(JTA) – An Instagram post using a SpongeBob SquarePants meme to promote Holocaust denial managed to evade Meta’s system for removing such content, raising questions about the company’s ability to combat certain indirect forms of hate speech, an independent oversight panel concluded in a case published Tuesday.
The finding came in a review of Meta’s handling of a post featuring a meme of Squidward, a character from the cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants, entitled “Fun Facts about the Holocaust.” A speech bubble next to the character contained lies and distortions about the Holocaust, including false claims that 6 million Jews could not have been murdered and that chimneys of the crematoria at Auschwitz were built only after World War II.
Withstanding six complaints from users that generated four automated reviews and two human assessments, the post stayed up from September 2020 until last year when Meta’s Oversight Board decided it would examine the situation and the company subsequently announced the post violated its policy against hate speech. The post even survived two user complaints that came after Meta’s adoption in October 2020 of a new rule expanding on its hate speech policy to explicitly bar Holocaust denial.
As part of its review in the SpongeBob case, the Oversight Board commissioned a team of researchers to search for Holocaust denial on Meta’s platforms. It was not hard to find examples, including posts using the same Squidward meme to promote other types of antisemitic narratives. Users try to evade Meta’s detection and removal system, the researchers found. Vowels are replaced with symbols, for example, and cartoons and memes offer a way to implicitly deny the history of the Holocaust without directly saying it didn’t happen.
Content moderation on social media is a notoriously difficult task. Some platforms, such as X, formerly known as Twitter, have taken a more hands-off approach, preferring to reduce oversight rather than err and risk stifling legitimate speech, which has resulted for X in the proliferation of antisemitism and extremism.
Meta has gone in the direction of increased moderation, even agreeing to empower the Oversight Board to make binding decisions in disputes over violations of the platform’s content policies. Meta’s vigilance has led in some cases to the accidental removal of content intended to criticize hate speech or educate the public about the Holocaust. The Oversight Board has repeatedly urged Meta to refine its algorithms and processes to reduce the chance of mistakes and improve transparency when it comes to enforcing the ban on Holocaust denial.
Meta set up its oversight panel amid mounting controversy over how the company handles content moderation. The move opened Meta to new scrutiny but did not stop the criticism. When, for example, the panel announced the SpongeBob case and requested comment from the public, it received a flurry of critical responses from Jewish groups and others.
“Holocaust denial and distortion on Meta platforms, on any forum, online or offline, is unequivocally hate speech,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote in its comment. “The Oversight Board must direct Meta to act accordingly by quickly removing violating posts like the one at issue in this case. Waiting for appeals to rise to the Oversight Board is unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, another commenter named the ADL as a negative influence on Meta’s content moderation practices, referring to the group as a “non-representative, Democratic-Leftist organization.”
“Meta has lost all integrity in this area given Metas serious level of hyper-partisan Orwellian-level censorship,” wrote the commenter, who identified themselves as Brett Prince.
In the SpongeBob case, the oversight panel made two new sets of recommendations for Meta. It said that assessing how well Meta is enforcing its ban on Holocaust denial is difficult because human moderators do not record the specific reason they removed a piece of content, a practice the panel urged Meta to change.
The panel also learned that as of May 2023, Meta was still sorting reviews based on an automation policy enacted following the outbreak of the COVID pandemic so that users’ appeals of decisions by users were rejected unless deemed “high-risk.” It is inappropriate to have kept the policy in place for so long, the panel said.
The spread of hate and misinformation on social media has become an acute problem in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, as platforms become flooded with depictions of graphic violence and war-related propaganda. In response to the circumstances, the Oversight Board adopted an expedited process for reviewing disputed cases.
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Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas
A group of ten Harvard University alumni filed a lawsuit against the institution on Wednesday, accusing it of “devaluing” their degrees through permitting and fostering an environment of antisemitism, support for terrorism, and anti-Israel sentiment.
Filed in a Massachusetts federal court, the alumni claims that Harvard has breached an implicit contract with its graduates, promising to maintain the institution’s prestige, which they allege has been compromised due to a toxic campus environment. This, they argue, has led potential employers and prestigious law firms to distance themselves from Harvard alumni.
“Harvard has directly caused the value and prestige of plaintiffs’ Harvard degrees to be diminished and made a mockery out of Harvard graduates in the employment world and beyond,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit argues that the university’s administration has failed to combat campus anti-semitism, and has consistently overlooked assaults on Jewish students and calls by students and faculty for the annihilation of Israel. It highlighted, among other things, an open letter signed by more than thirty student organizations blaming Israel for the October 7 Hamas-led attack, and campus protests which included chants like “Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: intifada revolution!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!”
The suit also points to then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she stated that calls for genocide against Jews would only violate bullying and harassment policies “depending on the context,” as indicative of the school’s tolerance of antisemitism.
The lawsuit is part of a growing dissatisfaction among graduates over what they perceive as rampant antisemitism on U.S. campuses, according to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of legal aid group, Shurat HaDin, who is representing the alumni alongside New York-based lawyer, Robert Tolchin.
Darshan-Leitner criticized the colleges for becoming “hate centers” under the guise of academic freedom.
The lawsuit, Darshan-Leitner said, reveals the “growing outrage and contempt that graduates all across the US are feeling over the wild antisemitism and hate speech being encouraged and explained away on the American campuses.”
“This dangerous weaponization of higher education by radical faculty and students as well as the impotent administration response, all justified under the guise of academic freedom, has turned the colleges into hate centers which has greatly devalued their reputation and diplomas,” she said, adding that the suit could prompt similar actions from graduates of other institutions.
Tolchin accused the university of succumbing to “the flavor of the month, the lowest level of discourse.”
“Harvard’s seal proclaims “Light and Truth” in Latin and Hebrew–yes, Hebrew, the language spoken by the indigenous Israelites. Yet light and truth have been hard to find at Harvard. The darkness of antisemitism and the dishonesty, hate, and discrimination have cast a pall over Harvard so embarrassing that people do not wish to be associated with Harvard,” Tolchin said.
Harvard has been accused of facilitating an educational environment that is unwelcoming to Israelis and Jews for years, with the lawsuit citing annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week” and incidents targeting Jewish students and symbols on campus.
Antisemitism expert Dara Horn, a Harvard alumnus who was asked to join Gay’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, authored a damning essay published this week in The Atlantic in which she detailed the Jew hatred on campus predating October 7.
She noted that staff members “who grade Jewish students used university-issued class lists to share information about events organized by pro-Palestine groups;” In one instance, a professor continued teaching after rejecting the findings of an investigation by Harvard after he was found discriminating against several Israeli students. Last spring, a student was asked to leave because her identity as an Israeli was making her classmates “uncomfortable.”
She also pointed to courses themselves “premised on anti-Semitic lies”, pointing to one called “The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health”, and noted that lecturers invited to speak at the campus included some who peddled in blood libels that Israelis harvest Palestinians’ organs or that the IDF uses Palestinian children for weapons testing.
“The mountain of proof at Harvard revealed a reality in which Jewish students’ access to their own university (classes, teachers, libraries, dining halls, public spaces, shared student experiences) was directly compromised,” Horn writes. The alumni’s legal action comes alongside another lawsuit filed by six current Harvard students on January 10, claiming that the university has not done enough to combat antisemitism on campus which had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” It also comes a day after a professor at the university, Walter Johnson, resigned from two anti-Zionist campus groups after they posted antisemitic cartoons.
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Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7
Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar sent the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) a letter on Thursday urging them to approve Israel’s submission to the Eurovision song competition, after the EBU called it “too political.”
“As you know, the State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult and complex periods since its establishment. We lost our loved ones, and there are women, men and children who are still held captive by a terrorist organization,” Zohar said.
Israeli media reported that the broadcasting union would not approve the song, called “October Rain,” after a number of countries even issued threats to boycott the event if Israel participates. The EBU issued a statement saying “We are currently in the process of carefully examining the lyrics of the song – a process that is confidential between the EBU and the Public Broadcasting Corporation until a final decision is made. To all broadcasters, they have until March 11th to officially submit their songs. If a song does not meet the criteria for any reason, the corporation will be given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, according to the contest rules.”
“The song that Israel sent to the Eurovision Song Contest was chosen by a professional committee made up of well-known names in the local music and entertainment industry,” Zohar added. “It is a moving song, discussing renewal and revival from a very fragile reality of loss and destruction, and describes the current public mood in Israel these days. We see now most clearly because our lives – as one, united society – manage to overcome even the greatest suffering. This is not a political song.”
Despite the news that the song by Israeli singer Eden Golan would not be approved, The CEO of KAN, Israel’s national broadcasting service, and the body that approves the song, Golan Yokhpaz, said “We will not change the words or the song, even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year.” Adding “The Israel Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) is in dialogue with the EBU regarding the song that will represent Israel at Eurovision.”
Zohar said later in a television interview “The songwriters, KAN, and the singer will have to make the decisions at the end of the day… I do think that Israel should participate in Eurovision because it is important for us at this time to be represented there, and to express ourselves throughout Europe.”
Speaking to the EBU, he said, “We trust that you will continue in your important task of keeping the competition free from any attempt at political manipulation.”
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UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories referred to Israelis as “colonialists” who have “fake identities” while quoting another Twitter/X account on Wednesday, raising questions about the impartiality of the international body.
She highlighted the following quote from Mizrahi: “free Palestine scares them [Westerners] bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities.”
” free Palestine scares them bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities..” https://t.co/N1wkOPgKJs
— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) February 21, 2024
The original post claimed that “All colonial powers work together to guarantee the supremacy of made-up identities over genuine, native ones. Because if this model breaks anywhere, it will collapse everywhere.”
Mizrahi argued that “A Palestinian state would be a major, major moral blow to white, Western colonialism.”
The tweet was met with immediate condemnation.
David Friedman, who served as the US Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump wrote that her tweet was “Exhibit A why the UN is a failure and why we no longer belong in that bastion of hypocrisy and corruption.”
An account documenting Hamas’ October 7 atrocities asked, “If Israel is indeed a ‘colonialist project’ Where should all the Israelis go if this project should be dismantled?”
The perception of UN bias against Israel has also been boosted by the fact that, in 2023, Israel was condemned twice as often as all other countries combined.
It is not the first time Albanese has made comments that raise eyebrows. Earlier this month, in response to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron calling the October 7 attack “largest anti-Semitic massacre of the 21st century,” she said “No, Mr. Macron. The victims of October 7 were not killed because of their Judaism, but in response to Israel’s oppression.”
Following backlash, she wrote that she opposes “all racism, including anti-Semitism, a global threat. But explaining these crimes as anti-Semitism obscures their true cause.”
Hamas’ founding charter, in a section about the “universality” of its cause, reads: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Albanese has also argued that Israel should make peace with Hamas, saying that “It needs to make peace with Hamas in order to not be threatened by Hamas.”
When asked about what people do not understand about Hamas, she added, “If someone violates your right to self-determination, you are entitled to embrace resistance.”
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