'Social media has normalized these antisemitic ideas'

Are conspiracy theories about Oct. 7 a new form of Holocaust denial? Experts weigh in

At a daylong NY symposium, scholars decry rampant antisemitism and calls for violence against Jews that are propagating unchecked online

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Participants on a panel exploring digital media and antisemitism at the Center for Jewish History, January 28, 2024. From left to right: Jennifer Evans, Sabine von Mering, Günther Jikeli, and Mike Rothschild. (John Halpern)
Participants on a panel exploring digital media and antisemitism at the Center for Jewish History, January 28, 2024. From left to right: Jennifer Evans, Sabine von Mering, Günther Jikeli, and Mike Rothschild. (John Halpern)

NEW YORK — In echoes of Holocaust denialism, social media apps and websites such as X, Instagram, TikTok and 4chan are plagued by a new form of denialism connected to the October 7 massacre in southern Israel. This canard, which claims the attacks were an Israeli “false flag” operation to allow it to commit genocide in Gaza, is just one example of the intensifying antisemitic vitriol in cyberspace. Yet, as alarming as such conspiracy theories are, they’re not new.

“People have always thought these things. Social media has just normalized it,” said Mike Rothschild, the author of “Jewish Space Lasers: The Rothschilds and 200 Years of Conspiracy Theories.”

“You used to have to put some work into being a conspiracist. You had to know where the weird corner bookstore was and you had to tune into short-wave radio at three in the morning. Now there is no barrier to entry,” he said.

Rothschild, who isn’t related to the Rothschilds that he writes about, was one of several experts speaking on a panel titled “Antisemitism, Technology, and Culture: Modes of Dissemination,” which explored how unregulated digital media injects antisemitic ideas into mass politics and popular culture — a trend that has spiked since the October 7, 2023, Hamas terror onslaught in southern Israel.

Held at New York’s Center for Jewish History and co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, the daylong symposium “Addressing Antisemitism: Contemporary Challenges” was timed for January 28, the day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“People who want to act violently are good at using new technology, and social media platforms are very useful for the spreading of hate. And because it’s user-generated and the companies do little to control it because it makes money, it’s antisemitism for a profit,” said Sabine von Mering, director of the Center for German and European Studies at Brandeis University.

Participants on a panel exploring digital media and antisemitism at the Center for Jewish History, January 28, 2024. From left to right: Jennifer Evans, Sabine von Mering, and Günther Jikeli. (John Halpern)

Even before Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza, the internet was filled with those either justifying, mocking, or denying the massacre that took 1,200 Israeli lives, mostly of civilians, and saw 253 more abducted to the Gaza Strip, said Günther Jikeli, a Jewish studies professor at Indiana University.

In his November 2023 research paper, “Holocaust Distortions on Social Media after 10/7: The Antisemitic Mobilization,” Jikeli examined Holocaust-related content on YouTube, X (formerly Twitter), Truth Social, Gab, and 4chan. The latter two are known for their far-right user base, including neo-Nazis.

During the panel, Jikeli spoke about the study’s key findings: Since October 7, explicit calls for violence and mass murder of Jews have increased. Moreover, discussions on those platforms about the Holocaust are being used to instigate antisemitic mobilization.

An image of Pepe the Frog as a Hamas paratrooper on his way to massacre Israelis on October 7. (Courtesy)

“What does that data tell us? It tells us Holocaust denial and Holocaust distortion is increasing and that the remembrance of the Holocaust is used to mobilize for the killing of Jews. We see it in memes and posts,” he said.

For example, a post on 4chan, a site popular with white supremacists and Nazis, celebrated the murder of an Israeli by Hamas and included the link to a post on X showing a video of the murder, according to Jikeli’s paper.

Another post on the site pushed more directly for the mass murder of Jews: “By typing in this thread you denounce Israel as a legitimate state, denounce the Talmud and endorse TKD [Total Kike Death].” The post also shared an image of a white female fighter wearing a green Hamas headband murdering an Israeli soldier.

On Truth Social, posts were calling for “a holocaust” in the United States as a way to end the alleged control of the US government by Israel, Israeli Americans, and Jews, according to the study.

And on X, one might also see a meme depicting Pepe the Frog, now a symbol of right-wing extremists, as a Hamas terrorist, paragliding his way into Israel to maim and murder.

“Social media gives people the opportunity to double down on the accusation that Jews are responsible for violence and vitriol,” Von Mering said.

“All of this has the effect of fueling anti-Israel and antisemitic activists and politicians because what happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media,” said Jonathan Brent, executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, demonstrators around the world not only shout antisemitic slogans such as “Intifada Revolution,” and “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free,” but they also accuse Israel of perpetrating the attack. People filmed on camera removing posters of hostages have claimed there are no hostages and that the kidnappings are Israeli propaganda. And in government meetings such as the city council meeting in Oakland, California, last November, people denied the attack’s occurrence.

This denialism of both the Holocaust and October 7 fits into a troubling trend, said Jennifer Evans, a history professor at Carleton University and panel moderator.

According to an early December 2023 YouGov/Economist poll, one in five Americans under 30 said they agreed the “Holocaust is a myth” and another more than a fifth said they believed the Holocaust was exaggerated.

Yet, as the panelists pointed out, combating this is a challenge.

While all said the platforms must do better to regulate content, it will be impossible to eradicate.

“You cannot suppress it but you can, through changing algorithms, push it to the sides. People can signal that this speech is not acceptable and push it down so it’s not so visible,” Evans said.

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