People Are Being Killed, and an Israeli Minister Blames Facebook

The accusation by Israel’s public security minister is little more than spin.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Mark Zuckerberg.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz and George Frey, Bloomberg

Let’s start with the obvious. The declaration of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan that Facebook bears responsibility for acts of terror is a successful spin. Why is it successful? Because it’s the only thing everyone is talking about on Facebook right now. No one can ignore such a statement, and it’s very easy to pose the question, “What if there’s something to what he’s saying?”

By contrast, does anyone remember what the former deputy head of the Mossad told Channel 10 TV only the night before? “We have to say honestly that this is the price we pay for sitting in the midst of a hostile Arab population,” Ram Ben Barak said on the current affairs program “Friday.” “It’s a price that one can want to pay, and we can also decide that we don’t want to pay it.”

How many shares and memes did his remarks get, compared to Erdan’s remarks?

The public security minister and his media advisers know very well how to divert the stream of debate on Facebook: Toss out something that sounds ridiculous, preferably something close to (leftist) surfers’ hearts, and they’ll forget that just a minute earlier, people were murdered and a senior security figure said exactly what they repeatedly say.

The public security minister also blamed Facebook for the fact that no one on Facebook had reported the posts of the terrorist who murdered Hallel Yaffa Ariel in her sleep, in which he had said he wanted to die a martyr’s death. However, plenty of Palestinians have been arrested and tried for far less than that — for instance, for “liking” certain posts or changing their profile pictures. So perhaps it was the monitoring tools of the police and the Shin Bet security service that fell asleep on their watch?

And if we’re asking already, how many Jews in Israel have been arrested for calling for the death of Arabs? Of leftists? Of right-wingers? Or is that just the way of the world?

Now that we’ve established that it’s only spin, let’s ask the question that Erdan wants us to ask. “What if there’s something to what he’s saying?”

Facebook answered Erdan decisively, saying, “There is no place for content encouraging violence, direct threats, terror or hatred on our platform.” That, of course, is ridiculous. Facebook is brimming with incitement, racism, and hate speech. Anyone who has ever tried to report such a post has discovered a system that’s apathetic in every sense of the word; there may be community rules but they are implemented in a totally arbitrary manner, and there is no way to know what Facebook removes and why. There’s also no chance of finding anybody to talk to there.

The company repeatedly states that every complaint made gets handled by a real person, but one would have to be totally gullible to assume that that’s anything but a gross lie. From the outside it seems as if almost every report is rejected, at least until the company gets a mass of reports about a post, or the post attracts media attention, despite its claims to the contrary.

By the way, the Facebook pages of MKs and ministers are full of responses that incite to murder, but no one bothers to erase them. What about this post by Likud MK Nava Boker, for example? “Ever since [Joint List MK Haneen] Zoabi, a bloodthirsty animal, opened her mouth and called IDF soldiers ‘murderers,’ we are coping with a new intifada. Four attacks in 24 hours!” she wrote, as Zoabi has apparently turned into Likud’s favorite voodoo doll. (So who’s actually at fault, Facebook or Zoabi? It’s very confusing.)

But it seems that even this is only part of the picture, because what happens among ordinary Facebook users is different than what happens when government figures are involved. Erdan complained that Facebook makes it difficult to remove content posted by Palestinians who live in the territories, and only recently Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told a cyber conference at Tel Aviv University that she is advancing a bill that would allow court orders to be issued to remove posts, while also attempting to make companies like Facebook and Google take some sort of responsibility for what appears on their platforms.

Jurists who deal with this area, however, say that the legal infrastructure already provides enough tools to deal with incitement on the web and outside it. All that’s needed is enforcement. Moreover, Shaked herself recently boasted about the government’s cooperation with the internet giants. Israel is working with Google, Facebook and Twitter to removed inflammatory content, she told a Hungarian-Israeli conference on hate speech in Budapest last month, adding that the service providers remove 70 percent of the illegal content pointed out to them.