Wiesenthal leader assesses state of hate, terror online

Rabbi Abraham Cooper remembers accompanying famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal on a cross-country tour in the 1980s and repeatedly being asked the same worried question: Could the Holocaust happen again?

Wiesenthal said another atrocity on that scale could occur only if there was a confluence of three factors: hate, a worldwide economic or social crisis, and the capability for mass community. “If you take those elements together, anything is possible,” Cooper recalls Wiesenthal telling audiences.

Now, the possible has become real. “He made those statements before anyone in this room ever thought of, or knew anything about, the Internet,” Cooper said during a talk at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto on March 31.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper

Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and heads the center’s Digital Terrorism and Hate Project, which for 18 years has monitored online hate. In recent years, the project also has worked with tech companies and law-enforcement agencies to block certain groups from using Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to spread hate and instigate terror.

ISIS posts around 200,000 times per day on Twitter, Cooper said, recruiting young people, including those in Western countries, to join the cause. And terrorists are using encrypted messages to plan attacks and coordinate their international networks — messages that governments and security forces are unable to penetrate.

Cooper said this is not a new problem. He recalled law-enforcement officials being dismissive of German neo-Nazi groups in the 1990s, even though they were spreading their message with technology that was considered advanced at the time.

Today, al-Qaida and similar groups publish slick digital magazines with instructions on how to build pressure-cooker bombs and encrypt online communications, according to Cooper. And Palestinian militant groups reportedly have distributed instructions on Instagram about how to stab a person most effectively, he said. “We talk about wanting to educate our children and our grandchildren — well, so do the terrorists.”

To counter these efforts, Cooper and his colleagues are encouraging tech companies to rigorously enforce their terms of service and block accounts being used to distribute hateful messages. While they are becoming more responsive to these issues, Cooper said, the digital prowess of ISIS is overwhelming.

“Whatever part of their collective genius Silicon Valley is giving to the public, the evildoers are right there,” he said. “They totally understand what’s going on, and they’re taking full advantage.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.