Elon Musk’s Twitter failed to stop the circulation of an antisemitic cartoon posted on the network by Russian diplomats drawing on a trope of Nazi propaganda by depicting Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with a huge nose.
Despite pleas from Twitter users who objected to the anti-Jewish racism of the cartoon, the tweet remained where it was posted, on the official account of the Russian Embassy in London, without being deleted, contextualized, or restricted in any visible way.
Before Musk took control of the social network, tweets containing images that used racist tropes to attack individuals or groups based on their ethnic identity were routinely removed from the platform or made impossible to share.
Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the co-author of the book “Meme Wars,” posted a screenshot of the Russian embassy tweet and noted that the diplomats were using “open antisemitism” to drum up support for the Russian war on Ukraine.
Russian Embassy trying to win the meme war with open antisemitism. pic.twitter.com/vc9V7xrEdP
— Joan Donovan, PhD ? (@BostonJoan) November 22, 2022
The cartoon is a version of an old internet meme, in which an image of Bart Simpson writing on a chalkboard during after-school detention — from the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” — is reworked by inserting topical new text on the board. In the image shared by the Russian officials, the character of Bart was also replaced with a crude depiction of Zelenskyy in which his nose was altered to evoke Nazi imagery of Jews.
The text on the board, and the tweeted Russian caption for the cartoon, makes reference to speculation encouraged by Russia, but unsupported by evidence, that Ukraine had intentionally fired a defensive missile into Poland during a recent Russian attack as part of a false flag operation intended to draw NATO into the conflict.
Twitter’s failure to immediately remove the image or restrict the Russian government account that posted it appeared to be in keeping with Musk’s previously stated sympathy with Russia’s war aims and his active embrace of right-wing talking points about the need to make the social network a forum for “free speech,” even if that means allowing hate speech to flourish.
But Musk’s definition of who should be allowed to speak freely appears to be influenced by the right-wing ideologues and trolls he frequently echoes and agrees with on Twitter. The social network’s decision to allow the Russian government’s racist attack on Zelenskyy came at the same time that some antifascist accounts were being suspended and just after Musk reinstated the accounts of both Donald Trump — who used his tweets to foment the failed January 6, 2021, coup — and Kanye West, who recently tweeted a threat to unleash punishment on “Jewish people.”
Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, a news organization that began with collaborative, open-source investigations on Twitter, was among those who drew Musk’s attention to the image and asked if the social network’s new owner is “okay with state run Twitter accounts using anti-Semitic tropes?” Higgins suggested that Musk could even poll his followers on the platform to see if they “are cool with casual anti-Semitism.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli-Palestinian think tank based in Jerusalem, noted that the tweet came from diplomats working for the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who had defended Russia’s wild claims that Ukraine is run by Nazis by endorsing a conspiracy theory that Adolf Hitler was Jewish.
“So what if Zelenskyy is Jewish?” Lavrov told Italian television in May, when he was asked about the Russian claim that Ukraine was run by Nazis. “I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood.” The foreign minister went on to claim that “wise Jewish people” have said that “some of the worst antisemites are Jews.”
In her comment on the cartoon posted on Twitter by Russian diplomats, Tsurkov wrote: “The people who brought you ‘Hitler was a Jew’ decided to depict Ukraine’s Jewish president this way.”
Lavrov’s remarks caused outrage and were condemned by his Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, as “an unforgivable and outrageous statement as well as a terrible historical error. Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust. The lowest level of racism against Jews is to accuse Jews themselves of antisemitism.”
Three days later, the hawkish Russian state television host Vladimir Solovyov, who is himself Jewish, told viewers that it was perfectly possible for Zelenskyy to be both Jewish and a Nazi, at least according to the definition used by those around Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Nazism, Solovyov insisted, was a form of extreme nationalism that could target any national group, not just Jews. “Nazism doesn’t have to be antisemitic,” he said, “it can be anti-Slavic, anti-Russian.”
After Lavrov's hideous antisemitic Nazi remarks, for which Putin had to apologize to Israel, new directives apparently landed at the state TV studios. Now they claim that Nazism doesn't have to be antisemitic and in its new iteration it is [drumroll] anti-Slavic and anti-Russian. pic.twitter.com/BesGtjzjWm
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) May 6, 2022
The idea that Russians, not Jews, were the main victims of Nazi Germany has a long pedigree in Russia. As the historian Timothy Snyder explained in his book “Bloodlands,” the official Soviet history of the nation’s “Great Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany was written to downplay the suffering of the Jews — influenced by Josef Stalin’s antisemitism.
“If the Stalinist notion of the war was to prevail, the fact that the Jews were its main victims had to be forgotten,” Snyder wrote. “Also to be forgotten was that the Soviet Union had been allied to Nazi Germany when the war began in 1939, and that the Soviet Union had been unprepared for the German attack in 1941. The murder of the Jews was not only an undesirable memory in and of itself; it called forth other undesirable memories. It had to be forgotten.”
“Putin’s Russian regime talks of ‘Nazis’ not because it opposes the extreme right, which it most certainly does not, but as a rhetorical device to justify unprovoked war and genocidal policies,” Snyder wrote on Substack in April. “[T]he Russian policy of ‘denazification’ is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used,” Snyder added, but “operates within the special Russian definition of ‘Nazi’: a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian.”
“The actual history of actual Nazis and their actual crimes in the 1930s and 1940s is thus totally irrelevant and completely cast aside,” Snyder observed. “This is perfectly consistent with Russian war fighting in Ukraine. No tears are shed in the Kremlin over Russian killing of Holocaust survivors or Russian destruction of Holocaust memorials, because Jews and the Holocaust have nothing to do with the Russian definition of ‘Nazi.’ This explains why Volodymyr Zelens’kyi, although a democratically-elected president, and a Jew with family members who fought in the Red Army and died in the Holocaust, can be called a Nazi. Zelens’kyi is a Ukrainian, and that is all that ‘Nazi’ means.”