Facebook's Safe Haven for Israeli Racists

Posts rejoicing in the death of Palestinians and calls for the murder of asylum seekers have become a matter of course, but police say their hands are tied.

Somewhat more than 1,000 people are friends on the Hebrew-language Facebook page Nikmat Hayeudim (“Revenge of the Jews”). They receive daily photo updates on attacks against Palestinian property and people and on leftists. “What a picture, a real pleasure,” one of them wrote under a photo showing a person severely beaten around the head, blood running down his face, lying on a hospital bed. “That’s what should be done to all the Arabs,” another post added, and then continued with a coarse stream of invective including cursing Mohammad.

Another Facebook page, called “We’re all for death to terrorists,” has more than 60,000 followers. Next to a photo at a demonstration at the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh is the caption: “Female terrorist leftists clash with IDF and Border Police forces.” One post, which can be said to be typical, says: “May their name and memory be wiped out. Let them die, those leftists…kill them. They’re worse than Arabs!” Under the report of a rape in Tel Aviv, one member of the group wrote: “I swear an oath that tomorrow I’m going to go through the central bus station, call an Eritrean over to the car, close the window on his head and drag him all through south Tel Aviv.”

Since social networks allow users to immediately post anything that comes into their head, almost without filters, calls for murder and incitement to racism have become more and more common on the Israeli web. Statements against Arabs, leftist activists, gays, African migrants, the ultra-Orthodox and mixed couples all get “likes” but no response from the authorities. 'And so, the Facebook page of Lehava, a group that says it wants to prevent assimilation, has one post (among many) which received over 21,000 likes and reads: "Arabs are not humans, they're animals." Another page, that has more than 22,000 likes, calls itself: "We’re all against the extreme left."

“There’s an inflationary process at work here,” says Prof. Yair Amichai-Hamburger, head of the Research Center for Internet Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “What I said yesterday that was significant is no longer so today. We are addicted to the attention and need to make our opinions more extreme to get the same number of likes.” Amichai-Hamburger says that expressions of hatred on the web are seen as letting off steam, “but in fact, it’s not a liberating catharsis, it’s a hothouse. The group goes with us everywhere and is available 24 hours a day. It creates an accumulative poison, and in very many cases it causes people to blow up.” According to Amichai-Hamburger, many violent crimes worldwide had an “incubation period” on Facebook.

That is precisely what disturbs Alaa Younis, a 32-year-old dentist from the town of Ara in the center of the country, who is active against racism on the Internet. “I’ve gotten threats to my life, the life of my wife and my daughter, who is only seven months old,” he says. Younis says he has no doubt that the authorities should respond to verbal violence on social networks. “There are groups on Facebook that are the equivalent to illegal assembly in the town square, and they should be opposed as much as possible. The police should issue warnings to people who express themselves this way,” he said.

Last month, Younis came across a status posted by a young man who follows a number of Facebook pages full of racist statements. The man found the following statement: “Wow, what a dream I had, I go into a hospital to the maternity ward and there are all these boxes with the babies in them. Then I take a butcher’s knife out of my coat and go by every baby and where there’s an Arab baby I cut off the head and where there’s a Jewish baby I place the General Remedy,” the post said, referring to a set of 10 Psalms meant to serve a redemptive purpose. “What a rosy dream I had.”

The post did result in the writer being brought briefly to the police station for questioning on suspicion of incitement. But such intervention, even as limited as it is by the authorities, is an exception.

In fact, the police’s hands are tied. “The authority to open a file for suspicion of incitement belongs to the State Prosecutor’s Office,” according to a statement by the police spokesman’s office. The statement went on to say that the issue of enforcement on social networks, which “by their nature are platforms for personal expression, is a complicated one that touches on free speech and the right to privacy.”

So as not to violate the right to privacy, any investigation of suspicions of incitement in Israel must receive the approval of the attorney general. Justice Ministry officials told Haaretz that recent years have seen an increase in people approaching the ministry with complaints about statements on social networks, but the action taken is limited. Few files are opened and few indictments served.

“Society places too much emphasis on criminal law,” a Justice Ministry official close to the matter said. “The law cannot be the answer for thousands of violent and racist statements on the web. Neither is it the proper tool for dealing with all of society’s ills.” According to the official, the solution to violent, insulting and racist statements on social networks is in the public sphere and in education, as well as in the policies of the social networks, which can delete extremist posts.

It’s not only in Israel that the authorities are dealing with “over-exploitation” of freedom of speech on the Internet. Anti-Semitic posts and racist remarks against other minorities are not rare overseas. But when it comes to a response from the authorities, it seems that in some places, keyboard offenders are being sent to jail. For example, less than two weeks ago, Alba Gonzales Camacho, 21, from Spain, used her Twitter account to call for the murder of politicians and became the first person in Spain to be convicted of incitement on the web. Two months ago in the United States, an American citizen was sentenced to 16 months in jail after he threatened the life of President Barack Obama on Twitter.

In Israel, however, the authorities seem to want to depend on the filtering policies of the social networks. Facebook uses community policing - that is, users report problematic posts and Facebook decides whether to delete them. Facebook Israel said in a statement: “With more than a billion users, Facebook presents a universal set of rules for conduct on the social network, which are known as Facebook’s community standards. We will remove any content reported if it breaks the terms of use. For example, when content becomes a direct and real threat. At the same time, we do not remove content just because it is insulting.”

Prof. Raphael Cohen-Almagor, chair in politics at Hull University in Britain, connects norms on social networks with those in society in general and says that state institutions treat radical elements tolerantly. “I don’t think we’ve internalized Rabin’s murder. Today there is a greater chance of a political murder because on the social networks the phenomena are harsher. There is hatred toward Arabs, Palestinians, the Kerry peace initiative, human rights groups, statements against anyone who tries to cut the Gordian knot between the people of Israel, the Torah and the Land of Israel.”