In Israel and Abroad, Attempts to Gag the Digital World Are Doomed

There is no way to stop the flood of information exploding across social networks; a state agency that seeks a gag order is on its way to a humiliating defeat.

Yuval Dror
Yuval Dror
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Yuval Dror
Yuval Dror

A dead letter. This phrase is expressed in its purest form when considering gag orders in the Internet age.

Gag orders were never an especially effective tool. What worked in the years after the establishment of the state gradually became a predictable game in which journalists leaked information forbidden for publication in Israel. Their foreign counterparts would publish it in the foreign press, which Israeli journalists were permitted to quote.

But even this transparent merry-go-round is no longer relevant. The results of the study "Israelis in the Digital Age," the fruits of a collaboration between Google Israel and the School of Media Studies at the College of Management, were published in the middle of last year. It was found that 65 percent of Israeli Internet users – 2.6 million people – were active participants (not passive viewers) in a social network. Around 1.7 million of them log into these services every day.

From here it's a simple numbers game. Since the average Israeli Facebook user has more than 230 friends, the chances he will see a link to a story that was published abroad and is forbidden from being reported in Israel only increases with time. There is no way, whether practical or theoretical, to stem the flow of information exploding across Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media – media whose underlying feature is to encourage users to share content.

In this way, the ritual of running to the courts, standing in front of a judge, asking him to issue an order, sending it by fax to the newspapers, radio stations and television channels, and threatening them with the usual punishments if they don't comply is like the child sacrifices to placate the gods. No child sacrifice will calm the angry storm, and no gag order will prevent the sharing of content online. Both rituals are primitive, useless and hopeless.

A country that still issues gag orders will learn what every record company and film studio has learned: The moment content is available on the Internet (and certainly on social networks) there is no real way to prevent its distribution. Close the door and it will come through the window. Close the window and it will come down the chimney.

This fact raises the question: Why are gag orders still requested? There are several possible explanations; here are two. The first is that the issuer of the order knows that once the information is released the genie can't be put back in the bottle, even though there are details that haven't been published.

The gag order is like a lid placed over a pot of popcorn: The pot will make noise and rattle around, but the popcorn will stay inside. This way of thinking fails to work, but it may buy time. How much time? A really short amount of time.

The second, more disturbing option is that the issuer of the order is so disconnected from the online experience he is sure he can fight the war using the weapons of the last war. He should forget about it. Some things can't be fought.

Viral distribution of content that intrigues millions of people is one of them. The attempt to control the digital world and a hyper-global media event – which within minutes is uncontrollable – is doomed to complete and embarrassing failure.

The writer is the head of digital studies at the College of Management's School of Media Studies.

A classified Israeli document.

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