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Hate speech in online social platforms: An intersectional case of antisemitism and homolesbobitransphobia in the Italian context

By Murilo Henrique Cambruzzi, Researcher at the Osservatorio Antisemitismo of the Fondazione CDEC                                    and Daniel Heller, Project Assistant CEJI

The Osservatorio Antisemitismo is a department of the Foundation Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea – CDEC, founded in 1975, which monitors antisemitism on a daily basis, paying particular attention to the different characteristics of the phenomenon. The monitoring activity covers the entire Italian territory. The Osservatorio offers a unique service and carries out studies and surveys of historical, sociological and journalistic nature. CDEC is a member of the Facing Facts Network.

Online environments have seen an increase in hate-based incidents towards minorities. Social media are the preeminent platforms where content resulting from hateful rhetoric and conspiracy theories, oftentimes peddled by politicians and extremists, continue to circulate.

The aim of this blog is to analyse the growing intersection between different hateful ideologies, with a focus on antisemitism and homolesbobitransphobia. It looks into the main initiatives taken at European level by stressing some of their positive aspects and shortcomings, including for example, the need to extend the Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online to social media platforms that have yet to sign up.

Exploring the Italian context, we describe how the parliamentary discussion on the anti-discrimination bill (DDL Zan) brought the Osservatorio Antisemitismo to record cases of a trending and intersectional connection between antisemitic and homolesbobitransphobic rhetorics. We analyse some of the discourse and conspiracy theories present in social media and point to the need for CSOs, researchers, activists and policy makers to take an  intersectional-informed approach to anti-discrimination policies. 

The European Context

The 2008 Framework Decision on combating certain forms of expression of racism and xenophobia is a milestone for the criminalisation of hate-motivated crime and speech under EU law. The Framework Decision criminalises “public incitement to violence or hatred based on race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin”[1]. In 2016, the European Commission and key social media platforms agreed a voluntary Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online[2]. Social media platforms have joined in stages[3] to “[counter] the spread of illegal hate speech online, and committed to have rules or community guidelines in place clarifying that they prohibit the promotion of incitement to violence and hateful conduct”[4]. Other platforms such as Telegram and VKontakte, with respectively 550[5] and 77[6] million global users, have yet to commit to the Code, while still operating in the European Union.

The latest data of the monitoring rounds (2020 and 2021) report an increase in the amount of content reported to social media platforms[7]. This increase is partly as a result of the introduction by the  Code of the ‘trusted flagger’ role, which is usually occupied by NGOs. The ‘trusted flaggers’ have supported increased cooperation between CSOs and social media platforms and improved understandings of the national specificities of hate speech, allowing more informed responses and reactions. Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and moderators also have a role in the removal of hateful content from social platforms, and the Code has created national contact points that support Member States to enforce existing legislation[8]

Data from the 2020 and 2021 monitoring exercises also show a significant difference in content removal rates between general users and ‘trusted flaggers’, suggesting that a better process to respond to users’ reports is needed.

The Italian Context

In 2021, a report by Amnesty International Italia focused on hateful narratives during the pandemic. The report analysed 36,269 items of content from Facebook and Twitter. One in ten posts and tweets were found to be offensive, discriminatory or hate speech. According to the report, hate speech online in Italy increased by 40% compared to the previous year. 55.6% of the content focused on anti-religious minority narratives, followed by antigypsyism (47.6%) and anti-migrant (42.1%) narratives. The LGBTQ community was the most targeted group with 98.2% of hate speech content, followed by Muslims at 46%, and NGOs and individuals working on human rights activities more generally at 25.9%[9].

Hate speech is not specifically regulated by the Italian penal code. However, the 1993 Mancino Law (Article 604bis of the penal cole), as modified in 2006, establishes a set of penalties up to one year and six months of incarceration if the person is found guilty of inciting or performing racist propaganda for racial, ethnic, national, or religious reasons. In 2018, the Italian parliament was called to discuss the bill proposed by MP Alessandro Zan aiming to extend legal protection to a broader range of protected characteristics including  sexual orientation, gender (identity), and disability. The Zan bill was approved in 2020 by the Chamber of Deputies, but it failed to receive the necessary votes in the Senate of the Republic.

The bill also aimed to:

  • Establish a national day against homophobia, lesbophobia, biphobia and transphobia;
  • Set up measures to counter discrimination (setting up a national strategy to counter discriminational based on sexual orientation and gender identity);
  • Set up systems to collect data and carry out research activities by state institutions, such as ISTAT (Italian National Institute of Statistics) and OSCAD (The Observatory for Security against Acts of Discrimination).

The political and public debate on the bill led to anti-Jewish and homolesbitransphobic posts on established social media and conspiracy websites. False claims,  further explored below, included  that LGBTI rights are part of a Jewish plot to progressively annihilate European society (which is seen as white, CisHet[10], and Christian).

The intersection of antisemitism and homolesbobitransphobia

In Nationalism and Sexuality (1984), George Mosse affirms that the rise of nationalism established a narrative connecting ‘race’ to sexuality. Jews were deemed libidinous, Jewish men were accused of trying to seduce white or Aryan women and of using prostitutes. According to Mosse, it was typical of the racist ideology of the period to connect excessive libido to “inferior races”. Marcel Proust went as far as defining Jews and homosexuals as the “cursed race”[11]. A common trope in antisemitism is that Jews are sexually perverted and want to subvert or disrupt “normalcy” (monogamy, heterosexuality, etc.). As such these  narratives are  deep-rooted in racist theories, and have  been ‘modernised’ to encapsulate societal changes.

Mario Mieli, a pioneer of Queer rights in Italy and whose father was a Jew from Egypt, is accused by a blog author of being the trailblazer for the imposition of ‘gender ideology’ in Italy. In the blog’s comment section, the author affirms “Mieli was an agent assigned to the corruption and deprivation of people, who happened to be Jewish, like many others operating in our territory […]”[12]

In some of the posts collected by the Osservatorio Antisemitismo, the Tel Aviv Pride is mentioned as an example of Jewish libertinism and perversion, at the same time claiming, for example, that “Jews reject crap for them, but, instead, they make us all eat it!”, “Jews do not approve of egalitarian marriage or extend LGBTI rights in Israel, but impose them on us (here understood as Europe/West).” A very offensive narrative is that involving the Brit Milah (circumcision), which is presented as a rite of initiation to homosexuality and perversion. Some of the posts found on Twitter or Facebook, link to blogs where authors accuse Jews of “homosexual molestation [of] circumcised Jewish boys,” of being “Kosher paedophiles,” and so on. 

Posts like the following can be easily found at mainstream social media networks which participate to the EU Code of Conduct.

The situation is even more extreme in platforms which do not participate to the EU Code of Conduct. Examples are the social network VKontakte and the hybrid platform Telegram where content inciting lethal violence against Jews, LGBTQAI+ people and people with disabilities can be found. Worryingly, the 2022 Unesco publication History under attack: Holocaust denial and distortion on social media reports that Telegram considers all chats and groups as private and does not monitor them. 

Signing up to the Code requires social media platforms to analyse content that is reported to them by trusted flaggers and to remove the content if deemed illegal. According to the European Commission “[s]ince [its] adoption in 2016, the Code of Conduct is delivering positive results: the last evaluation shows that on average the companies are now assessing 81% of flagged content within 24 hours and 62.5% of the content deemed illegal hate speech is removed.”[14]

Profiles that spread antisemitic hatred are oftentimes the same ones that spread homophobic, transphobic, anti-gypsyism, xenophobic, racist, etc. hatred thus highlighting the need for a holistic and intersectional-informed approach[15] to combating hate. Groups are not homogenous. Each person possesses different characteristics that intersect, and which may be grounds for one or more form of prejudice or intolerance; for example, a gay Jewish person may experience homophobic and antisemitic attacks simultaneously, while a heterosexual Jew will be subject ‘only’ to antisemitic attacks. These attacks may come both from people outside or within the community. Also, a gay Jew may be subjected to antisemitism within the LGBTI community and to homophobia within the Jewish community.

Amplifying Queer Jewish voices

Ariel Heller is an Italian Jewish LGBTQAI+ activist. He reflects on the discrimination experienced by Jews accused of imposing ‘gender ideology’. 

“We face discrimination not only because of our sexual orientation or gender identity in some fringes of the Jewish Communities but at times we feel unsafe to show our Jewishness in Queer spaces. Being Jewish is seen as an element of privilege and power. This antisemitic perception perpetuates the stereotype that has often led to excluding Jews from demonstrations increasing intolerance within the communities”. “Queer Jews are especially targeted, as it happened during the Milano Pride (see Pic. 4). Recent intersectional discrimination [that we have] experienced dramatically impacts us in both communities”. 

Ariel reflects on the exclusion of LGBTQAI+ Jews from both the Jewish and LGBTQAI+ communities who fear that “embracing them would mean addressing the proposed online intersectional hate speech. It highlights the difficulties of tackling intersectionality within communities. The lack of support invalidates our claims making it difficult to call out antisemitism in Queer spaces and homolesbobitransphobia in the Jewish sphere”.

Lastly, Ariel stressed how Queer Jews need a platform to be heard without having to give up part of their identities.

Conclusion

Hate speech is complex, and oftentimes social media platforms’ mechanisms and Codes do not capture its many hues. The phenomenon needs to be understood in its particularities (antisemitic or homolesbobitransphobic) and, in general terms, by strengthening social media policies against hate speech and hostile behaviour.

Jewish and LGBTQAI+ people share a long, common history of discrimination (one can think about the fact that both communities were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis), but also of resistance. Jewish communities and Queer spaces need to do more to accept and combat hateful narratives against LGBTQIA+ Jews and to provide a space for solidarity and support. There is a need to create spaces to facilitate training and dialogue. Organisations like Keshet UK and Keshet Ga’avah are great examples of the role and spaces that Jewish-LGBTQIA+ organisations – such as Keshet Italia – are trying to create as bridges between both communities. Acknowledging the experiences and reflecting on the issues are vital points in discussing the importance of intersectionality within communities, which can then influence national and international legislation. In Invisible Others and Intersectional Equality Data, Camila Piastro highlights the need to introduce and train communities and stakeholders on concepts of intersectional discrimination and hate speech to identify, collect, and report such cases. 

This article has presented a snapshot of  the experiences of Queer-Jews in Italy. This sort of visibility is essential, as is an understanding of the  growing intersections between different hateful ideologies. The insights, perspectives and experiences of individuals and communities that experience these intersectional harms should be considered and integrated into ongoing efforts to reform EU law in this area. Further, social media companies need to be aware and take responsibility for the content circulating on their platforms. They need to work closely with CSOs and activists to create capacity-building activities and support contact with marginalised communities to understand and respond to intersectional discrimination and hate speech effectively. Finally, we believe that it is important for the European Commission to ensure that other social networks and online platforms participate in the Code of Conduct, and that the social media companies enhance the moderating algorithm and increase the removal rate of hateful content circulating on their platform.

 


[1] See: Combating hate speech and hate crime  
[2] Illegal Hate speech is defined in the Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 as the public incitement to violence or hatred on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent and national or ethnic origin. While the Framework Decision on combatting racism and xenophobia covers only racist and xenophobic speech, the majority of Member States have extended their national laws to other grounds such as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
[3] 2016: Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube; 2018: Instagram, Snapchat and Dailymotion; 2019: Jeuxvideo.com; 2020: TikTok; 2021: LinkedIn; 2022: Rakuten Viber and Twitch.
[4] See: Code of Conduct–Illegal online hate speech Questions and answers
[5] See: Telegram users
[6] See: VKontakte users
[7] TikTok joined the EU Code of Conduct in September 2020, and it was also included in the 2021 monitoring round for the first time.
[8] See: How the Code of Conduct helped countering illegal hate speech online 
[9] See: Barometro2021
[10] If someone is cishet, it simply means that they are the gender they were assigned at birth and exclusively romantically and sexually attracted to those of the opposite gender. See: CisHet 
[11] See: Mosse, George L. “Razza e Sessualità: L’Estraneo.” Essay. In Sessualità e Nazionalismo, 1st ed., 153–74. Roma-Bari, Italy: Editori Laterza, 1984153.
[12] Facing Facts, as a rule, does not publish the link of hateful content to minimise the risk of spreading it online.
[13] The post was published by an ‘activist’ of antisemitism. The Osservatorio Antisemitismo has found several Italian profiles on Facebook, which use made up Jewish names, and often the Happy Merchant meme as their profile picture and/or cover. ‘Jew-face’ – pretending to be Jewish – is a successful strategy utilised by Italian antisemites to avoid Facebook’s moderation policies.
[14] The EU Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online
[15] According to the Center for Intersectional Justice, Intersectionality “describes the ways in which systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, class and other forms of discrimination ‘intersect’ to create unique dynamics and effects. […] All forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be analysed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another.” Camila Piastro Invisible Others and Intersectional Equality Data article explores how the lack of intersectional data hampers efforts to understand and address acts of discrimination among and within communities.


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