5 December 2023

Social media is radicalising young people against Jews


A few days after the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7, my daughter’s school held a multi-faith assembly, specifically to address some of the tensions that most schools with large numbers of both Jewish and Muslim pupils knew would almost certainly come to the surface.

My heart sank when she told me about it. I wondered how this could do anything except make those tensions even more obvious, and backfire as a well-intentioned but misguided idea.

Which only goes to show why I am a journalist and not a teacher, because my worries were entirely misplaced. When the Jewish pupil spoke, she was received with respect by her fellow pupils. And when the Muslim pupil spoke, she devoted her allocated time to calling out antisemitism, describing it as a cancer, and demanding that if anyone saw any instance of it they should immediately tell a teacher.

Worryingly, however, it seems my daughter’s school is a beacon of sanity in a sea of rage. For weeks we have seen school children being radicalised by the likes of Stop the War into missing school to attend anti-Israel demos (often, it seems, with the tacit approval of the schools). These street protests, explicitly for children, have become ever more frequent.

A fascinating but deeply disturbing poll published on Monday explains why this is happening and how it is taking effect. The More in Common think tank – founded after the murder of Jo Cox MP in 2016 and named following her maiden speech, in which she said, ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’ – asked Brits of all ages and views about their attitudes to what is now happening in Gaza, and what happened on October 7.

Overall, the picture is as you might expect. The festivals of hate seen on the streets most Saturdays turn out to be entirely unrepresentative of most people. Most Brits, the poll finds, both condemn the evil of Hamas’ terrorism and support Israel’s right to defend itself, as well as being concerned about civilians in both Israel and Gaza.

It’s clear people also understand where things are heading. In the UK, 29% of people feel it is unsafe for Jewish people (with 24% thinking it’s unsafe for Muslims). They believe the protest organisers should do more to stop the hatred on display at the demos – an admirable idea in theory, but when 35% of those who have attended one of the protests say that Hamas should be called ‘freedom fighters’, it’s like asking someone eating scrambled eggs to separate the yolk and the white. The hate is integral.

Above all, though, it’s clear from the polling that social media is, as many have argued, fueling the frenzy and distorting the debate away from the views most people actually hold. Overall, about the same proportion sympathise with the Israeli side (16%) as with the Palestinian side (18%). But that says little. More relevant is that the latter are far more intense – and, as is seen on social media and on the streets every Saturday, are far more vocal. Palestinian sympathisers are more than twice as likely as those who side with Israel to say it is a cause they ‘care about most’, and three times as likely to have posted about it on social media.

During the Corbyn era, I often wondered which came first, the chicken or the egg? Was social media radicalising Corbynites into antisemitic posts, or was it rather giving long-held but previously silent anti-Jewish bigotry a platform for the first time on which it could be expressed? I concluded it was the latter. But the question remains vital and unresolved. It’s clear that an element of radicalisation is happening today, with social media impacting especially on those who use it most. Because when you break down the polling it becomes even more disturbing.

The results for 18- to 24-year-olds are terrifying, with 24% describing Hamas as ‘freedom fighters’.  And they are passionate about it: a third of 18- to 24-year-olds said they have had a ‘heated conversation or argument’ with friends or family about the war (compared with just one in 10 overall).

The report finds that young people feel pressured by their peers to ‘take a side’ – in other words, those who believe Hamas are freedom fighters are vocal and unrelenting. Meanwhile online conspiracy theories about the conflict are fueling radicalisation. The report quotes one primary school teacher: ‘[Social media] is promoting this radicalisation of children. It’s all over social media, a lot of it’s not factual. And you’ve got children of eight or nine years old who are saying, ‘I’m with the Palestinians’. And you’re thinking ‘You are eight or nine, how on earth do you know what they’ve said?’ They are so influenced.’

The report finds that young people also worry that universities are failing to ensure a culture where different views can be expressed and heard with respect. That is, of course, putting it mildly. Last week saw a Jewish speaker at Cardiff Student Union shouted down for daring to speak against a resolution on ‘how to spot lies and propaganda from the state of Israel’; he had to be escorted out for his safety. Similar scenes are happening on campus almost everywhere.

It’s no wonder that three in five people are worried about the rise of Islamist extremism (61%) and far right extremism (57%), with 61% expecting antisemitism to get worse as the war continues. As it is, the Met say antisemitic incidents have risen by 1350% in London.

The implications of the poll are profound. Most obviously, it shows the danger of social media – and how it has real-world effects. It is a Wild West of propaganda, lies and disinformation that is warping young minds. But while it is impossible to put that genie back in the bottle, there is one aspect to this which has been shamefully neglected. Social media is awash with hate speech from Imams inciting hatred not just against Jews but the West itself. Twitter/X accounts such as @habibi_uk and @hurryupharry document this with depressing regularity. And yet nothing is done offline. The authorities rarely act against these people – and there are ever more such sermons posted. Social media might be beyond salvage, but those responsible for much of its poison are not. We can see all too clearly the impact of inaction. The time has come to change that.

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Stephen Pollard is editor-at-large of the Jewish Chronicle.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.