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The Social Media – Walking the Streets of Hatred Central

April 10, 2018

If Jesus was crucified today, you can be sure that his supporters would be crowding round the cross with mobile phones, intent on capturing his last agonies for posterity, and instantly publishing the videos on YouTube.

These days, it seems, no act of martyrdom is complete without the video. If it doesn’t show the last moments, at least it portrays the aftermath – the anger, the wailing of friends and relatives, the blood-stained dirt.

The other day I watched a video from Gaza showing Israeli soldiers shooting at a young Palestinian running down a road. The moment he stumbled and fell, he became surrounded by a group of people. Some were rushing to carry him to safety. Just as many were there, phones aloft, recording the young man’s agony.

I had no idea at the time of the context of the shooting – of why the soldiers were standing on that hill as the young man was running towards them, of why the person who made the video was standing within yards of the armed men, of who he or she was. I suspect that most of us respond to a video clip of this kind in the same way. We watch. We react emotionally, and rapidly assimilate the content into a pre-existing view of the world. Later we might think again, question and try to understand the implications of what we’ve seen. Or not.

But it’s pretty clear why that video ended up on YouTube. To support the narrative of oppression, of the strong crushing the weak. To stir up the outrage and hatred of the oppressed for the oppressor. And to persuade ordinary people elsewhere in the world, drip by drip, video by video, outrage by outrage, of the cruelty and injustice of the State of Israel. People like me.

Away from the dusty streets and fields where armed men and women confront those whose only weapons are phones and rocks, other men and women watch the videos. In my country, they include people whose parents and grandparents wanted to ban the bomb, protested against apartheid in South Africa, and who camped out at Greenham Common to protest against aircraft that were capable of delivering death to half the planet.

Today’s fashionable causes include the corrosive effects of globalisation, the threat of climate change, cruelty to the animals we feed upon, the gap between rich and poor. And the pervasive power of Zionism.

Opposition to “Zionism” is an ideology with many intertwining beliefs. That every Jew is a supporter of the State of Israel and all its evil works. That every Jew believes in the creation of Greater Israel, the land of milk and honey, free from the inconvenient presence of non-Jews who happen to have occupied for centuries the land earmarked by God for His chosen people. That the economies and the political levers in the United States, Britain and other powerful nations are controlled by a network of wealthy and influential Jews, descendants of those who long ago set out to achieve world domination. That Jews are no better than the Nazis, colluded with the Nazis and invented the Holocaust to further their purpose.

The targets are legion. The Jewish political lobbies. Binyamin Netanyahu. The Rothschilds. Sheldon Adelson. George Soros. Evil people whose hand is to be found behind most of the ills of the modern world. And the evidence – blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the arguments of the Holocaust deniers – is but a click away on the internet.

Jews are an easy target. In the tree-lined streets of Islington, the elegant boulevards of Budapest and the concrete banlieus of Paris, there are plenty who believe that the Jews are one for all and all for one. That they are defined by their Jewishness, not by their humanity. That they are a supranational brotherhood.

The State of Israel, which has its fair share of bigots, fanatics and survivors of trauma whose beliefs have been imported from the many countries from which its citizens trace their descent, is the current epicentre of the animus. Yet long before its creation, Jews were the object of suspicion, fear and resentment.

So am I to damn the memory of the vibrant woman who was a dear friend in the 70s, and who happened to be Jewish? Or of the old barrister – an exiled scion of what was once a flourishing community of Jews in Alexandria  – who bailed out my father in his time of need, and never asked for the money to be returned?

And what of Einstein, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Trotsky and Vasily Grossman, the unflinching chronicler of the Red Army’s struggles in World War 2? Were they all the creatures of the Rothschilds and the Warburgs, supporters of the bankers’ designs on the world? Along with the fugitives from pogroms and genocide washed destitute up on Ellis Island or Liverpool Docks, hoping for a new life away from the viciousness of the old?

Am I to maintain that the blame for the actions of Israeli soldiers on a hill in Gaza should fall upon Jews everywhere as they peacefully celebrated the Passover? The answer seems so obvious to me that I struggle to understand why so many people who have grown up supported from the cradle onwards by a welfare state, who have never been deprived of a job by a Jew, shot at or beaten up by Jews and possibly never even met a Jew, should be so embittered as to abuse and threaten every Jewish MP, journalist or other public figure they can find through the convenient agency of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. When my generation protested against the Vietnam war in Grosvenor Square, there was no sense that every American we met was a murderous imperialist. And it has to be said that there are many critics who do not believe that the State of Israel’s actions, however savage, should besmirch an entire people.

If anti-Semitism is held to be a common creed within the left of British politics, we should also mention those who select a different target.

Muslims seem fair game for the right. They’re branded as terrorists, misogynists, tyrants and fratricidal fanatics. An even bigger threat than the Jews, because there are two and a half million of them in the UK, as opposed to a quarter of a million Jews. And the Muslims are breeding like rabbits, aren’t they?

We are told that the current international terror threat level is “severe”. That within Muslim communities there are thousands of covert ISIS supporters waiting for a suitable moment to unleash their bombs, knives and hired trucks to deliver mayhem upon the rest of us.

So, apart from fear, what is the ideology that leads some of us to earnestly desire that our Muslims depart these shores and never return?

Less insidious, perhaps, than that employed against Jews, most of whom cannot easily be accused of failing to integrate into society. Muslims, on the other hand, as the narrative goes, are not like us. They have no loyalty to Britain. They keep themselves to themselves. They want to dictate to us how we are to live, how we dress, how we treat our women. They hate gays. No, I take that back. They hate all of us. They deserve to be punished. So let’s have a Punish a Muslim Day.

The outlets for Islamophobia are much the same as for anti-Semitism: Twitter, Facebook and other social media, subtly exploited by politicians, and amplified by editors and columnists of influential newspapers.

How many of those who vent their spleen against Islam have been to a Muslim’s home, attended a Muslim wedding, visited a mosque, chatted with an imam? Pitifully few, I suspect.

Hatred from a distance, either by groups or individuals, has always been a feedstock for toxic political discourse. The common theme is that actions of a minority within a minority group are leapt upon and construed to be supported by all within the group.

In countries where pent-up resentment is widespread, political institutions and the rule of law are sometimes not strong enough to resist the tide. It feels as though we in Britain getting to that point.

It’s easy to blame the editor of the Daily Mail, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, Cambridge Analytica and the home-grown trolls and politicians who preach a divisive gospel for contributing to the stirring up of hatred that migrates from -isms to individuals – from Zionism to Jews, from Islam to Muslims. But for these messages to hit home, people first need to be willing to hate.

You could argue that it was ever thus. Hatred comes in various shapes and sizes. State-controlled hatred, as orchestrated by the Nazis. Enmity between rival communities, religious sects and tribes. These emotions have always been part of the human story. It would be a mistake to characterise anti-Semitism in the UK as the exclusive preserve of the left, and Islamophobia of the right. At an individual level, they occur across the social spectrum. But it’s at the two extremes that you will find them wrapped up in coherent ideologies.

How has the social media has changed the traditional dynamics of hatred? In several important ways, it seems to me.

It offers a relatively unmediated canvas on which to paint fake news, out-of-context quotations, distorted facts and figures. It allows the widespread proliferation of hatred against individuals that in times gone by would only have surfaced in the form of poison pen letters, physical gatherings or the printed media. In one sense, it’s a return, but on a vastly wider scale, to the era of self-published political pamphlets and religious tracts that abounded within the first couple of centuries after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

It allows leading politicians – and not just Donald Trump – to attempt to discredit mainstream media that don’t see things their way. In the UK, rightly or wrongly, the BBC is the perennial punchbag for those who accuse it of political bias. These days, the Beeb’s critics use the social media to reach the widest possible audience. The cumulative effect is that we trust our conventional news outlets less, and we believe those who tell us convenient “truths” more. In many countries the intimidation of the mainstream media goes further. Journalists are muzzled, locked up or murdered.

What we call the social media provides the technically savvy – who stay ahead of the mediators and sit beyond the reach of legal jurisdictions in countries whose populations they target – to offer a menu of hate objects: people, groups or governments. It allowed ISIS, once a localised group of Sunni insurgents in Iraq, to portray itself as the latter-day Caliphate and attract support throughout the world.

Not only do those who promote causes have half the planet as their canvas, but they are able to stir up emotions very quickly. Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses took two months to reach most parts of Europe. Articles in the New York Times take up to a day to reach their audience, and much longer to prepare because of the quality control procedures the newspaper imposes on its journalists. But an inflammatory tweet or video can be posted in seconds and viewed by millions in an hour. Long enough to start a riot in Pittsburgh or cause an honour killing in Lahore.

The shock caused by alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, and the revelation of what unscrupulous political consultancies are doing with the data we freely share on Facebook, are leading to all manner of hand-wringing among both governments and individuals.

We want answers. How can we stop fake news? How can we temper the hatred? How can individual governments function effectively when the opinions of their citizens are being shaped by cynical manipulation from beyond their borders?

How do we walk the line between freedom of speech and responsibility for the consequences of free speech? Greater regulation of the social media platforms in the countries in which they operate or – more importantly – are controlled? And should that regulation include the requirement that those companies have legal responsibility for the content that they proliferate? Should we apply political bludgeons, such as Malaysia’s legislation imposing criminal penalties on those who spread fake news?

Light touch, heavy touch? Liberal democracy or authoritarian rule? Ask a hundred people, and you will get a hundred different answers.

One thing is clear to me. The term “social media” is a misnomer. What was originally sold as a platform for peer-to-peer interaction ceased to exist once Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and all were required to make money. At that point they turned into broadcast media, dependent on advertising revenue no less than any TV network, barring state-owned institutions such as the BBC.

But unlike Fox, CNN and ABC, which exercise a high degree of editorial control over their content, the social media allows anyone – including me – to be a broadcaster. How broad the casting is depends on the content, and how expert the originator – be they Donald Trump, ISIS or some lifestyle guru – becomes in harnessing the dark arts of target profiling and search engine optimisation. Which is where the likes of Cambridge Analytica come in. Or at least, for those who can afford them.

Hatred must surely be resolved by political means, even though at present there seems to be a dire lack of political will to bring about solutions without recourse to extreme measures. But we who are not politicians can also play our part, both as voters and as online voices.

Whatever governments might or might not do to regulate the social media, we should never forget that when we tweet, post photos on Instagram and share our holiday pictures on Facebook, we share a space with merchants of hatred. And those who profit from that space depend on our presence. Without it, their wealth shrivels up.

Disengaging from the social media is, if we do so in sufficient numbers, a way of sending a message to the shareholders of the dominant companies. But for many people it’s not an option. Those who do business through the platforms, who believe their life is enhanced by reaching out to others and rekindling friendships, would be afraid that their lives would be diminished, both financially and emotionally. But there are other things we can do.

We can call out hatred whenever we see it. Report it to those who own the platforms. Refer it to the police if we believe that the law is being broken. Complain to the leaders of political parties who harbour hatred and encourage its use.

We can rebut the lies, show our disapproval through wit, and, if necessary, contempt. And if we allow ourselves to express our anger, it should be against behaviour, because people are one-offs, but behaviour can be replicated. More easily said than done, I know, and these are rules I’ve broken on occasions, especially where Donald Trump is concerned.

Hatred, on the other hand, is different from anger. It consumes both the hater and the hated. It’s a precursor to self-destruction, violence and war. What’s more, it’s beyond the ability of the social media – which usually acts as an amplifier – to address. It can only be resolved when people meet people, not online, but face to face. It’s through such interactions that people forgive, and diplomats, negotiators and politicians find ways to resolve the causes of hatred.

That’s why we should never abandon the old ways of doing things. Because as far as I know, nobody has yet made peace through YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

From → Politics, Religion, Social, UK, USA

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