The Strange Case of TikTok and the Israeli Provocateur

An Israeli court is now debating whether TikTok’s decision to ban the professor for ‘violent, racist, sexist’ hate speech infringes on his freedom of expression

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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Amir Hetsroni took TikTok to court for blocking his account. A new account he opened has now also been closed in what he says is an attack censorship
Amir Hetsroni took TikTok to court for blocking his account. A new account he opened has now also been closed in what he says is an act of political censorship Credit: Moti Milrod
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

An Israeli court will decide if TikTok, the popular social media platform, can remove the accounts of a well-known Israeli provocateur for what they claim is “violent, racist and sexist” hate speech - or if the removal infringes on his right to freedom of expression.

The case involves Prof. Amir Hetsroni, an academic, writer and television personality who has gained widespread notoriety in Israel for provocative and polemic statements that have often landed him in trouble. He was fired from an academic institution for such comments and also had his Facebook account removed by the social media giant, and in both cases turned to the courts for help.

Though he lost his legal battle against Facebook, in April last year, after TikTok also removed his account, he decided to take legal action against the platform, too.

In September, the court hearing the case, the Bat Yam Magistrate’s Court, rejected his request for a temporary injunction that would require TikTok to reverse the blocking of his TikTok account “without delay.”

The judge’s main reason for rejecting the request was the claim that TikTok hadn’t infringed on Hetsroni’s freedom of expression, because it hadn’t blocked another account opened by Hetsroni after his original account was closed.

A screen grab from Amir Hetsroni's now-banned TikTok pageCredit: Screen capture

Last week, however, TikTok also closed this new account. In fact, TikTok only reopened the account after being contacted by both Hetsroni’s lawyer, Eytan Lehman, and Haaretz.

Aside from the injunction requiring the company to reopen his original account, which had 34,000 followers, Hetsroni’s April suit also sought 300,000 shekels ($96,000) in compensation for the damage he said the company had caused him. He made a similar request for damages in his suit against Facebook, which he eventually lost.

TikTok responded to Hetsroni's suit by accusing him of being a “serial abuser” of their platform, adding that he “doesn’t hesitate to use language that is violent, racist, sexist and so forth to express his views, and he has failed to recognize the gravity of his actions despite numerous warnings and steps taken against his posts.”

In the decision rejecting the request for an injunction due to the second account, the judge wrote, “The respondent has made it clear that (at this stage) it is not preventing the plaintiff from posting on it, either through the plaintiff’s other accounts or through new accounts he might open, as long as these posts don’t violate the respondent’s terms of service and community standards.”

“The main harm alleged by the plaintiff is the loss (which may be temporary) of many followers,” the judge continued. “This isn’t enough to deprive the plaintiff of his ability to publish his views, and it seems the main damage in this case is financial damage that is reversible by its nature. In cases like this, the court doesn’t tend to grant temporary relief before hearing the main case.”

Hetsroni told Haaretz that in the months since then, TikTok has continued to block some of his videos and impede their dissemination, even if they don’t violate the company’s community standards.

For instance, even after unblocking his account a few days ago, TikTok didn’t restore a video created for the Israeli website Walla, in which the secular Hetsroni studies the weekly Torah portion with the religious comedian Racheli Rottner who, according to the program’s description, “will try to bring Hetsroni back to religion.”

“What happens,” Hetsroni asked rhetorically, “when you let a company with a Chinese father and a Singaporean mother dominate the internet? The answer, of course, is political and ideological censorship,” he said, referring to TikTok.

“The censorship of my page is a clear cut case of the silencing of subversive ideas that don’t sound nice,” he added.

“TikTok’s system, which encourages talebearing about videos and censorship of them, is the biggest threat to Israeli democracy after the Netanyahu family,” he added.

In his letter to TikTok, Lehman, the lawyer, made similar complaints.

“Ever since the magistrate’s court’s decision on the request for a temporary injunction, your clients have begun restricting the account and removing videos based on false pretexts (for instance, false claims of commercial advertising, sales, pornographic material and so forth), solely due to untrue anonymous complaints by interested parties,” Lehman wrote.

“In the end, yesterday, your client blocked the account and informed my client that he was being suspended from the network,” the letter continued. “This happened after he quoted a study in a scientific journal, without besmirching anyone and without any violation whatsoever of either your community standards or the law.”

“The magistrate’s court, which rejected my client’s request for a temporary injunction, relied on the alternative that you emphasized in your response and your request for additional evidence,” it concluded. “But as noted, since that decision, your client has acted improperly to cause my client additional serious harm.”

TikTok said it doesn’t comment on cases that are still pending in court. TikTok has previously faced accusations abroad that it shadowbans users for political and even aesthetic reasons. Shadowbanning is a form of banning in which content or a user is de facto blocked by the platform - for example, their posts are not promoted into the main feed and cannot be easily found by others - unbeknownst to the user.

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