Social Media Giants Deleted 159 Anti-vaxxer Posts at Israeli Cyber Unit's Request

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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Inside Israel's Health Ministry
Inside Israel's Health Ministry Credit: Dudu Bachar
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The state prosecutor’s cyber unit has begun requesting that social media platforms delete posts opposing the coronavirus vaccine. The unit, which began the work in December, managed to have 159 posts deleted by February, according to data from the prosecutor’s office, acquired through a freedom-of-information request by two NGOs, Hatzlaha and the Movement for Freedom of Information.

The Health Ministry, as part of its fight against the coronavirus, relayed 258 anti-vaxxer posts on social media to the prosecution between December and February. The cyber unit turned down about one third of the Health Ministry’s requests and sent 177 requests for deletion to the social media platforms. The platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube – accepted most of the requests, rejecting 23, amounting in 13 percent of the requests.

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The prosecutor’s officer turned down quite a few of the Health Ministry’s requests because they believed that the posts did not reach the threshold of a criminal act. This is what determines whether or not the state prosecutor passes on the request to the various platforms. In December, the prosecutor’s office passed on almost all of the requests – 84 percent. However, in the months that followed, January and February, it passed on only about half – 56 percent.

The head of the cyber unit, Haim Vismonski, explained when the prosecutor’s office began the activity that disseminating the posts could amount in a criminal offense, and stated that "therefore the department is acting to have them removed from Facebook."

"These posts could constitute real danger to public health, because of the concern that people exposed to them will mistakenly think that the posts are true and will avoid getting vaccinated. Content was not dealt with that expressed an opinion – even a controversial one – criticism or a position on the vaccinations, but rather content that constituted a clearly criminal act," he added.

The cyber unit does not keep records of its actions vis-à-vis the social media platforms. Collection of the data by the unit is done manually by scanning the email correspondence. Consequently, Haaretz’s request to receive examples of anti-vaxxer posts removed from the web was turned down. The prosecution’s considerations as to whether a post constituted a criminal act therefore could not be verified.

The cyber unit calls its enforcement work through requests to social media platforms “alternative enforcement on a voluntary track.” It includes asking content providers, including Facebook and Google, to remove thousands of content posts a year or limiting access to them, and sometimes to block users. Last week the High Court of Justice rejected a petition against this activity. The ruling on the matter was given at the retirement event for Justice Hanan Melcer. Melcer rejected the petition, which was filed in 2018, and argued that content was censored without authority, the right to a hearing or a legal proceeding and usually also without the knowledge of the poster. According to the petition, filed by the human rights group Adalah and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel: “‘Alternative enforcement’ severely compromises constitutional rights, freedom of expression and fair proceedings, without authorization by law and without meeting the conditions of the restrictions in the Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

The state's preliminary response said that the petition should be rejected out of hand, but conceded that the petition was correct in identifying that the requests are made without specific authorization by law, and that the state acted when it suspected that a criminal act had been committed. The state noted that some 95 percent of the requests to online platforms were made with regard to matters of security. The state also said that 87 percent of the requests were made to Facebook, which granted 90 percent of them.

The High Court rejected the petitions because it noted the voluntary nature of the platforms’ response to the state prosecutor’s requests, and because it said the petitioners had not presented evidence that freedom of expression had been restricted. The court also stated that the actions of the cyber unit were not without difficulties, but that they were essential for public order. As a result, the court ordered the cyber unit to keep records of its actions. It also noted the need for legislation on the matter and the appointment of an official to oversee the department.