Former US president Barack Obama on Saturday lashed out at celebrities and people in leadership positions for “creating a dangerous climate” by posting “vile, antisemitic conspiracy theories online” and urged Americans to question things they read online.
“You don’t have to be a student of history to understand how dangerous that is and how unacceptable it is,” the former president told a crowd of Democrats at a Pittsburgh rally in support of John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for US Senate, ahead of the midterm elections scheduled for next week.
Obama’s remarks came amid several controversies surrounding American celebrities accused of posting and sharing antisemitic content.
Most recently, NBA star Kyrie Irving has faced backlash for posting a since-deleted tweet including a link to a documentary largely condemned as antisemitic, and only apologizing after being suspended from his team, the Brooklyn Nets.
Separately, rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, has been embroiled in controversy over a series of antisemitic remarks and tweets. The controversy has since gone deeper, with white supremacists adopting his remarks and displaying the phrase “Kanye is right about the Jews” in sports events and busy intersections.
And despite being banned from Twitter over his rhetoric, West was recently allowed back.
“It was just a few days ago that a friend of mine, Paul Pelosi, was attacked in his own home,” Obama said, referring to an attack apparently aimed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week.
“Here’s what’s clear Pittsburgh,” he told an applauding crowd, “this habit we have of demonizing political opponents, of saying crazy stuff, it creates a dangerous climate. And when you have people in leadership positions who promote or ignore over-the-top rhetoric and then when there’s an attack like this they make light of it, they joke about it, then more people are going to get hurt.”
He continued, “And more than that, we violate the basic spirit of our democracy, the spirit of who we are as Americans.”
Following the attack on Paul Pelosi, Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk — a self-declared “free speech absolutist” — tweeted a conspiracy theory that suggested that Paul was attacked by a person he met at a gay bar.
I’ve diagnosed the problem. @ElonMusk is what academics call “digitally illiterate.” Clinton posted a Los Angeles Times article, and Musk replied with *a post from a fake-news site* that’s already down. Then he wrote “tiny possibility” as a hedge against spreading disinformation. pic.twitter.com/XuP13qV08b
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) October 30, 2022
“Whether it’s out of malice or ignorance, we’ve seen recently big celebrities re-posting vile, antisemitic conspiracy theories online,” Obama said Saturday.
“And I don’t understand when we decided that we were just going to believe everything we read on the internet,” he said.
“Here’s a tip for you, if you read or see something online that has some grand theory about how some particular group, whether it’s Black folks or White folks or Jews or Catholics or immigrants or gays, if you read or see something that says they’re the cause of all your problems then it’s safe to say it is garbage. It is a lie. It is dangerous poison, we’ve got to call it out and put an end to that kind of mindset,” he stressed.
By Thursday, West, who has 38 million followers on Twitter, began his latest rant on the platform, posting a series of conspiratorial messages about various Jewish figures, in response to the controversy surrounding Irving.
Musk has said that he had nothing to do with West’s reinstatement on Twitter.
According to the Network Contagion Research Institute, a firm that monitors the spread of online hate and disinformation, antisemitic content on the popular platform has been seeing a surge in recent days.
The NCRI is monitoring a prolific surge in anti-Jewish rhetoric on @Twitter.
Terms associated with Jew are being tweeted over 5k times per hour. The most engaged tweets are overtly antisemitic.
This is of concern. Online hate is an upstream predictor of real-world violence. pic.twitter.com/QMhy0UeTEl
— Network Contagion Research Institute (@ncri_io) November 4, 2022
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) contributed to this report.