On Monday, November 5, a lecture by Seth Stephens Davidowitz discussing “Anti-Semitism on the Internet” was hosted by the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and supported by the Kraft-Hiatt Fund for Jewish-Christian Understanding. Seth Stephens Davidowitz, a former Google data scientist who holds a B.A. in philosophy from Stanford and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, published his study of contemporary anti-Semitism, among other “insights into the human psyche” and their manifestations online in his New York Times Bestseller, “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are” (HarperCollins, 2017).
In his lecture, Davidowitz explained that Google Trends, a public facility used to compare the number of searches for a particular term to the total search volume across the world, has made it easier to identify hate speech and racism in society. Google acts as “digital truth serum” for internet users, as online searches shed light on topics to which people would normally be too ashamed to respond honestly on a questionnaire. The honesty of these searches can allow analysts to determine “how often, when, and where internet users are looking for hate, how they are triggered by hate crimes and rhetoric, and the type of users who are more likely to search anti-Semitic, racist, and Islamophobic terms.”
After googling his own name, Davidowitz was introduced to Stormfront.org, the largest hate site on the internet that is fueled primarily by anti-semitic rhetoric. He decided to study the profiles of Stormfront.org to create a typical member profile. After an analysis of common member attributes, Davidowitz found that 64 percent of Stormfront members are under the age of 30, with 55 percent between the ages of 14 and 17. Members are more likely to be single, have high levels of education, have moderate levels of income, and live in regions that lack a Jewish population. This anti-Semitic demographic is particularly dangerous because there is no easy solution to their discontent. Individuals on Stormfront.org have prospering lives on paper, but they use anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to justify their frustrations with economic competition and dating, or an emptiness that exists within their lives.
Davidowitz concluded his talk with two approaches that leaders may adopt to ease hate speech: lecturing people on their responsibility to accept one another as equal, or provoking their curiosity through new information and perspectives. Barack Obama’s national address after the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attacks, in which 14 people were killed by two radical Islamists, incorporated these two methods to ease Islamophobia in our country. However, when Obama emphasized the responsibility of Americans “to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently,” google trends tracked an increase in search terms like “kill Muslims.” When Obama recognized that Muslim Americans are “our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes—and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country,” these hateful searches declined and were replaced by searches for Muslim athletes and soldiers. Moreover, Davidowitz concludes that the exposure to positive images of minorities can have a positive impact on calming the “angry mob.”
The research that Seth Stephens Davidowitz has conducted, and the insight it provides on the type of people who are engaging in discrimination and how this hate can be diminished, is increasingly relevant amidst a white nationalist movement that was once only present online but has recently materialized in the violent 2017 Charlottesville white supremacist march. Vanessa Kelly, a student at Holy Cross, was surprised that Stormfront.org was comprised of “young and educated people,” because it suggests an inherent vitality in this new movement.
Davidowitz’s talk is the first of Holy Cross’ initiatives to discuss contemporary anti-Semitism. In the spring, Holy Cross will host two lectures and a seminar taught by Alan Every-Peck, Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Judaic Studies, discussing anti-Semitism in our modern society. For more information on Seth Stephens Davidowitz’s studies, please visit http://sethsd.com.
photo by Emma Possenreide