Young Voices: The Internet: A Jewish perspective

By: Isaac Karp

Whether it’s mass shootings or election interference, Internet security has become an issue that is taking the world by storm. Since its birth in the 1990s, the World Wide Web has become one of the most influential parts of everyday life by allowing its users to access a myriad of information platforms. For many years, the trope regarding the Internet was that the older generation misunderstands it, and the younger generation abuses it. However, what causes many Americans to use the Internet constantly is sheer necessity. It has become a vital tool in many school systems and, yes, Binghamton is one of them. While boosters and knockers argue over the path the Internet is taking, they fail to see it already ran across the road and robbed a bank.
While I was growing up, the Internet developed into a ubiquitous entity. I had my first iPhone in sixth grade and, ever since then, I have constantly used the web. Social media has grown into an authority, setting guidelines for humor, fashion and popularity. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the medium, it has become ingrained into my daily routine – something I frequently find perturbing. The more research I do, the more I discover enclaves of hate. The seemingly inexorable phenomena of antisemitism, xenophobia, racism and all-around bigotry present there are no longer an abstraction for me. For most of my life, I learned to ignore it. The vulgarity of it all made me believe it was a joke: a way for people to get attention while also regurgitating the prejudices they heard from others. But the truth is this discrimination is as real as it can get. The shootings of recent years rooted in racial, religious and ethnic prejudice prove the reality of online aggression. The communities of people who are alike in their hatred of Jews and other minorities are beyond disturbing. People on online posting boards throw around generalities and stereotypes that make minorities appear as conspiratorial sub-humans. The burgeoning online world of hatred is rearing its ugly digitized head – not just throughout America, but across the world.
The lack of regulations on the Internet continues to allow interference with elections and privacy. The Russian hack of the 2016 election is a telltale sign of how unprepared America is in facing this threat. In recent hearings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller stated that “they’re doing it as we sit here.” Despite Mueller’s expression of urgency, many politicians seem to ignore his call to action, as it fits neither party’s political agenda.
Along with this gross disruption of the democratic process, many are linking recent mass shootings to hardcore free speech websites. Websites such as Gab, 8chan and Stormfront are known to allow, and sometimes promote, vitriolic and hate-filled comments. According to numerous reports, the El Paso shooter posted his manifesto on 8chan before the shooting. Similarly, before committing his terrible crime, the Pittsburgh shooter posted disparaging remarks about Jews on Gab, claiming he was going to stop HIAS from bringing in “…invaders to kill people.” It’s tragedies like these that force people to talk about the issue, and most of the time that’s all it is: just talk. In order to challenge the supremacy of Internet absolutism, the general public needs to seriously focus on understanding its complexities.
The level of antisemitism on these websites is unconscionable. After scrolling through the message boards, chats and blogs, I came across slurs I never knew existed. This includes Holocaust denial, conspiracy theories and the overarching belief that Jews control the world and are persecuting the “white minority.” You may ask, “But surely these websites have rules limiting their users from endangering their existence?” On one website, users are barred from insulting another white nationality, so, in the end, no one’s feelings can really get hurt!
After shootings, some do mention the Internet as a platform conducive to animosity. However, the general public often dismisses this risk as a distraction from the real issues: gun control for the Democrats and the status of mental health in America for Republicans. There is no doubt about the need for gun regulations in this country. However, why is it not possible to have a broader approach that seeks to tackle this crisis on more than one front – one which includes a long, hard look at the Internet? Many technologists and free speech advocates argue for complete freedom on the Internet. They claim it is impossible to regulate and control, or that it is a “slippery slope” between regulating the web and violating First Amendment rights.
However, we cannot let the Internet lose the freedom that makes it such a unique medium of expression. A middle ground, where the Internet remains a beacon for free speech, but not a platform that allows people to incite harm on others, is the best course of action. Given our tragic history, it is our responsibility as Jews to understand the Internet – both as a powerful tool for building bridges and a medium that can disseminate antisemitic ideas and rhetoric to an unprecedented degree. In order to prevent this spread of hate, an end to the laissez-faire status of the Internet needs to occur, even if that means invoking the outstretched arm of the United States government.