Why Is Israel Letting Facebook Off the Hook on Incitement?

Facebook has agreed to remove calls for violence against Israelis on its pages. But this deal is not a victory for Israel - or any democratic society for that matter.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a meeting in San Francisco, Oct. 15, 2011.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a meeting in San Francisco, Oct. 15, 2011.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan are busy this week trumpeting their victory in the “struggle against online incitement.” Facebook has apparently agreed to remove calls for violence against Israelis from its pages.

According to Shaked, in the last four months, 95 percent of Israel’s 158 requests have been accepted. Of course, any less incitement to violence of any kind on social media is a positive development, but if anything, this process – whereby governments reach such an arrangement with companies like Facebook – is not a victory for Israel or any democratic society.

With over 1.7 billion active users worldwide and nearly $18 billion revenue in 2015, Facebook is the largest and most successful media company in history. Facebook has long ceased to be just a social network. For many of its users, it is the main conduit of any form of information on current affairs. In effect, it is also the largest and most influential news organization in the world.

But as anyone who has ever been threatened, slandered or sexually harassed on Facebook will tell you, it is almost impossible – unless you are a celebrity or senior employee of a government or major corporation – to get them to do anything about it. What almost always happens in these cases is the complainant receives a laconic boilerplate response that “it doesn’t violate our community standard.”

Facebook isn’t a community – it’s a for-profit media corporation which resolutely refuses to enforce any form of editorial standards. It is the complete embodiment of “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages,” the description used by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1931 of newspaper proprietors of his time.

If I were to use this platform to call for a violent attack on an individual or an ethnic group, I would be arrested. If I were to identify here the victim of sexual violence or minors involved in a custody case, I would immediately be liable for prosecution, as would Haaretz’s editors and publisher.

The law requires us to exercise restraint and judgment to make sure we don’t abuse our public position and platform. We don’t just wait around for someone to make a complaint and then take down illegal, abusive and dangerous content.

The same goes for the space we provide readers in our letters columns and online comment sections – it is up to us to make sure they don’t contain slander and incitement.

So why does Facebook, which has immeasurably more resources and the software capability to prevent such content from appearing on its pages, have the privilege not to be proactive and to just respond to government requests? And why is the government prepared to act as Facebook’s editors rather than demanding it edits itself?

Israel has laws that determine what constitutes incitement. Facebook has an office in Tel Aviv (four floors in a fancy office tower on Rothschild Boulevard) and hundreds of Israeli managers and employees. If any content published on Facebook is an infringement of the law, the police should investigate, state prosecutors should indict and the courts ought to rule.

So why instead of holding the company accountable – as any media organization, Israeli or foreign, would be for publishing incitement – have Shaked and Erdan, the very ministers responsible for law-enforcement in Israel, resorted instead to a cozy arrangement whereby the government chooses what it wants Facebook to remove?

Facebook can of course monitor and police its own pages if it so chooses, but that would cost money. So why should it? In Germany, when faced last year with an investigation against its senior executives for violating laws against promoting hate-speech, Facebook hired hundreds of people to filter its German content. In Israel, reaching a deal with the government has proven much cheaper.

Only a few months ago, Shaked and Erdan were complaining about a lack of cooperation from Facebook in removing inciting and violent content. What has changed? In part it may be the public campaign launched by the government and pro-Israel organizations accusing Facebook and its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, of “killing Jews.”

More likely, whatever has transpired must be linked to Facebook’s fears that the Israel Tax Authority will finally begin implementing new regulations that would force multinational internet companies with bases in Israel to start paying corporate taxes and VAT.

Such Israeli action could set a precedent for many other countries where Facebook and Google exploit loopholes to avoid taxation. Whatever the reasons, the government has given Facebook the easiest way out.

Racism, bullying and other forms of verbal violence on the web are a real problem and the only solution is for companies like Facebook to get serious about monitoring and managing its own pages.

If the more veteran news organizations, which are barely surviving – in large part due to Facebook cannibalizing their content and ad revenues – can still employ editors to do so, Facebook certainly can. Simply removing a few calls to murder Jews because the Israeli government asked them to do so is a drop in the ocean of online hatred.

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