narratives. This transition allowed them to reinforce existing beliefs rather than attracting new followers.

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in 2022 marked a pivotal moment in the platform’s trajectory.

Ripple Effects

Musk’s acquisition of Twitter heralded a wave of racial slurs and intolerance on the platform, prompting civil rights groups to pressure advertisers to boycott Twitter. Musk’s subsequent reinstatement of suspended accounts, including that of Trump, further fueled vitriolic rhetoric on the platform.

Musk’s interactions on Twitter, including endorsing supporters of the “Great Replacement” theory, pushed the boundaries of acceptable discourse, attracting individuals with extreme beliefs.

Following Musk’s controversial actions, major corporations like Apple and Comcast withdrew their advertisements from Twitter, signaling a broader disapproval of the platform’s content policies. Musk’s responses to criticism, including threats of legal action, exacerbated the situation.

In response to Musk’s actions, media outlets like NPR and journalists like Casey Newton distanced themselves from Twitter, underscoring the growing discontent with the platform’s direction.

The normalization of racist rhetoric on Twitter, fueled by Musk’s strategies, has alarmed experts like Imran Ahmed, who emphasize the platform’s role in shaping public opinion.

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has also been weaponized by Russia’s disinformation campaigns, aiming to sow discord and distract from other geopolitical issues. Doppelgänger, a prominent Russian disinformation campaign, disseminates false narratives to manipulate public opinion.

Conclusion

The surge in online hatred and antisemitism, exacerbated by influential figures like Musk, underscores the urgent need for robust content moderation and responsible platform governance. As hate speech proliferates online, stakeholders must remain vigilant in combating misinformation and promoting a culture of tolerance and inclusivity.

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Last modified: February 16, 2024
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