Notes From the Underground

Google recently took the unusual step of explaining its search results on the word “Jew.” It seems that Google’s algorithms bring up a lot of anti-Semitic sites when searching for this particular word, as distinct from “Judaism” or “Jewish.” One of the factors in those algorithms is the number of visits to a particular site, which raises the issue of just how influential the anti-Semitic sites actually are.

This touches on a perennial question in the Jewish community: is anti-Semitism a serious threat that needs to be combated forcefully, or is it a few hotheads making a lot of noise? One source of hard data about the popularity of anti-Semitic sites is Alexa, which supplies rankings and other metrics for any website. It doesn’t report numbers of hits or unique visitors, but its rankings make it possible to compare the relative impact of different sites. Some of the results are surprising.

Let’s start with a blog that offers this shocking comment: “The jewish (sic) problem is something that has to be dealt with again. The American Freemen cannot achieve their just liberty without addressing this cancer. There are enough angry men with rifles in this nation to do the job TODAY. All we have to do is gather them.” The blog does not have a large readership, however, on the basis of an Alexa ranking below 700,000 in the U.S. In other words, there are 700,000 other sites that have more visitors in the United States.

By way of comparison, it does have more visits than Ornithology.com, which ranks 961,985, but a lot less than a small local newspaper like The Rutland (Vt.) Herald, which comes in at number 31,557 among U.S. Internet users. The Vermont paper, which you might expect to attract very limited interest across the United States, actually ranks higher than several important sites within the Jewish world. The corresponding number for New York’s Jewish Week is 83,996. JDub Records comes in at rank position 43,559, and MyJewishLearning is number 35,735.

“Real Zionist News” – whose subject is “The Zionist War For World Domination” – trails JDub and MyJewishLearning at number 54,106 in the United States, but its rank is higher than Jewlicous’s 56,996. Startlingly, the white supremacist site Storm Front is the 3,531st most popular site among U.S. users, which means that a lot more Americans visit it than either The Forward, which is number 21,521, or JTA at 13,405.

The Website for the Jeff Rense radio show, which talks about conspiracy theories including “Decades Of Ruthless Zionist World Terror” and Holocaust denial, may be the most popular such site. It claims over a million unique visitors each month and ranks as number 2,193 according to Alexa. That’s just a bit below the ranking of 1-800-FLOWERS, at 1,981, or Astrology.com, number 1,759. The Rense site has more U.S. visitors than Haaretz, whose rank is 2,969, but not as many as The Jerusalem Post, ranking 2,010.

These comparisons are just one way of making inferences, and other methods may lead to different conclusions. Coupled with Google’s “disturbing” search results for the word “Jew,” however, they suggest that anti-Semitism attracts a lot of interest on the Web – sometimes more than does information from Jewish sources. Watchdog sites that report bias, inaccuracies, and distortions apparently have particularly little influence: the ranking of Honest Reporting is 182,514, and the number for CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) is 135,061.

In June the Anti-Defamation League reported that anti-Semitic incidents in the United States had declined in 2008 for the fourth straight year. That may be the most important metric. Still, it’s unsettling how many Americans routinely seek out anti-Semitic myths and conspiracy theories online.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and vice-president of Zeek Media, is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.