Matthew Bolton, of the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at Berlin‘s Technische Universität introduces the centre’s Decoding Antisemitism project’s latest research on online antisemitism in the wake of the October 7th pogrom. ‘The results were striking,’ he finds, and ‘suggest a significant radicalisation of online discourse about Israel, Israelis and Jews’. A previous summary of Decoding Antisemitism’s research by Karolina Placzynta was published by Fathom in April this year.
Since 2020, the Decoding Antisemitism project has been analysing antisemitic comments posted on social media in the UK, Germany and France. Based at the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at Technische Universität Berlin, and made up of international researchers from a range of disciplines, the project’s rationale is that much, if not most, antisemitism online is not expressed in direct form. While there are plenty of antisemitic comments which abuse or threaten Jews explicitly, many are disguised or coded, so that their meaning can only be understood in context. Some of the most virulently antisemitic posts do not mention the word ‘Jew’ or other obvious terms at all. They use puns, in-jokes, or memes, or make references whose meaning can only be grasped by careful analysis of a comment’s immediate context, linguistic structure and wider ‘world knowledge’. The proliferation of ‘coded’ antisemitism online poses a serious problem for both the analysis of the levels of antisemitism online, and for strategies to counteract it.
To combat this, the project uses qualitative analysis by trained experts to draw out implicit meanings of comments that might otherwise be missed by automated or ‘keyword’ approaches. The project’s methodology begins with the identification of certain ‘discourse triggers’ which may stimulate antisemitic responses – i.e. scanning the news to find stories that are related to Jews or to Israel in some way. The focus of the project is on responses posted to major media outlets, rather than extremist or radicalised milieus: the aim is to discover the extent to which antisemitic ideas are penetrating politically ‘moderate’ debates online. Once these triggers have been selected, comment threads posted in response are downloaded for analysis. Each ‘corpus’ of comments is then analysed for antisemitic content using a comprehensive ‘guidebook,’ which sets out the key characteristics and common modes of expression of more than 45 antisemitic concepts and stereotypes.
In the weeks following the Hamas atrocities in Israel, Decoding Antisemitism has analysed over 11,000 social media comments posted on You Tube and Facebook in the UK, Germany and France. Last week the project published a preliminary report on their findings, Celebrating Terror: Antisemitism online after the Hamas attacks on Israel. The analysis was restricted to mainstream news stories reporting directly on the Hamas attacks, i.e. prior to any Israeli military response. The results were striking: they suggest a significant radicalisation of online discourse about Israel, Israelis and Jews. Taking the corpus as a whole, the levels of antisemitic comments was generally higher than in previous escalation phases of the Middle East conflict (such as the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas). In some threads, antisemitic comments accounted for 50 per cent or even 60 per cent of the total. This is a dramatic leap from the previous average of 10–15 per cent of antisemitic comments on the French and 20–25 per cent of antisemitic comments on the UK side in Israel-related topics.
Moreover, there was a notable shift in the type of antisemitic comments posted. In previous studies related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, classic antisemitic distortions (e.g. that Israel is inherently evil or controls the world), history-distorting analogies (that Israel is a colonial, apartheid or even a Nazi state) have frequently combined with a more or less open denial of Israel’s right to exist. However, explicit affirmation, glorification or celebration of violent killings of Jews have hitherto been relatively rare. The preliminary findings from this investigation indicate that this is no longer the case: the analysis found a substantial rise in the number of comments directly celebrating, affirming and glorifying the Hamas attacks, or calling for further attacks through the use of threats and death wishes. Furthermore, the number of direct affirmations of violence rose in threads responding to stories directly reporting, often in graphic details, on the attacks on Israelis, compared with those about the conflict more generally. In short, news stories where the commenters could have been in no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence on Israeli civilians stimulated a greater antisemitic response.
In the UK corpus, examples of clear affirmation and support for the attacks included comments such as: ‘Long overdue’ (BBC YouTube), ‘The Palestinians are finally fighting back’ (Guardian YouTube), ‘Good job Palestine,’ ‘Go on lads!’ (Time YouTube), ‘So happy to see justice finally ❤’ (Times YouTube). Other commenters celebrated the ‘Amazing scenes coming from Gaza long live Palestine’ (Independent Facebook), ‘Very Weldone Hamas…done great job…We fully support and Stand with Hamas… 👍❤👍❤👍❤👍’ (Telegraph Facebook), ‘more power to ham.as’ (BBC Facebook), ‘Joyful 🎉 About time they taste it’ (Telegraph Facebook). Additionally, comments affirmed violence in combination with other speech acts, such as curses and death wishes directed at Israel: ‘They deserve 60 years of this not only a day! Then we will have peace perhaps’ (Times YouTube). Comments also used puns or allusions to indiscriminately reject all Jews, rather than just Israelis or the territorial conflict: ‘JURN THE BEWS’ (Guardian YouTube); ‘The Palestinians will complete the job that the Austrian painter started’ (BBC YouTube).
Antisemitic reactions to reports of the massacre at the Tribe of Nova music festival were characterised by particular glee: ‘’we are terrified’ good, cry harder’ (BBC Facebook), ‘At a rave 🤣🤣🤣🤣 gtfo’ (Independent Facebook). These comments were often accompanied by analogies between Israel and the Nazi regime, with comparisons of Gaza to Auschwitz common: ‘Supernova festival a bit like raving next to Auschwitz Birkenau (Guardian Facebook), ‘Lol that’s like having a rave next to auschwitz. It shows a disgusting lack of basic moral’ (Guardian Facebook).
This pattern – with direct affirmations of the violence being the most common antisemitic response to reports of the atrocities – was replicated in both the German and French studies. In some German YouTube threads, as with the UK, commenters used paraglider icons to indirectly express affirmation of the terrorist actions. There was direct praise for the attacks in statements such as ‘Maşallah SubhanAllah keep it up guys’, ‘Great performance👍’ (Bild YouTube), or ‘Hamasssssss will Win !💪👊’ (Bild YouTube).
In the French corpus, 53 per cent of all antisemitic comments affirmed or celebrated the violence; by contrast, such affirmation was present in only 20 per cent of antisemitic comments responded to terrorist attacks in Israel in the spring of 2022. These comments were frequently accompanied by comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. Hamas was compared to the French Resistance who opposed Nazism, through comments such as ‘How did we end up turning resistance into terrorism? During the Occupation, the Resistance took up arms against the Germans and they were glorified for it’ (Le Figaro Facebook). Israeli treatment of Palestinians was equated with Nazi atrocities: ‘A people on which tons of phosphorus bombs are being dumped on, even Hitler didn’t do this’ (Le Figaro Facebook); ‘Hamas is paying it back for their people killed since 48 by ✡ committing genocide (Holocaust), but a real one, and the perpetrators are the survivors of 45 🤔’ (Le Figaro Facebook). The last comments also map onto negationist narratives, by contrasting the ‘real’ genocide of Palestinians with the supposedly ‘fabricated’ one of the Jews.
From these preliminary results, it seems as if public online discourse has moved from distorting projections onto the Jewish-Israeli out-group towards forms of self-positioning, through which web users justify, welcome and celebrate Hamas’ atrocities. Conceptually, this represents a stark contrast to all the corpus analyses conducted by the project so far, and suggests that a turning point has been reached in social media discourse about Israel. This study indicates that the Hamas attacks have been marked by a normalisation of explicit hate speech and a potential radicalisation of even politically moderate online milieus. The terrorist events of 7 October, which the Israeli public describes as the worst crime since the Holocaust, seem to have opened a new chapter for the articulation of antisemitism in ‘mainstream’ discourses on social media.
The full report can be downloaded from https://decoding-antisemitism.eu/publications/celebrating-terror-antisemitism-online-after-the-hamas-attacks-on-israel/.
Decoding Antisemitism: A Guide to Identifying Antisemitism Online, a book-length version of the guidebook used by the team’s researchers to identify explicit and implicit antisemitic content on social media, will be published in 2024 by Palgrave Macmillan.
 Unfortunately, due to the restrictions imposed by Elon Musk on accessing Twitter data since his takeover, it is currently not possible to analyse Twitter threads in an accurate or comprehensive manner.