Tel Aviv Sues Facebook, Google for Libel and Incitement Against Social Workers

The Tel Aviv municipality and a group of social workers claim two bloggers are guilty of sexual harassment and violations of privacy.

A woman checks the Facebook Inc. site on her smartphone whilst standing against an illuminated wall bearing the Facebook Inc. logo in this arranged photograph.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

The Tel Aviv municipality and a group of social workers are suing media giants Facebook and Google, and two bloggers who persistently criticize the judicial system and welfare authorities, alleging that they are guilty of libel, incitement and invasion of privacy.

In the suit, filed in Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court by the municipality and eight social workers against Facebook, Google, blogging website WordPress and bloggers Lory Shem-Tov and Moti Leybel, the plaintiffs asked the court to order the defendants to “stop the publication of libel, sexual harassment, violations of privacy and more” that target the plaintiffs.

They also want the companies to remove “all the website and/or Facebook profiles that are besmirching the plaintiffs.”

Shem-Tov and Leybel are well known for their online campaigns against social workers and welfare agencies who remove children from homes. In their blogs and on their Facebook pages, they sharply criticize judges and social workers by name, and their posts often use crude language against their targets.

The suit cites instances in which the websites refer to social workers as mentally ill, sluts, “the face of pure evil,” and more.

“Every website and/or Facebook profile they operate gets wide exposure on the internet, such that the harm to the social workers grows every day,” the Tel Aviv municipality said in a statement. “Every time one of the employees’ names is typed into Google’s search engine, the surfer is exposed to abominable and hateful words.”

The suit challenges the claim by Shem-Tov and Leybel that they are journalists. “Defendants 7 and 8 [Shem-Tov and Leybel] see themselves as journalists, but their stories use malicious expressions that are sexual, abusive and crudely attack their rivals and the families of their rivals,” the suit states.

Shem-Tov has been arrested several times on suspicion that she publicized personal details about the Social Affairs Ministry’s director general, but was released after being warned not to write such things again.

According to the Social Workers’ Union, in 2015 alone some 200 complaints have been filed with police over the online “shaming” of social workers.

Daniela (not her real name) was one such victim, after she investigated a case of alleged abuse and neglect in a family living in the center of the country.

“After interviews and meetings with the family, hearings in various committees and the formulation of a treatment plan that the family categorically opposed, requiring me to get a court order, the family angrily informed me that I’d be hearing from them,” she said.

One morning, she found herself attacked and humiliated on Facebook and elsewhere online. “They hacked my Facebook account, downloaded personal pictures and republished them,” Daniela said. “They wrote personal things about me with various distortions, and portrayed me in a very negative and offensive light. They attacked my character, tried to attribute crimes to me that never happened – most of them sexual. They called me a ‘baby kidnapper’ and ‘child trafficker,’” she added.

Daniela said the content was incredibly upsetting. “I closed my Facebook account. I would come to my car and check underneath to make sure there wasn’t anything there, God forbid. When I brought my son to preschool or picked him up, I would check a thousand times that no one was following me. I had to take my name off my mailbox so no one would know exactly where I lived.

“I also had to explain to other families I was working with and who saw those posts that I’m not like that – that I’m not someone they’d known for years and suddenly turned into someone else,” she added.

WordPress, one of the named defendants, is not really a company but an open-code software program for website building and content management. The original developer of WordPress and the owner of WordPress.com is a company called Automattic.

Google said it does not control the content of websites that show up on its search engine. “We offer advice and sources that explain how to remove online content and help people manage their online reputations,” it stated. That, however, is not strictly accurate. In Europe, for instance, it has been proven that when Google is forced to, it can remove search results.

Facebook said: “We want people to feel safe using Facebook. There is no place for content that encourages violence, direct threats, terror or hate speech. We have a system of clear community rules that are meant to help people understand what’s permitted, and we call on people to use our reporting tools when they find content they believe violates those rules.”

Social Workers’ Union head Zafra Dweck said she was proud of the determination of the social workers and Tel Aviv municipality to fight the online incitement against them. The lawsuit against Leybel and Shem-Tov, she said, “should be filed by almost every local government in the country, since they slander and defame social workers everywhere.”

Leybel told Haaretz that the suits against him were baseless and false.

"As of late, a number of different people, including lawyers and social workers, have begun undertaking actst of 'cast thy bread upon the waters,' filing baseless and hopeless lawsuits. In these suits, they blame me for advertisements on websites that I have no connection with, and written in a tone that I never thought I would be accused of using," he said.

"For example, there have been recent reports of one such suit for half a million shekel by lawyer Hava Klein against me, she and her lawyer immediately ran to the press to publish reports that she had won half a million shekels from me, but after less than a month the ruling was nullified and of course no one was interested [to report it].

"After reviewing all off the suit's articles, it became clear that once again people are suing me for things published in websites I have no connection with, and, according to the information I have, the suit is rife with lies to the court and in trial they will be proven as such. A libel suit will be filed in response to end this saga," he added.