With over two million followers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal Facebook page since last year has become one his main channels of communication, by which he transmits his messages directly to the public. On the surface, the public responds to him positively: Most of the responses written by commenters on Netanyahu’s page are supportive, not to say enthusiastic, about the prime minister and his posts.
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But an examination by Haaretz found that many complain on the prime minister’s page about the high cost of living in Israel and the diplomatic stagnation, express concern about the condition of the education system and the housing crisis and are seriously disappointed with the government – but many of these critical responses disappear regularly from the page shortly after being posted, sometimes without the knowledge of their writers.
The examination indicated that at least 70 critical comments disappeared from the prime minister’s page in a period of three months, between late January and late April. For example, a commenter named Asaf responded to Netanyahu’s announcement of construction of thousands of new West Bank residential units by writing: “You’ve been ignoring all the young couples since you came to power and made innumerable promises to build. There’s no policy in security, economics or housing – and we won’t forget the level of corruption in your government.”
'This is the place where right and left meet – responders from both sides personally experience the blow to democracy.'Dr. Yael Berda
In response to a post in which the prime minister crowed that Israel is a world power, a commenter named Liad wrote: “You should brag about helping the weak, the disabled and single mothers. Oh, excuse me, you have nothing to brag about.”
These two responses, like many others that were written in polite language, disappeared from the prime minister’s page.
For the study, Haaretz took screenshots of Netanyahu’s Facebook page at various points in time and constructed an archive of critical responses. Afterwards there were two examinations: the first, a manual one, which found that some of the responses that were recorded no longer appear on the live version of Netanyahu’s page. The second examination was conducted in cooperation with the Open University’s Open Media and Information Lab, headed by Dr. Anat Ben-David and Prof. Oren Soffer. The laboratory promotes social research and a study of patterns on the internet by constructing digital tools that make it possible, among other things, to scan entire public Facebook pages and analyze them quickly. At that point Haaretz found that the critical responses that didn’t appear in the manual test don’t appear in the computerized record of the media laboratory, either.
More comments likely disappeared
Although Haaretz found that dozens of responses had disappeared, we can reasonably assume that the real number is higher. The examination was conducted as a sampling, since it is impossible to conduct a sequential follow-up of what’s happening on the page. Therefore the question arises: What happened to the critical responses that were posted before and after Haaretz’s visits to the page? In light of the pattern that was revealed throughout the examination, we can assume that many of them also disappeared.
The criticisms that disappeared relate to many issues and are not limited to one side of the political spectrum. For example, when Netanyahu rejected the state comptroller’s late-February report about Operation Protective Edge, a commenter named Michal wrote that “to reject the lessons from this report offhandedly is spitting in the face of the bereaved families.” And when in mid-March Netanyahu discussed the public broadcasting corporation crisis, Dafna wrote that employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority are of no interest to him. “The truth is that you want to divert the spotlight from the investigations in any way possible,” she added.
Another response about the broadcasting corporation that disappeared was posted after Netanyahu claimed the corporation provides a voice to supporters of terrorism. A journalist for the corporation, Orit Navon, wrote: “I’m shocked by this post. I’m right-wing. My boss wears a kippa. I have never worked in a place where there are so many people like me, who came from religious Zionism. This post is inciting and it disappoints me as a citizen.” The post disappeared without the writer having erased it.
According to Dr. Yael Berda of Hebrew University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, “This is the place where right and left meet – responders from both sides personally experience the blow to democracy.” Berda added that it’s not only a question of support for Netanyahu or of silencing criticism against him, saying that his Facebook page was an illustration of the way power operates. “The person who writes the agenda decides in advance what the decisions will be. The order in which you place things will influence the way in which people will think about the content, and what’s of interest here is the prevention of criticism from reaching the agenda at all,” she explained.
Along with frequent attacks against his political rivals, one of the subjects that comes up repeatedly in the prime minister’s posts is the activity of his wife, Sara, in helping society. For example, shortly before Passover Netanyahu announced that his wife would raise contributions to ensure that there would be a seder meal with hundreds of Holocaust survivors participating. In this case too, Netanyahu’s words drew criticism, which disappeared shortly after they were posted. A commenter named Shalom noted that this is “the cheap politics of public relations agents,” and one named Tikva proposed solving the problem by increasing the National Insurance Institute allowances, “instead of dragging the country into elections costing billions.”
Facebook has given Netanyahu – and all the other page administrators – a powerful censorship tool: The 'hide' button
Throughout the examination it also turned out that there is a group of activists who regularly call on Netanyahu to bring back Avera Mengistu, an Israeli who crossed into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and remains missing. Responses posted during the period under examination by commenters Yonit, Sivan, Tamar, Tanet and Asfa, all along the lines of “reminding you again, Avera Mengistu is in Hamas captivity and you aren’t doing anything to bring him back,” also disappeared.
To find out whether the respondents had changed their minds and removed their criticisms on their own, Haaretz turned via Facebook to dozens of users whose responses had disappeared. Over 30 commenters wrote back and only two of them stated they had removed their responses themselves, with those two saying they did so because they were attacked on the network by supporters of the prime minister. All the rest said they had not removed their responses and many were unaware their replies had disappeared, expressing surprise or disappointment when they heard about it.
Not removed by Facebook
A Facebook spokeswoman told Haaretz that the company is likely to remove content that is opposed to its community rules. In such cases, she explained, Facebook will inform the user that his response was removed. However, none of the responders who were in contact with Haaretz recalled the company ever contacting them on the subject.
The spokeswoman also said there are only three ways a response is likely to disappear: if the responder erased it, if Facebook rejected it, or if the administrator of the page removed it.
Dr. Nicholas John of Hebrew University’s Department of Communication and Journalism, who has been studying the internet for years, discussed Facebook’s part in what happens on the prime minister’s personal page. “The fact that every Facebook page looks identical is confusing,” John said. “The prime minister’s page looks like the page of Channel 2 News, and therefore if Netanyahu uses his page to report news items, it could create the impression that this is a type of public space,” he explained. But John said that in the case of the prime minister, it’s clear that he doesn’t treat his personal page as such a space. “As long as the content doesn’t violate the community rules, Facebook doesn’t care,” John added.
It may be that Facebook doesn’t particularly care how the prime minister uses his Facebook page, but it has definitely given him – and all the other page administrators on the social network – a very strong censorship tool. The “hide” button enables page administrators to conceal any response from the public, while leaving it visible to the commenter who posted it and his friends. This button is not familiar to many Facebook users, and in effect enables the operator of the page to censor content quietly – without users being aware that they are being censored. And in fact, several of the responders who wrote to Haaretz noted that they can still see their response. After disconnecting from their user and looking for it again, it had disappeared.
The Prime Minister’s Office replied that the Likud is responsible for Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal Facebook page. Haaretz turned to Likud several times for a response, but none had arrived by the time of publication.