UK minister asks social media giants to adopt IHRA antisemitism definition

The UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden has requested that the five major social media companies and platforms operating in the country adopt and implement the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in its various platforms.

In a letter to Facebook (which also owns Instagram), Twitter, Google (which owns YouTube), Snapchat and TikTok, Dowden noted the recent spike in online antisemitism and said adopting the IHRA definition would help combat this phenomenon.

“The government is committed to tackling those who spread extremist views which promote violence, hatred and division against individuals and communities in our society,” wrote Dowden, adding that this “includes the spread of antisemitic content online, which can incite hatred and division against the Jewish community.”

The cabinet minister cited the 2020 review on antisemitism by the Community Security Trust (CST), an organization that monitors antisemitism and organizes communal Jewish security, which reported the second-highest ever number of online instances of antisemitism that year.

“These statistics alone highlight the role platforms have in allowing this type of harmful material to spread,” said Dowden.

In May this year, the CST also issued a report about antisemitism on Google’s search engine, finding that searchable antisemitic content on Google images to be prevalent, including with Google’s Safe Search facility turned on.

Dowden said he was writing in the context of the Online Security Regulatory Framework, which accompanies the government’s Online Safety Bill, and wrote that the framework would “put significant measures in place” to ensure platforms tackle illegal, and legal but harmful, content including antisemitic abuse.

“It is in this context that I would like to strongly encourage you to adopt the definition and consider its practical application in the development of your company’s policies and procedures,” wrote the minister.

“The definition is not legally binding, but it is an invaluable tool for organizations to understand how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century and to tackle it.”

The IHRA definition has been adopted by 29 countries, the EU, and numerous local governments and institutions around the world, as a way to clearly define antisemitism in order to accurately monitor its prevalence.

The Board of Deputies, the country’s EJC affiliate, said the letter by the government minister was issued at its urging due to the targeting of Jewish social media users.

President of the Board of Deputies Marie van der Zyl praised the government’s action and called on the secretary of state to follow up by asking Ofcom, as the planned regulator for social media, to use IHRA when assessing whether social media companies are fulfilling their duty of care to Jewish users.

“The Board of Deputies has been clear in all its meetings with social media companies that if they truly want to combat antisemitism on their platforms, they need to adopt the full IHRA definition of antisemitism as part of their community standards and use it when considering antisemitism complaints”, she said.

“At a meeting held last month with Mr. Dowden to discuss the huge rise in online hate in response to the latest upsurge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Board urged him to write to social media companies and ask them to adopt the full IHRA definition,” van der Zyl continued, and said she thanked Dowden for having done so.

“We are determined to ensure that Jewish social media users are free to enjoy the online space without fear of being targeted by hate.”

Although the IHRA antisemitism definition has been widely adopted, criticism has also been voiced against it over the inclusion of examples determining that antisemitism includes “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” applying double standards to Israel’s actions, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

Such critics have argued that the IHRA definition stifles free speech and suppresses debate on Israel.

Advocates for the IHRA definition have however pointed out that it explicitly states that manifestations of antisemitism “might include” targeting of the state of Israel, and that criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country “cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

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