No, Mark Zuckerberg, Tel Aviv Blood Is Not on Your Hands

Israeli minister Gilad Erdan believes Facebook should monitor itself, but he’s still living in the analog age when it comes to modern media.

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Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Mark Zuckerberg.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Mark Zuckerberg. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz and George Frey, Bloomberg
Elihay Vidal
Elihay Vidal

Let’s start from the end: Facebook can be blocked. It’s not difficult. A little emergency regulation here, a bitty government resolution there, and – presto! – the social network is silenced.

Facebook could be blocked in Hebron, or in Ra’anana, East Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, without much technological fuss. Communications infrastructure is an essential resource in Israel and is subject to Israeli law; in the occupied territories, it’s controlled by Israel anyway. There is no technical obstacle to disengaging from Facebook.

China’s been doing it with ease since 2009. Under the guise of quelling regional social unrest, the Chinese Republic’s people have all been denied access to social networks for seven years. Brazil also did much the same with WhatsApp recently, at the behest of mobile operators that were losing money hand over fist because of the app’s internet phone calls.

But Israel isn’t China, and the Brazilian block to WhatsApp was connected to some economic and legal issue. In Israel, blocking an entire population group from a social network, even based on suspicion of incitement, would probably fail the legal test.

Even if it were legally possible, it would probably end like in Brazil – within hours of the court order to block WhatsApp, tens of millions of Brazilians simply downloaded competing apps.

Drumming up headlines

One could block access to social and third-generation (i.e., advanced) networks throughout Hebron, as Education Minister Naftali Bennett proposed after the terror attacks in the West Bank in recent days. It’s a perfectly legitimate claim that anything goes in times of war.

But it probably wouldn’t work over time. Son enough, alternatives would be found for the inciters to contact the executors.

Incitement is like wildfire. You can try to stifle it, but its spread is likely to be in unexpected directions and it’s a devil to control. Just like content on social media.

Even Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan knows that blocking Facebook or any other social network is meaningless. But why not drum up headlines with bombast? So every time Palestinian terrorism raises its head, Erdan shows up in the television studio and points the finger of blame at Facebook. “Some of the victims’ blood is on Zuckerberg’s hands,” he told Channel 2 News last Saturday: “Facebook has turned into a monster. The younger generation in the Palestinian Authority runs its entire discourse of incitement and lies and finally goes out to commit murderous acts on Facebook’s platform.”

Erdan believes Facebook and Zuckerberg should monitor themselves, and accuses Facebook of failing to cooperate with the police, and of placing the bar for deleting content too high.

Erdan’s comments touched on Facebook posts by the terrorist who murdered the 13-year-old Israeli girl Hallel Yaffa Ariel in Kiryat Arba last week. Mohammed Nasser Tra’ayra, 19, from the Palestinian village of Bani Na’im, had been praising terrorists and declared his wish to die a “martyr’s death” on Facebook in the days before the attack. The minister said Facebook “could have reported the post put up by that despicable murderer to the police or defense officials.”

Note that Erdan isn’t calling for Facebook to be blocked, but monitored. His complaints against “Mr. Mark Zuckerberg” are that Facebook isn’t preventing incitement, isn’t filtering its content and responds too slowly to complaints about hurtful content.

This isn’t the first time Erdan has elected to deflect his frustrations at the helplessness of his government to stop terrorism onto social media.

Three months ago, Erdan told Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked that a task force had been launched to deal with incitement on social media. Erdan and Shaked have been working on setting up something of the sort for six months, but they don’t seem to have achieved much other than a headline here or there.

Note that at the time, the Public Security Ministry declined to answer TheMarker’s questions about the purpose of this task force.

Erdan was asked, for instance, whether only content inciting to terrorism was to be monitored, or also racist or political incitement; whether it would relate to content created by Israelis in the West Bank; what the policy would be toward incitement by Palestinians living in the Palestinian Authority, or incitement originating in other countries, or anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli incitement – for instance, incitement against Israeli soldiers by global left-wing organizations.

The Public Security Ministry also failed to respond to technical questions about the task force – like, for example, whether monitoring would be “manual” or “technological,” by the ministry or the army, if special manpower would be allocated to the needs of collecting data and monitoring, and budgets.

There’s no question that social media sites are fertile ground for incitement: Palestinians against Israelis, right against left, politicians against their rivals, Islamic State against the world. But Facebook is no different from any other communications or messaging platform.

We tend to attribute to social platforms characteristics like more traditional media (TV, newspapers). But platforms like Facebook, Twitter or even YouTube (to some degree) dance to different tunes. Zuckerberg may have launched Facebook, but its content is driven by unpredictable winds and, therefore, cannot be controlled, restrained or even supervised using the usual tools.

That’s one of the main reasons for the frustration of Erdan, Bennett and Shaked: they cannot grasp how a platform like Facebook can ignore the diktats of powerful politicians (and outmoded rules that are becoming more irrelevant by the day). How can that Mr. Zuckerberg possibly have a different agenda than the Israeli defense establishment? And he’s even Jewish!

But it doesn’t work like that any more. The bastards changed the rules and won’t even answer the phone.

With 1.6 billion users, Facebook (or Google, or Twitter) has its own considerations. It manages to survive being blocked from mainland China. It has to consider the feelings of people in over 100 countries, from thousands of cultures. It has to continue providing reasonable service to users while also protecting itself as a global company.

Liat Killner, legal adviser to the national cyber squad in the police’s Lahav 433 unit, shows some understanding of this Facebook clash. Although the company has refused to share information in sensitive cases with the Israel Police, she points out that while Israel is preoccupied with terrorism and security, companies like Facebook have very different concepts regarding freedom of speech.

For Israelis, Photoshopping a public personality into a Nazi uniform is a crime, but that isn’t the case in America – it’s freedom of expression, Killner explains. If such content is illegal in Israel but legit in the United States, the American company would be subject to American law. And even when the content is patently illegal, things are seldom straightforward, she notes.

On topics like pedophilia, Facebook cooperates, Killner says. In other cases, cooperation depends on the matter.

The U.S. and European authorities can find Facebook equally frustrating, hence their threats to employ a “back-door” policy. In other words, they threaten to develop a way to bypass and crack privacy protection, and get information for themselves.

Facebook is clear in telling users that it isn’t the venue for content that encourages violence, terrorism or hate, and that it opposes such content. The company says it uses community criteria to help people understand what they may and may not publish on the platform; it encourages users to report content they think violates the rules. In Israel, too, Facebook representatives meet with official bodies and work on improving the relationship.\

The company recently named Jordana Cutler – previously chief of staff at the Israeli embassy in Washington – as head of policy and communications at its Israel outfit. The new position in Israel could demonstrate that Facebook intends to strengthen its ties with the Israeli authorities.

Facebook today is the flavor of the month when it comes to communications platforms, more than television, radio or the press, which the politicians had been used to bullying. Erdan leveled charges at Facebook on Channel 2 News, cynically knowing that the story would be disseminated through Facebook itself.

Erdan complained that Facebook isn’t fast enough, isn’t flexible enough, doesn’t react to changes, and that its interests are unclear and arrogant. The question is whether the Public Security Ministry that he heads is any better.