Even as Israel pounds Gaza into rubble, carrying out what has been described as a genocide in the process, many of its supporters are attempting to change the subject, instead decrying a supposedly new wave of dangerous antisemitism across American universities.
Their evidence for this is a new report from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI). Entitled “The Corruption of the American Mind,” the study alleges that Middle Eastern funding of U.S. universities has helped unleash a torrent of anti-Jewish hatred. Yet, as we shall see, not only does the report contain numerous methodological issues, but the NCRI itself is deeply connected to the Israel lobby, as well as the U.S. national security state, and regularly publishes thinly sourced reports in service of Israeli interests and U.S. imperialism.
Campus Propaganda Wars
The NCRI report claims that American universities have accepted billions of dollars from authoritarian countries and that those institutions that accepted Middle Eastern cash saw 300% more antisemitic incidents than those that did not. U.S. universities, they conclude, are hotbeds of Jew-hatred. The report bemoans a:
[M]assive influx of foreign, concealed donations to American institutions of higher learning, much of it from authoritarian regimes with notable support from Middle Eastern sources, reflects or supports heightened levels of intolerance towards Jews, open inquiry and free expression.”
The study was widely cited in the media, particularly by pro-Israel partisans eager to change the subject from Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Bari Weiss, for example, wrote that “the explosion of antisemitic hate” on campuses had been “fueled by Middle Eastern money.” As she explained:
[F]or several decades a toxic worldview—morally relativist, anti-Israel, and anti-American—has been incubating in ‘area studies’ departments and social theory programs at elite universities. Whole narratives have been constructed to dehumanize Israelis and brand Israel as a ‘white, colonial project’ to be ‘resisted.’”
The clear implication in both the NCRI study and Weiss’ report is that domestic opposition to Israeli (or other Western nations’) actions cannot be organic. Instead, it must be funded by nefarious foreign actors – a notion that, as we shall see – is a central recurring theme in the NCRI’s work.
The Network Contagion Research Institute describes itself as “the world’s foremost expert in identifying and forecasting the threat and spread of misinformation and disinformation across social media platforms.” Yet its connections to a wide range of controversial organizations raises questions about its neutrality. For one, the primary funder of its $1.7 million budget is the Israel on Campus Coalition, a group that describes its mission as to:
[U]nite the many pro-Israel organizations that operate on campuses across the United States by coordinating strategies, providing educational resources, sharing in-depth research, and increasing collaboration.”
“We envision the American college campus as a place where…the anti-Israel movement is marginalized, and where the entire campus community appreciates Israel’s contributions to the world,” the Israel on Campus Coalition writes on the “about us” section of its website.
If it were not apparent enough that this is a nakedly pro-Israel propaganda group fighting a war on America’s college campuses, the Israel on Campus Coalition is, in turn, bankrolled by the Jewish National Fund, a group that works hand-in-hand with the Israeli Defense Forces and builds illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
The NCRI has also partnered with (i.e., was financed by) the Charles Koch Foundation and the Open Society Foundation – groups that have been involved in funding regime change operations abroad.
It has also collaborated with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL is a group in the United States that, under the guise of fighting anti-Jewish racism, has long acted as a semi-official spying agency for Israel. Throughout its long history, it has infiltrated or surveilled virtually every progressive American organization, including Greenpeace, the NAACP, the United Farm Workers, the AFL-CIO, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and a host of leftist Arab- and Jewish-American organizations. It even spied on figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela and was known to be passing much of the information on to the Israeli government.
An internal FBI memo noted that the ADL was very likely breaking the Foreign Agents Registration Act by acting as an arm of the Israeli state. Indeed, the memo alleged that the group was almost certainly secretly funded by Tel Aviv. In 2019, the ADL announced it was partnering with the NCRI to “produce a series of reports that take an in-depth look into how extremism and hate spread on social media – and provide recommendations on how to combat both.”
The ties to the ADL go even deeper. NCRI co-founder Joel Finkelstein started the organization while holding down a job as a research fellow at the ADL and continued to work at both organizations simultaneously for nearly two years, further blurring the line between the two.
Meanwhile, NCRI lead intelligence analyst Alex Goldenberg is a former fellow at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the primary and most influential Israel lobbying group in the United States. Richard Benson, the NCRI’s director of European operations, was formerly chief executive of Community Security Trust (CST), a British Israel lobby group with deep ties to the Israeli state. The CST compiled a secret list of “extreme” (i.e., anti-Zionist) Jewish groups and sent it to the U.K. government and successfully lobbied to block Palestinian activists from being allowed to enter Great Britain.
Many key figures of the NCRI’s leadership team also have close links to the U.S. national security state. This includes its CEO, Adam Sohn, who served as Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s communications director before becoming vice president of the Koch Foundation.
Paul Goldenberg, meanwhile, was a senior figure in the Department of Homeland Security and led its attempts to counter extremism and radicalism at home. He was appointed by President Obama and reappointed by President Trump as a senior advisor to the DHS. Today, he is a strategic advisor to the NCRI.
The NCRI’s strategic advisory council also includes two senior military figures: Loree Sutton, a former brigadier general in the U.S. Army, and (formerly) John Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who was commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Other contributors to NCRI reports include Kelli Holden, a 28-year CIA veteran who rose to become chief of counterintelligence operations at the agency, and Brian Harrell, whose previous roles included Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection, Department of Homeland Security and Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security, U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
In short, then, the NCRI has deep connections to both the Israel lobby and the U.S. national security state, making its pronouncements on the issue of Israel’s war on Gaza and the rise of pro-Palestine solidarity particularly questionable. However, the methodology the group used in their report is equally questionable.
Firstly, the group derived its numbers on antisemitic incidents by amalgamating hard-to-compare data from multiple organizations, including the ADL. But, as MintPress documented in November, the ADL’s figures on antisemitic incidents are deeply flawed, as the organization counts pro-Palestine rallies calling for ceasefires as instances of anti-Jewish hatred. Virtually any opposition to the state of Israel’s policies is treated as problematic, as the ADL does not only consider anti-Zionism to be antisemitism but, as its CEO Johnathan Greenblatt said: “anti-Zionism is genocide.” “Every Jewish person is a Zionist…it is fundamental to our existence,” Greenblatt brazenly added.
The NCRI report highlights what it sees as the nefarious influence of money from foreign dictatorships but does not consider whether opposition to Israel could be organic and a natural response to the Israeli government. Moreover, while the headlines concentrate on Middle Eastern money, among the top sources for foreign cash in universities are the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Bermuda and Canada – hardly the destinations many would consider when reading the key findings.
In addition, the lead author of the report is a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, an institution that grew out of a proposal from the first director of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad.
Even pro-Israel sources have panned the NCRI report. As the conservative Jewish News Syndicate noted, the study “mix[ed] incompatible data,” “[did] not present a single example of how undocumented money was spent in a way to impact antisemitism,” and concluded that “the impact on campus is ‘complex and multiply determined,’ which is shorthand for ‘we couldn’t prove our case.’”
Targeting Alternative Media
In another attack on pro-Palestine voices, the Network Contagion Research Institute was also the prime source for a recent Washington Post investigation claiming that conspiracy theories about Hamas’ October 7 attack are gaining momentum online. As the Post wrote:
Oct. 7 denial is spreading. A small but growing group denies the basic facts of the attacks, pushing a spectrum of falsehoods and misleading narratives that minimize the violence or dispute its origins.”
Yet the article did not attempt to distinguish between wild and untrue assertions and factual reporting from independent media outlets like The Electronic Intifada and The Grayzone, which has shown that much about the Israeli narrative, including the infamous “40 beheaded babies” hoax, was demonstrably untrue. By doing so, the article lumps Electronic Intifada and The Grayzone in with far-right Holocaust deniers. This is particularly egregious since the article’s writer, Elizabeth Dwoskin, is a Nakba denier who claimed that before 1948, there was no Palestine and that the area merely consisted of a few “desert bedouins without a sense of national identity.”
Despite the Post’s dubious claims and lack of hard evidence, Electronic Intifada has already been attacked by groups using the article to limit its reach online. Newsguard – a news rating site and browser plug-in – recently contacted Electronic Intifada and appears to be pushing for the site to be de-ranked and demoted in search results, labeling it an untrustworthy news source, thereby limiting its impact online.
Newsguard purports to be a private and independent company. But it is, in fact, even more connected to the U.S. national security state than the NCRI. On its board of advisors sits the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, former Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and ex-CIA Director, Michael Hayden. MintPress News has documented Newsguard’s ties to the national security state and has also been targeted by the organization.
Ali Abuminah, the co-founder and executive director of the Electronic Intifada, spelled out the point of these hit pieces and why groups like the NCRI would collaborate with them. “Articles like this in establishment or semi-official outlets like the Washington Post will be used by lobby groups to pressure social media companies to censor us or limit our reach,” he said, adding:
There is a whole censorship-industrial-complex, in which governments, think tanks funded by governments and arms manufacturers and big tech companies aim to control what we all say and see online, under the banner of fighting supposed disinformation. They label anything that challenges official narratives to be ‘disinformation.’ And when you start to break through and challenge their hold on the official narrative (as we have clearly been doing) they come for you.”
Disinformation About Disinformation
The Network Contagion Research Institute claims that it has “no political agenda.” Yet, studying their reports, it becomes clear that they are most interested in investigating the deeds of enemy states. One analysis, for example, published in the wake of October 7 claimed that Iranian state actors were carrying out a disinformation campaign around Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, amplifying antisemitic tropes and slogans.
This was far from the only Israel interference the NCRI has run. Another from last year claimed that the vast majority of tweets opposing Zionism were antisemitic, sharing “identical hateful tropes,” and that Israel was accused of human rights abuses online far more than any other country in the world – a claim the researchers felt was unfair.
A third contended that Instagram is flooded with pro-Palestine bots. A chief piece of evidence, they claimed, was that messages such as “Free Palestine” were often the top comment underneath posts that had little or nothing to do with the war.
The NCRI has also pointed the finger at Washington’s chief political enemies. In a report titled “A Tik-Tok-ing Timebomb: How TikTok’s Global Platform Anomalies Align with the Chinese Communist Party’s Geostrategic Objectives,” they claimed that “TikTok systematically promotes or demotes content based on whether it is aligned with or opposed to the interests of the Chinese Government.” Meanwhile, they have also alleged that Russia was creating a “disinformation ecosystem” to pin the blame for global food insecurity on the West.
It is telling that the NCRI consistently echoes the Washington line on these issues and appears far less interested in studying hateful content that Israelis or Americans put out against their enemies nor government-backed disinformation networks emanating from those countries. One would only have to look at official statements put out by both endorsing genocide. Furthermore, both countries employ huge troll armies to influence online debate. In the U.S. case, the Department of Defense alone has at least 60,000 workers attempting to police narratives and influence online discussions. But the network of Western fact-checkers and disinformation experts that has sprung up in the past few years never seems particularly interested in investigating, perhaps because they belong to the same broad team.
The NCRI proclaims that its mission is: “to track, expose, and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation, and hate across social media channels.” However, when studying the group’s funding, key figures and its history of attacking alternative media and defending the state of Israel, it often seems like that is exactly what it is producing itself. If the NCRI wanted to catalog disinformation being spread online, they could start by looking closer to home.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.