The Pittsburgh shooting is a symptom of normalized anti-Semitism in social media

Photo courtesy of Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Written by: Gene Cole, Opinions Editor

On October 27, a gunman entered Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened fire, killing 11. It’s currently being considered by the Anti-Defamation League as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history.

Being raised Jewish, this news has made me feel distressed and unsafe. At the same time though, I can’t shake that first reaction I had of total lack of surprise at such violence towards the Jewish people in America.

Besides the severity, nothing about the Pittsburgh shooting comes across as unexpected or unusual. Anti-Semitism in crime and culture is an inherent and constant part of the Jewish experience.

This feeling comes mostly from the outlet for anti-Semitism that most of us encounter daily — social media. The events of Pittsburgh were closely tied to this problem, as just before the attack the perpetrator made a number of threats and comments on Gab, a Twitter-style social media site with a large alt-right population.

Unfortunately, little can be done to end these hateful spaces. Remove them from one place, and they’ll easily find another. Microsoft even threatened to remove Gab back in August, but evidently, it very quickly found a new home.

But aside from specifically hateful places, there’s also an equally concerning steady stream of anti-Semitism on more typical social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Offensive jokes and direct threats are all too prevalent in every kind of post about Jews. I’ve seen these sorts of comments on every subject, from serious political posts about hate crimes to Jewish or Israeli celebrities like Gal Gadot.

In other words, seemingly any mention of Judaism is likely to invite offensive users, and makes it impossible to find a space that’s truly safe or welcoming for Jews. It’s something Jews naturally have to put up with, as anti-Semitism is something we just expect from our online culture. It’s an inevitability of the Jewish experience.

Many of these websites and apps have policies in place to discourage hate and threats, but few sites moderate their users enough to stop it from spreading. After vandalism of a synagogue in New York, Twitter initially listed “Kill All Jews” as trending to display how people were talking about the event. This was likely an automated update to the site rather than an intentional error, but letting an automated system make decisions about your site means you can only reverse them after it’s too late.

The solutions to these problems on major social media sites are also painfully unrealistic. The best suggestion I’ve heard is hiring more moderators to manually make and assess reports, as automated reporting systems can result in a huge flurry of false positives. But there’s no telling just how many employees this would require, and with the internet being active 24/7 worldwide, there’s no physical way to deal with this problem.

It also doesn’t help that there’s much deceptive language about Jews embedded in anti-Semitism that wears a guise of “discussion.” A prime example is the use of the word “globalist” to imply a conspiracy that Jews secretly run the world, which has grown in use after Trump used it to describe Jewish billionaire George Soros. These words and contexts aren’t properly detectable by any automatic reporting system, and they’re a trend of ingrained anti-Semitism that can’t be effectively tackled.

This isn’t to say the world is exclusively hateful towards Jews. The protests in Pittsburgh have made a strong statement that many are indeed against anti-Semitism and violence. There’s also been much support from other minorities online, such as Muslim groups Celebrate Mercy and MPower change, who’ve so far crowdfunded over $225,000 for the victims’ families. That sort of solidarity among frequently victimized groups is both welcoming and refreshing.

Regardless though, anti-Semitism is a normal part of Judaism right now. This has been true throughout history, but the events in Pittsburgh show that we have every reason to be afraid and jaded. It’s horrible to me that those fearful attitudes can seem so reasonable to others.