Antisemitism, Algorithms, and the Threat to Critical Thinking in American Culture

Although many currently promulgating antisemitism identify as left wing, their rhetoric and behavior are reminiscent of fringe far-right groups like QAnon or events like the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally. In their eagerness to condemn their far-right opponents, these leftists have blinded themselves to the same radicalizing psychological forces—and now Jews are suffering the consequences.

Rising antisemitism has been far from subtle. Protests abound with calls for anti-Jewish violence. Social media is awash with antisemitic claims, including that Jews are European “colonizers”, that the attack on October 7 was actually an Israeli “false flag”, and even claims that before 1948, Jews were safe and welcome in the Levant (no, we weren’t). Topping it off, polling reveals young Americans (who are overwhelmingly progressive) believe Jews are an “oppressor class,” that antisemitic violence is justified, and that Israel should be “ended and given to Hamas.”

Consequently, Jewish schools, synagogues, and businesses have been attacked worldwide. Many of these incidents have been perpetrated by college students, making it unsurprising that higher education is under fire for “causing” the problem through ill-conceived attempts at DEI initiatives and cultivating severely anti-free-speech environments. Despite all this, however, many young leftists remain blind to their own blatant antisemitism.

This blindness stems primarily from hubris. Many young leftists believed themselves immune to the same radicalizing psychological forces they’d criticized in others. This made them vulnerable and blind to those same forces, increasing their own antisemitism.

The dangers of weaponizing clinical psychology (“therapy-speak”) have been widely discussed. However, there has also been a recent weaponization, or at least a broadening familiarity with experimental psychology. Terms I once struggled to teach like “confirmation bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” or “groupthink” are now used in everyday conversations (although not always correctly)—especially political or ideological disagreements.

These terms have been especially levied against Trump supporters, particularly those advancing “stolen election” narratives or fringe positions like QAnon. Such accusations make sense. Cognitive biases and other forms of what psychologists call “motivated cognition” are empirically linked to conspiracy theory endorsement, political polarization, and Trump support, so it makes sense that these terms have entered the political discourse in this way.

Now, just because you know something exists doesn’t mean you’re immune to it. Unfortunately, we often assume this is the case, imagining that because we know cognitive biases exist, we are less susceptible to them. Ironically, this makes us far more vulnerable to biased thinking and behavior. This phenomenon, called “the bias blind spot” by psychologists, explains the left’s current antisemitism. Many leftists have spent so long condemning others’ biased thinking, they’ve fallen prey to the same radicalizing forces.

For example, Facebook and YouTube algorithms have long been decried for their radicalizing influence on the far right, reinforcing confirmation bias and other flawed thinking. However, many leftists appear to have overlooked their own vulnerability to algorithm-driven platforms like Instagram or TikTok which are both currently drenched with antisemitic misinformation. The result has been young leftists becoming antisemitic mirror images of the far right they’ve so long decried.

The overt parallels between the far right and the antisemitic far left would be humorous if they weren’t terrifying. While QAnon supporters push claims of “adrenochrome harvesting,” leftist antisemites make accusations of organ harvesting, but both blame the same target: Jews. Like those who defended Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, leftist antisemites gaslight about or demand to “contextualize” Hamas’s sexual violence or calls for Jewish genocide. Holocaust denial has become more widespread among leftists than the right. And while the far right might love Putin, young leftists calling to hand over a democratic nation to a terrorist organization is no better.

The left has even created its own antisemitic versions of January 6th and Charlottesville, including the violent swarming of Cooper Union University library, a riot in a Queens highschool, storming the DNC’s national headquarters and illegally occupying the capitol, vandalizing national monuments, and a Jewish man being murdered by a pro-Hamas protestor.

However, despite these parallels, young leftists’ hubris has blinded them to how they’ve become indistinguishable from those they previously scorned.

Addressing this antisemitism will require action by citizens across the political spectrum. Although individual commitment to self-reflection and intellectual humility will be important steps to addressing bias blind spots, they won’t be enough. The most important way to address both current antisemitism and the bias blind spots that created it will be embracing and cultivating social discourse (and higher education) that primarily focuses on developing traits like intellectual humility and self-knowledge—what was once prized as the liberal model of education.

We can never be totally free from biases. However, cultivating social environments where self-examination, self-critique, and intellectual humility are the norm can help us become aware that such blind spots exist, and avoid falling prey to the hubris that we are immune from the same flawed thinking we observe in others. Without systems in place to develop, nourish, and support these habits, social radicalism will only increase, and racial and religious minorities will suffer the most.

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Aaron Pomerantz, Ph.D.

Dr. Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and researcher in Houston, Texas. His research examines issues of culture, leadership, and responses to threat in politics and society. He can be found on Twitter @pompom9211.

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