Does Facebook Actually Have It in for Israelis?

Facebook’s relations with its Israeli users are on the brink of a crisis. But it could be due to unwarranted expectations

A woman stands holding her smartphone, framed against a wall bearing Facebook Inc.s 'Thumbs Up' symbol.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from Haaretz asking whether I’d be willing to write about the peculiar – to put it mildly – actions of Facebook Israel, actions that during the past year have swelled into what looks like arbitrary and brutal behavior against surfers who dare to criticize the Israeli branch. Even though I’m familiar with the subject, I asked for time to check it out.

I started to read the many reports about how Facebook Israel is deleting users’ accounts and blocking others, while the company itself remains inaccessible, if not hermetically sealed, in terms of communication. One day and without warning, according to a report on the Mako site, Facebook started to delete posts in which the word kushi (a derogatory term in Hebrew for a black or dark-skinned person) appeared, even when the reference was to uga kushit, meaning a dark chocolate cake. After reading that article, I switched back to the tab on my browser where Facebook is always open. For some reason, Facebook was asking me to log in to the account again.

“Strange,” I said to myself, as I entered my username and password and connected.

Immediately afterward a post of mine from July 2016, exactly a year ago, appeared on the screen. It was a satirical text about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Uganda and the speech in which he’d repeatedly mentioned his brother, Yoni, who was killed on Ugandan soil four decades earlier. The facetious text opened, “The president of Uganda, the president of Zambia, the president of the Czech Republic, the president of Israel Bonds, my wife, distinguished guests, dear kushonim” [rude Hebrew slang meaning something like ‘darkies’].” That post, Facebook informed me, was being deleted because it violated the site’s community standards.

I returned to the tab on which the article had been published and viewed the uga kushit that had been used as an illustration. I went back to Facebook and rubbed my eyes in astonishment. More than 350 days had gone by since that post was created; an instant after I started to read about Facebook’s new kushi scandal, in what can only be termed “a coincidence about which there is nothing of the coincidental” – the company informed me that it had deleted the satirical post.

I’ve been reporting about Facebook almost from the day it was launched, and I thought that nothing about its behavior could surprise me. For the first time since I started to write about the company – about its practices, its actions and its capabilities – however, I was left speechless.

Limited independence

In the past year, relations between Facebook and its users in Israel have soured significantly. A survey of some of the flash points between the company and its local user community, and more particularly between the company and those who report on it, points to a protracted crisis that seems just to be getting worse. Here are a few examples.

At the end of 2016, technology reporter Aviv Mizrahi published a report on Mako titled “The day on which you won’t be able to talk to anyone,” in which he was critical of Facebook’s policies related to removing posts and blocking users. Within 24 hours he received three warnings from Facebook about posts he’d published in the past, claiming they violated the company’s terms of use. Dor Zach, who also took part in the same project for Mako, which looked critically at Facebook’s behavior, received a similar warning. Nimrod Zuk, the technology correspondent for the business newspaper and website Calcalist, reported that a status he’d published against Facebook had been deleted. The media industry editor of the website Walla, David Wertheimer, related that he’s been blocked a second time in the wake of a status he’d published three years earlier on the News1 site. Links to the reports on Facebook were blocked and classified as spam.

Last March, the company removed a status of the comedian Guri Alfi, because it contained a credit for the real-life fashion photographer Guy Kushi. The Mizbala site run by the advertising professional Dori Ben Israel, which has been severely critical of Facebook over a lengthy period, was classified as spam and also as a malicious site. It was blocked, and it’s no longer possible to share links to reports on the site via Facebook. In response, Ben Israel sued the company, alleging that “Facebook is a predatory body, which is persecuting me because of substantive criticism I published.” The journalist and independent investigator Sharon Shpurer wrote recently, on the website “The Hottest Place in Hell” (ha-makom.co.il), “The situation is grave. This is a tremendous danger to democracy. Many of the social activists I like best, whose insights I read avidly, have been blocked in recent months and disappeared from sight without my noticing.”

Facebook's offices in Dublin, Ireland.
Bloomberg

In the past few weeks the protest against Facebook has gained momentum. More opinion columns have been published, more demonstrations held and more suits have been filed against the company.

Facebook Israel’s approximately 450 employees are divided into two main units. The first is the engineering unit, which has some 200 employees who are engaged primarily in developing products for global Facebook. The unit’s CEO is Joey Simhon. The other unit, which is responsible for advertising and content, employs about 250 people, and is headed by Adi Soffer Teeni. [Facebook Israel this week claimed that the number working for the company in Israel is much lower, and that it employs only some 140 people here.]

The two units are connected, because they are both part of world Facebook, but they each report upward, vertically, to various Facebook managers. This operating model is familiar from other American companies with Israeli branches, such as Microsoft. Microsoft Israel also has two centers, one for development, headquartered in Herzliya, the other for sales, in Ra’anana.

When Israeli surfers encounter a problem with a Microsoft product, they get in touch with the company’s Ra’anana branch. When users in Israel encounter problems with Facebook, they contact the unit headed by Soffer Teeni. What users in Israel don’t always understand is that the local branches, and especially those of Facebook, possess very limited independence. In some cases it’s nonexistent.

The unit that’s engaged with advertising and content is subordinate to Facebook’s Dublin headquarters. The latter has a regional reporting center (one of several worldwide), with hundreds of employees, whose responsibility is to examine the reports that arrive from surfers about posts that are alleged to violate the company’s community rules. These hundreds of staffers are divided into smaller groups, each responsible for an individual country, and they receive ongoing guidance concerning the culture, dialogue and policy of the company in that country.

Each complaint received from a surfer is examined separately from other reports, and the question of who sent the report is of importance. For example, if a post containing the word “kushi” is published, and a black person reports it as offensive – that report will get more weight than a report sent by a person presumed to be white, based on the assumption that the individual who has a reason to be offended by the post was indeed offended.

It follows that the decision about blocking users or individual posts is made by people who are not situated in Israel and are not employed by Facebook Israel. In fact, when a problem arises of mistaken identity or severe punishment, the staff in Israel operates through the branch in Dublin, as the former lack the authority to take action on their own.

The sensitivity concerning blockages of users in Israel is well known to the local employees, too. It’s hard to believe that they would consciously add fuel to the flames and continue to pursue a policy that to an outside observer looks like bullying. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that at least some of the punishments that have been inflicted on Israeli users were undertaken with the agreement, and perhaps even the knowledge and encouragement, of senior officials at Facebook Israel – though I have to admit that I didn’t find any factual basis for that feeling.

Personal from both sides

The clash between Facebook – with its “community standards,” a vague term amenable to personal, subjective and very unscientific interpretation – and its users is not confined to Israel. Still, the Israeli dialogue appears to be exceptional.

Israel is a small country in which, when all is said and done, it can still feel as if everyone knows everyone. That’s why the allegations against Facebook in Israel very quickly became personal complaints against the local managers, above all Adi Soffer Teeni. Another reason for the personal nature of the discussion resides in the title “CEO Facebook Israel,” with which Soffer Teeni was crowned when she took over. It’s a title that projects authority and ability that are not actually in the toolbox of an individual who is, all told, in charge of employees who are engaged in selling ads and who in practice is a mid-sized cog in a large, complex hierarchy.

Facebook Israel General Manager Adi Soffer Teeni.
Ofer Vaknin

The hermetic comportment of Facebook and the fact that its officials, staff and offices are inaccessible to the public and in some cases also to the media, is not exceptional, when compared to other branches of the company worldwide. However, in Israel, where everyone is accustomed to having insider connections and to speaking even with the most senior managers in unmediated fashion, this behavior is perceived as condescending, insensitive and alien to the local culture. At the same time, the very personal battle, on the brink of harassment, against users who regularly criticize the company’s activity in Israel, could well stem from the same culture: If it’s going to be personal, it will be personal from both sides.

The fact that Facebook Israel hasn’t succeeded in finding a middle path between being like Google – a company whose dealings with customers are carried out online and which therefore doesn’t provide customer service in the classic sense of the term – and the alienation, frostiness and arrogance it does project could be perceived as a failure, although in many senses it’s precisely a reflection of the company’s perception of itself.

Irrespective of who gave the order, where the decisions are made and who should be the recipient of complaints, it appears that users in Israel don’t understand the true nature of the relationship between them and Facebook, or the essence of the company.

We’ll start with the bottom line: Facebook doesn’t owe you a thing. Absolutely nothing. You don’t like it? Don’t use it. Delete your account and go back to communicating with your friends via the telephone or email. True, Facebook has legal responsibility and moral responsibility, it’s subject to the country’s laws and to a series of commitments it undertook, which are enshrined in the terms of use of its service. But it is not a public platform, government organization or not-for-profit association. It’s an American corporation that’s traded on the American stock market and it’s accountable to its shareholders, and as such is managed in accordance with its commercial interests.

In recent years, when Facebook realized that video clips made users stay on its site for a longer time, everyone’s newsfeed began to fill up with posts containing such clips. Did Facebook do this because it’s good for the Jews, or because it’s good for Facebook?

Facebook is an organization whose goal is to generate profit for its owners. All the other stories – about “making the world a better place,” “connecting with people,” “bringing the community closer” or “helping the old lady cross the street” – are just an ideological smokescreen. And, for the most part, a hollow, specious smokescreen.

None of this is to say that Facebook isn’t interested in us. Of course it’s interested in us, and for two main reasons. First, without its users, it has no basis for existing. If all two billion of those users decided one day to abandon it, the company’s worth would plummet from $450 billion to zilch. And second, we are the products it sells to the advertisers. It wants to know everything about us so it can sell us better, just as an automobile manufacturer wants to know everything about the car he’s selling so he can hawk it more effectively to his client (Facebook’s clients are the advertisers). However, the fact that we are an important resource for the company doesn’t mean that it cares about us, about our frustrations, the hard work we may invest in maintaining our profile, our label or the connection we have with our clients.

Everyone who’s decided to pin his hopes on Facebook, be it a simple user or a large firm, and everyone who puts all his energy into publishing texts, photos or videos on Facebook, has to understand that he’s investing his time and energy in a platform that owes him nothing and that can, almost arbitrarily, eliminate his life project with the click of a button and by changing a few variables of its algorithm. Why? Just like that. Now go look for someone to complain to.

If that’s not enough, Facebook operates in an environment that encourages it, or at least does not restrain it, from behaving aggressively, because of a combination of absence of regulation and a winner-take-all economy. In his book “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” from earlier this year, Jonathan Taplin explains how the dominant political ideology in the United States led to a situation in which corporations like Facebook were able to accumulate unprecedented power, which left regulators helpless and ineffective whether they wanted to be or not. Companies like Facebook have a global footprint that’s larger than that of many countries; they have vast cash reserves, connections and political influence in every corner of the world.

Furthermore, contrary to the assumption that the web will allow and encourage decentralization of power, it actually supports a model that allows the winner to take all. Microsoft, for example, invested billions of dollars in an attempt to develop a search engine to compete with Google, but to no avail. Google is today a de facto monopoly in its field. Google invested billions in an attempt to develop a social network that would compete with Facebook, but failed. Facebook today has a de facto monopoly in its field. The result is that organizations such as Facebook become monopolies that it’s difficult, or by now impossible, to curb.

For example, recently the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion for violating anti-trust regulations. That sounds like a huge amount, but Google has $13 billion in cash in its bank account and another $74 billion in assets that it can convert into cash quickly. In fact, the EU fine is the exception that proves the rule – namely, that the United States lacks regulation, a political constellation or public support that would make it possible for authorities to launch investigations against the giant internet corporations, which provide an income to hundreds of thousands of American families.

Cranky users

Anyone who thinks that in this environment, Facebook will be upset about a few cranky users whose accounts were blocked, or by articles in the press – like the one you’re reading now – that are critical of the company, doesn’t understand the new power structure that has arisen before our eyes in recent years. It’s a power structure that views us, all of us, as minuscule pixels, data, numbers and patterns. This is not to say that corporations like Facebook are inherently evil (though some argue that this is precisely what they are). Some of these companies also do good things that contribute to the community and to the quality of life in the world, and are motivated by an authentic desire to improve the lives of millions of people. Those activities, far from contradicting the true essence of the corporations, are essential in order to create a friendly, human façade for faceless bodies.

The post I published that Facebook deleted showed me, in real time, how the company not only examines what I do on its site but also outside its site. It showed me how information moves from different sites (be it Mako, or Google) to Facebook, and how that information drives its algorithm to act. It illustrated how a future will look in which the prosecutor is also both the judge and the executioner, and isn’t even human. It taught me that it’s best to establish some emotional distance from my Facebook account. “It’s not my Facebook account,” I remind myself. “It’s a Facebook account of Facebook, and it’s letting me use it on its terms and as long as it feels like it.”

That’s why I will never publish anything on it which, if it’s deleted, will make me feel that I’ve lost something important. Facebook is not your company and never was. You work in its plant unpaid and tell yourselves that you enjoy it. Don’t complain if one day it ends up firing you.