December 10, 2022


by Hal Gershowitz

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With a humble nod to Émile Zola.

It has been 125 years since French novelist Émile Zola brought worldwide attention to the outrageous antisemitism that characterized the prosecution for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent Jewish French army artillery officer, and an all-to-handy scapegoat.

Zola, incensed at the outrageous and blatant injustice, penned a bold and blistering open letter, J’accuse! (I accuse), to the President of the French Republic, Félix Faure, which was published in L’Aurore, (The Dawn) on January 13, 1898. Zola’s letter, which consumed the entire first page of the newspaper, is today considered by many as the most famous front page in the history of journalism.

Zola’s letter bravely faced down an ossified government, especially the French military. His broadside laid bare the raw and pervasive antisemitism of the time. As he put it, “…the dirty Jew obsession that is the scourge of our time.” Given the rampant antisemitism promoted and propelled on social media, Zola’s observation is as relevant today as it was when the sun set on the 19th century and the two millennia that preceded it.

Antisemitism acts as both a social and often as a political virus, and it survives just as any virus survives. It is passed on, pal to pal, peer to peer, generation to generation, century to century.

And now, it is time, once again, to call out the same viral antisemitism that permeates the sewers of social media and enfeebles the judgment of those who are addicted to it here in the United States. It is dangerous and deadly and as deceitful as it has been throughout the ages. J’accuse!

Understand this: History has demonstrated from time immemorial that any ethnic group can be traumatized, indeed destroyed, by concerted messaging directed at those who are gullible enough, hateful enough, or insecure enough to be aroused to madness. Just as antisemitism is the oldest hatred, the physical assaults that often are its bedfellow are among the oldest crimes.

What makes today’s curated antisemitism so pervasive and dangerous is that the means to orchestrate it are powerful beyond anything the likes of the Nazi Julius Streicher, publisher of the rabidly anti-Semitic Der Stümer could have imagined. Streicher was executed at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. It wasn’t just because he urged people to kill Jews; it was also because he so inflamed passions against Jews that the mass murder of Jews was widely tolerated.

Today, the Julius Streichers of the world would be indulged by those shallow, historically deficient public personalities and private individuals who cry “censorship!” at efforts by social media platforms to draw a line beyond which they won’t publish.

The government cannot prohibit hate propaganda and other misanthropic musings that populate so much of social media because our first amendment rightly precludes the government from restraining speech. That’s a good thing. Such speech can, however, be denied by the private platforms on which they seek to publish, and that’s a good thing too.

To suggest that private sector editorial judgment to refuse to publish the marketing of hate on their social media platform, or any other private news platform, is somehow the same as the censorship the founders precluded from government proscription is simply wrong. To find otherwise would give license to all manner of individuals and organizations to traffic in hate-mongering because efforts to moderate what they communicate on private social media platforms would be labeled as censorship.

The term genocide came into existence in 1944 when the extent of the Nazi horror perpetrated against Jews became clear. The practice of genocide, however, has a pedigree as old as history.

Propaganda campaigns designed to vilify and thus justify mass extermination or imprisonment or campaigns to marginalize a specific population have a long history. Some social media sites have been, and are being, used every day to condition the masses to accept what should always be unacceptable.

For example, the Myanmar military flooded Facebook with posts for half a decade designed to demonize the Muslim Rohingya population as a prelude to a massive genocide. Social media not only has the right but the obligation to exclude speech that encourages hatred of the other or is specifically curated to demonize and marginalize specific populations.

Social media in America has been justifiably blamed for the anti-Rohingya campaign that has resulted in widespread murder, rape, and the most massive forced migration of defenseless people in recent history. To those platforms that traffic is such postings, J’accuse! They have no redeeming value.

Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School, and formally head of the American Civil Liberties Union, rightly observes that no one has a right not to be kicked off of a social media platform. It isn’t censorship if the platform determines that what one posts on their platform simply isn’t acceptable.

The First Amendment free speech guarantee has no relevance in social media. Only our government is prohibited from restraining what can and cannot be published. As Professor Strossen observes, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are not the government. Therefore, they have no First Amendment obligation to protect anyone’s freedom to print and disseminate whatever they choose. Actually, they have a First Amendment right not to host anyone’s message they deem unacceptable.

Today, anyone with a laptop, iPad, or smartphone can write whatever they choose and command an audience. However, no media platform should be obligated to post anything it deems unacceptable. To call such judiciousness censorship is nonsense.

Call it what it is—good judgment!

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