Dr Oboler’s Book Review of “Viral Hate”

viral-hate-cover-380Dr Andre Oboler, Viral Hate: Examining the work of the ADL in the online age, March 23, 2015, Koleinu The Jewish Voice Down Under, http://koleinu.com.au/viral-hate-examining-the-work-of-the-adl-in-the-online-age/

This review of the book Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet by Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf was first published in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism

Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet is a book by Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf’s published in by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013, which highlights the involvement, significance, and expertise of the American Defamation League (ADL) when it comes to online hate.

This is a mixed blessing for the ADL; both its strengths—and its weaknesses—are publicly displayed. The book cements the ADL’s reputation as an international leader in explaining the danger of hate speech; its strength in responding in a general sense. But Viral Hate also highlights the difficulty the ADL has in understanding new technologies, and their significance to the danger posed by hate speech.

Viral Hate, largely avoids the significant problem raised by its title and a lack of understanding regarding virality leads to a confusion that will frustrate experts and digital natives alike. Perhaps the most surprising—and dismaying—revelation of Viral Hate is that the ADL does not understand the concept of virality. This is deeply concerning.

The value of the book is also dented by the many omissions regarding the work of others. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, is mentioned just once in passing only while the significant work of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism is omitted entirely. The groundbreaking work of LICRA and the French Union of Jewish Students is mentioned only briefly, and then negatively. Significant work by the International Network Against Cyber-Hate is also omitted. Though I admit to bias in this, the non-inclusion of my own work, “Antisemitism 2.0,” which first exposed the problem of viral hate back in early 2008, is another clear omission.

This is not, therefore, a book about online hate; instead, it is an autobiography of the ADL in the area of online hate.

While disappointing for many experts who may have hoped for more, the ADL’s perspective on those aspects of the problem where they do have expertise is of great value. In those areas where they are mistaken, Viral Hate provides the opportunity for external analysis of the ADL’s position, a highlighting of their mistakes, and a careful and detailed response. In both cases the book provides a significant contribution to the discussion on online hate.

The Problem of Viral Hate

The Oxford English Dictionary describes virality as “the tendency of an image, video, or piece of information to be circulated rapidly and widely from one Internet user to another; the quality or fact of being viral.” Viral hate, therefore, is the viral spread of hate speech. Viral Hate confuses Web 2.0 with social media and the ability to publish with virality. It discounts the threat of hate 2.0, and the growing social acceptability of online hate by ordinary people.

The focus of Viral Hate is instead on extremist groups, and not the enabling role of technology. This helps to illustrate the harm of online hate, but missed today’s biggest online danger. When things go viral, it is not because people on mass become neo-Nazis, but because what was once considered extremist hate, and attractive only to a minority, has now morphed into something with mainstream acceptability.

It is when something is shared by ordinary people En massE that it goes viral. This is the real danger of viral hate

It is a danger created by liking, sharing, and to a lesser degree by downloading, reposting, and recreating and it is a danger Viral Hate does not sufficiently explore.

Viral Hate introduces the problem of hate going viral without mentioning “likes,” “shares,” or “Facebook.” Instead, “links” and “viral e-mails” are given as examples of the self-propagation of lies. The ability of anyone to be a publisher is said to empower the viral explosions of hate. This misses the point of virality and the role today’s social networking sites play in facilitating the problem. Web 2.0 may allow anyone to publish, but it is social media that allows people to share, and content to rapidly spread, with little effort or thought by those who facilitate it. Viral Hate missed this point.

The book considers websites promoting extremist groups, cloaked websites, social media pages, games, merchandise sales, and the internationalization of hate networks. These are all important aspects to hate on the Internet, but they are not all viral hate. The change to the prevalence and nature of hate speech, which occurs when online tools allow the hate to go viral, fundamentally changes the debate. This change is simply not recognized in Viral Hate. The result is a useful consideration of some of the dangers of hate speech online—the sort of content that could go viral—but a lack of appreciation of what makes it go viral and of the significance of the role played by social media companies. This has fundamental repercussions for the effectiveness of different response options, such as counter speech, which are discussed in the book. It also affects the urgency of the problem, and the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from hate and persecution.

The Role of Technology Companies

The power of words to cause harm is illustrated in Viral Hate through the role Nazi propaganda played in creating a climate that enabled the Holocaust. At the same time, the power of the Internet to enrich society through new ways of communicating, entertaining, and educating is lauded. The authors twice suggest it is “ironic” that the same technology that does so much good also empowers the spread of hate. This highlights a misunderstanding about the nature of the Internet, and the role played by the service providers who operate significant parts of the online world.

While articulately exposing many dangers emerging from the Internet, Viral Hate consistently stops short of holding technology companies at least partly responsible for the growing climate of hate. This is not because the ADL believes the companies have no responsibility, but rather because they believe the companies are already doing their part.

The idea that the First Amendment prohibits social media companies from restricting speech is readily dismissed by Viral Hate. The book argues companies have not only the right, but also the responsibility, to make their own decisions about the content they carry. Unfortunately, Viral Hate assumes platform providers can be treated like old media. Viral Hate notes that while not legally restricted from publishing hate speech, most media have no desire to do so. The dual motivators of traditional media companies—the need to publish what will turn a profit and the need to uphold journalistic standards—is discussed. In the book’s analysis, technology companies are, as a result, considered benign actors who want to help, but face difficult technical challenges. This comparison is deeply flawed as platform providers have an entirely different mindset to old media, as well as large-scale legal immunity, which limits their liability.

Technology companies are big business, not good Samaritans. The technology itself is neutral to the content it carries. More communication means more data, more slots for ads, and more revenue. Without a strong push for “responsible management” by technology platforms, it is unsurprising, and not ironic, that the technology has become such a powerful vehicle for hate. A rose-tinted view of the platform providers themselves permeates the book

the ADL’s approach appears to be premised on the idea that the goal of the companies is to do the right thing, rather than to maximize their profits.

The privacy debacles in recent years should have removed any misapprehensions in this regard, as should Facebook’s own confession regarding their response to misogyny.

Viral Hate asserts that “companies that manage these sites are aware of the issues and have made efforts to address them”. Facebook and Google are said to “take online hate seriously”, and the ADL is said to have the “real cooperation of social media companies on the problem of Internet hate”. In this context, a number of ADL events with speakers from the companies are listed. While the ADL pursues this approach, others have been taking an analytical approach that highlights how user reports about clear cases of online hate have been routinely rejected by Facebook in particular. As the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism heard last year, action is seldom taken by platform providers until legal or quasi-legal proceedings are begun.

The ADL and the Technological Companies

Despite the close cooperation the ADL claims to have with the technology companies, the most well-publicized flaw—Facebook’s policy of exempting Holocaust denial from being considered hate speech—remains. Viral Hate notes that the ADL disagrees with this position, but this is not enough. The ADL also disagrees with Facebook’s approach of resolving concerns by adding a “controversial humor” prefix to reported hate pages. This too is not enough. More recently Facebook ignored calls from the ADL, and others, to remove a page promoting classic blood libel. One must ask what value such a close relationship is it that can’t resolve the straightforward matter of Holocaust denial or classic blood libel? We’ve seen where ineffective relationships with those in power, who are facilitating the spread of hate, can lead. Let’s not go there again. Cooperation must be judged on the results, and the results so far are lacking.

In Viral Hate, the ADL appears at times to be in the industry’s corner in the fight against the removal of hate speech. Viral Hate considers, for example, the role of search engines as gateways to the Internet. The authors state that search companies have “neither the resources nor the will necessary to act as ‘private censors.’ ” Viral Hate also repeats claims that for Google to intervene in search results to remove hate would violate “search neutrality” and create anti-trust issues. “Search neutrality” is a term created by a competitor of Google in direct response to practices by Google of manipulating search results to promote its own services and demote results competing with it. It is not a legal principle, or relevant to antitrust issues when the content being removed is hate speech. The willingness of Google to manipulate results for financial benefit, but not to remove hate, is itself telling. It is unsurprising that the Web Observatory in Argentina, part of the Latin American Jewish Congress, succeeded is getting a court order for Google to remove hate speech from search results. This success too is omitted from Viral Hate.

In a brief couple of paragraphs the authors directly address criticisms that the ADL has become too close to the technology industry. The mantra that cooperation with industry will make more gains than legal action is repeated. This ignores recent history, which shows that legal action, particularly in Europe, has been the most successful tool for causing real change. Within the United States, it is the major advertisers who have caused change.

Social media companies only address issues like hate speech when it is in their interest to do so.

The companies have a disregard for the opinion of users, who are not their customers but their stock in trade. Effective pressure has always come from governments with the power to regulate, or major advertisers who are the true customers and buy access to the users. It is only in response to these external risks that significant improvements have been made in the recent past.

The ADL asserts that their cooperation “does not foreclose public criticism [of the technology companies], and the ADL will continue to be outspoken when necessary.” The handling of Facebook with kid gloves throughout Viral Hate puts this in some doubt. While clearly highlighting increased discussions with Facebook, and the use of Facebook staff as speakers for ADL events, there is a deafening silence regarding basic monitoring work to measure the effectiveness of Facebook’s policies in practice. Put in the context of 50 or 100 years ago, the ADL’s approach is akin to meeting regularly with the editors of the largest newspapers, but not monitoring what they print. This is not to dismiss policy development work, which other groups like the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism also engage in (with a far wider and more international ranger of experts), but policy work is only a small piece of the puzzle.

The Role of the Law

Viral Hate provides a valuable insight into the laws relating to hate speech in the Unites States. The narrowly construed legal limitation to the First Amendment when it comes to regulating certain kinds of speech on the basis of their content is carefully outlined. While hate speech is generally protected by the First Amendment, Viral Hate highlights the exceptions of threats and intimidation, advocacy of violence, and harassment. The legal analysis and the examples provided will be of value to students and scholars seeking to understand the American legal position on hate speech in light of the First Amendment. The role of hate speech as evidence of hate crimes, where the victim was selected because of their real or perceived group identity, is also discussed. In some states, the penalty for some crimes increases when the conduct occurs in such aggravating circumstances. The ADL has played a significant role in bringing such laws into effect.

In Viral Hate, the authors note that international accords on hate speech have had “little or no real impact on U.S. jurisprudence, political views, or public attitudes.” This trend continues in Viral Hate itself, with minimal consideration given to hate speech laws outside of the United States; there is just enough discussion to highlight that the position outside the United States is different. The European position is presented not as a stronger commitment against hate speech, but as lacking the “sense shared by many Americans” of the importance of freedom of speech. Almost as much attention is given to the repeal of hate speech laws in Canada, a result of their consistent abuse in a manner not foreseen by drafters, as is given the laws of other nations as a whole.

Perhaps the greatest concern regarding international treatment is the omission of discussion on the Additional Protocol to the Convention on Cybercrime when the topic of international responses is first raised. The only regional instrument to tackle online hate speech, the protocol is gaining signatories leading to greater consistency and a new commitment in Europe to laws against online hate speech. Viral Hate instead gives the impression that, outside of the United States, laws against hate speech are inconsistent and generally in decline. The international position presented is little more than a straw-man argument to reinforce the traditional American approach.

Viral Hate argues that laws against hate speech creates martyrs and elevate liars. It describes the milestone case of LICRA vs. Yahoo! with criticism, suggesting the successful case against Yahoo! may have trivialized hate speech laws through its focus on “Nazi trinkets.” Laws against hate speech are rejected on the basis that: there is too much content to police; laws by undemocratic states could become tools of oppression; laws to limit hate speech are the least effective response; laws create a false sense of security; and laws promote inaction and the underuse of other tools to fight the spread of hate. Many of these are generic arguments against any law, while others are part of the wider debate about freedom of speech and protection from hate speech. The arguments dismiss the educative effect of the law in setting societal norms, and the role this can play in energizing and inspiring other responses. The concern that the volume content online is a critical issue is at odds with the push from the United States for stronger laws to police copyright online. The authors are right that no law will bring an end to hate speech, but neither have laws against rape and murder brought an end to these horrific crimes.

Prosecutions may make martyrs within a community of haters, but successful convictions send a powerful message that is its own form of counter speech. Examples of countries with laws also engaging in alternative strategies, such as the “no hate speech” movement in Europe, also undermine these arguments.

The dismissal of the seminal LICRA vs. Yahoo! case by Viral Hate is a key flaw of the book. Decided by the French High Court in 2000, the case is treated in a single paragraph and in a negative light. Viral Hate suggests the message to be drawn from it is that the use of law as a tool to fight hate “weakens respect for the law.” This unique reading of the case is at odds with history. The case established the jurisdiction of the French courts to hear a case against an American Internet service provider despite arguments that the servers were in the United States. The case was revolutionary in establishing the competence of national courts around the world to make judgments according to national law when their citizens were affected in cyberspace. Far from weakening respect for the law, the Yahoo! case highlighted the end of Internet exceptionalism. If US companies wish to operate in the global marketplace, it is they who have to adapt and respect the culture, norms, and laws of other nations. By failing to fully appreciate the non-American understanding of hate speech, Viral Hate has missed this critical conclusion and its implications for the online world.

Despite opposition to laws as a tool against hate speech, Viral Hate does acknowledge the important role UK laws have played in combating online hate. The laws are said to provide an important backup to counter speech, which in turn greatly increases the effectiveness of that counter speech. This is indeed the way most hate speech laws work: not as a tool to fine or imprison people, but as a deterrent, particularly against repeat offenders. The use of threats of dismissal from employment for hate speech, which would be legal in the United Kingdom, is seen as particularly useful.

The Role of Counter Speech

Viral Hate proposes counter speech as the “best antidote to hate speech.” It defines the term as “the dissemination of messages that challenge, rebut, and disavow messages of bigotry and hatred.” Such speech is said to provide “irrefutable evidence to remind people that the world is full of people of good will—people who reject hatred and embrace the values of civility and respect.” The danger resulting from the negative portrayal of minorities in the mainstream media, particularly in the news, is highlighted. The lack of positive portrayals, as such portrayals are not newsworthy, is also highlighted. Viral Hate notes both the ability of the Internet to counter such views, and also the reality that the Internet appears to further exacerbate the problem; for example, Viral Hate takes the air out of a popular hate-speech argument that all Muslims support extremism, some actively and others by their silence, by highlighting numerous Muslims leaders who have indeed spoken out against extremism.

The book praises the work of individuals like Hannah Jacobs, who campaigns against hate which targets people with special needs, and Kevin O’Neil, who campaigns against homophobia. The examples of O’Neil’s humorous responses to hate mail are both entertaining and come with the important warning of the risks involved in such counter speech. In addition, Viral Hate provides suggestions to aid people in disseminating counter speech. People are encouraged to report/flag content to platform providers. The authors suggest that people read the terms of service to understand what is, and is not, permitted. Encouraging people to report content to platform providers is certainly a useful step; the promotion of positive anti-hate initiatives is also encouraged. Users are urged to speak out against hate. While all this is important, the risks of doing so are unfortunately not highlighted.

Viral Hate, based on the ADL’s experience, discourages people from engaging in debate with hate-speech promoters. Instead, it suggests that speaking out should involve the posting of links to alternative points of view. While useful advice, even the posting of links poses real dangers, which Viral Hate does not address, for the unprepared user. A hater will often have a fake profile with no personal information. A member of the public responding to them will usually expose their real name, often links to their family, possibly an employer, and potentially a phone number or e-mail address. A well-meaning individual can rapidly find himself or herself a target of extreme harassment, bullying, and threats. Another problem that is not highlighted is that on a page dedicated to hate, it is the haters who control the venue. Links and arguments against them will be rapidly deleted or left as bait to attract others to “debate” and end up as victims. The technology itself creates a false market, with an imbalance of power in favor of haters. This market failure is why regulation is needed, and why counter speech alone, while useful in the right place, is not a complete solution.

Hate Speech and Education

The role of education in relation to hate speech is considered from the perspective of academic freedom and digital literacy. Viral Hate approaches these topics on the basis of the role of free speech in supporting democracy. A practical overview of the limits that may be applied to hate speech in the educational setting in the United States, without clashing with the First Amendment, is provided. The book highlights the responsibility of academics and administrators to “apply sound academic criteria and intellectual judgement” when considering appointments and speakers.

Viral Hate also provides a useful list of topics that digital literacy should cover. These include the importance of sources, being able to recognize bias and the themes of hate. A number of “red flag” concepts from mediasmart are highlighted, including: “the other,” “the glorious past,” and “victimhood.” All of these are used by right-wing extremist groups. The book also highlights important work by Jessie Daniel, who highlighted students’ difficulties distinguishing hate sites from legitimate information sites. Viral Hate encourages parents to become more familiar with the online world and to make use of resources technology companies are developing for parents. It also highlights important techniques to enable discussion about charged issues, such as racial hatred.

Technical Difficulties

Three key issues with Viral Hate have been discussed, including: the problem with the understanding of virality; the focus on policies in the absence of systematic monitoring of their effectiveness; and the ineffectiveness and risks posed by counter speech in social media environments, which are not fully appreciated or explored. Two further issues, these dealing with technical difficulties, need to be mentioned.


The first relates to the reporting system in Facebook, which covers hate against both individuals and groups. Viral Hate walks the user through part of the reporting process, but unfortunately this is but one of many divergent processes users may encounter. Reporting posts, pages, and images are all a little different, provide different options, and lead to different results. The failure to mention the support dashboard, which is available for some forms of reporting but not others, is a significant omission. The dashboard lets users check the progress of reports they have made and inspect past reports. It is a useful tool for counter speech, discussion, and monitoring. The ability to “give feedback” is another significant feature of the reporting system that is not discussed, and that can often alter the final result.

While not directly a technology issue, Viral Hate may have done a significant disservice in its interpretation of Facebook’s terms of service. The terms provide a number of grounds, such as race, religion, and sexuality that could constitute hate speech. Facebook’s Community Standards state: “We do not permit individuals or groups to attack others” on the provided bases. It is unfortunate that the book says this refers to “speech that attacks a person.” Such an interpretation excludes a significant proportion of hate speech, currently recognized by Facebook, that which is against groups rather than individuals.


The final technical issue is an outright error, which could have been avoided if the ADL had greater technical skill or paid more attention to the work of others. While citing Australia’s human rights commissioner on the issue of the Jewish Memes page, Viral Hate fails to mention that the issue arose because of the two major reports into Facebook-based hate by the Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI), and a formal complaint brought to the Australian Human Rights Commission by Australia’s peak Jewish community body, the ECAJ. Viral Hate incorrectly claims the page is blocked in Australia but still available elsewhere, and gives what it says is the page’s address. The page in question, as mentioned in the OHPI reports, had ID #389407607793765 and was closed by Facebook as of January 2012.[2] The page given by Viral Hate is a totally different page. It has a similar name, but has ID #195751463865245.

The page the ADL “exposes” is not a hate page but one likely run by Jews and intended as real humor—not an excuse for hate speech. While a few antisemitic images have found their way onto this page, that does not change its basic nature, or the fact that a different response is needed to remove these images. Viral Hate quotes the page as saying it was flagged as controversial humor by mistake; in this case, however, it was a real mistake, one that Viral Hate has exacerbated.

Viral Hate’s Conclusions

The book includes significant appendices, but the content itself ends with six key messages: what you say online can hurt people; online bystanders have a responsibility to report what they see; speaking up against hate speech is necessary to make a difference; counter speech is not censorship—“those who peddle hate speech deserve public rebuke, ridicule, and condemnation,” none of which is censorship; privacy is a shared responsibility; and finally, hatred is not funny. Viral Hate ends with a call for informal sanctions against those who promote hate speech in the hope this will relegate them to the “darkest, least frequented corners of our world.” These are lessons well worth sharing and repeating. With luck they may even go viral.

Review Conclusions

Viral Hate is a significant contribution to the discussion surrounding online hate speech. It clearly articulates some important dangers that emanate from the online world, the real harm they can cause, and the need to take action. ADL’s position on the role of law, the need for counter speech, and their approach to major technology companies is also outlined. The book provides a valuable insight into the American approach to hate speech; this insight will benefit those outside the United States. Unfortunately, the danger the book has the most trouble in tackling is the one so clearly outlined by its title. This is not a book about viral hate, and indeed, it is not a book about Internet hate. This is an autobiography of the ADL’s involvement in those areas where it has made the most difference online.

In Viral Hate, the efforts of other significant contributors in this space are most notable by their absence. The ADL’s limitations in both understanding new technology, and in understanding the world in which hate goes viral, is unfortunately clearly demonstrated by the book. Viral Hate is a useful read for experts in online hate, both for its strength and for the manner in which it highlights the ADL weaknesses in this area. For those with a more limited understanding of online hate and the online world in general, the errors and omissions in Viral Hate are likely to be overlooked, and it may therefore provide a false sense of reassurance that the ADL is indeed on top of the problem.

This article is an abridged version of a review originally published in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism

Andre Oboler

Andre Oboler is the CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and co-chair of the Online Antisemitism Working Group of the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism. He holds a PhD in computer science from Lancaster University (UK) and recently completed a juris doctor from Monash University (Australia). He is a senior member of the IEEE, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. He is also an Executive member of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria and an ROI Community member.