On the streets, the wave of Arab-Jewish violence inside the Green Line has come to an end, but in the digital sphere, it is alive and well. The last several weeks have seen organized campaigns of violence, incitement, threatening content in status updates and racist chants over the social media networks Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, as well as in WhatsApp and Telegram groups. With the police and prosecutors struggling to cope with the phenomenon, Facebook has filled the vacuum in its typical fashion – like a bull in a china shop.
Hundreds of stories and posts by Palestinians, mainly on Instagram, have been taken down without any advance warning and without any right of appeal. In Israel, 30 far-right activists complained that their WhatsApp accounts were canceled entirely. Among them were Benzi Gopstein, the chairman of Lehava, and Ayala Ben-Gvir, the wife of Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir. The accounts weren’t removed at the behest of the police or prosecutors but, so it seems, only because of online complaints made to Facebook managers.
Facebook and WhatsApp in Israel have responded that “we don’t comment on the accounts of private individuals. We block access to accounts that don’t adhere to our policies of preventing harm or that violate the law.”
While protecting privacy doesn’t characterize the company’s activities, violent measures against users and lack of transparency do. Facebook is a commercial enterprise with three billion users. Regulatory authorities failed to stop it from swallowing two other social networks – Instagram and WhatsApp – and enabled it to turn into a monopoly. In the beginning, the company tried to avoid responsibility for maintaining respectful online discourse. But it began acting as the pressure grew, mainly from liberals in the United States following Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory and a surge of fake news on Facebook. Trump’s account was blocked for a short time after the 2020 election after he was accused of calling for violence.
In Israel, WhatsApp has emerged as a major communication medium in recent years. It’s used to conduct conversations, arrange matters at work, send pictures, relay news and even update parents on what’s happening at their children’s nursery schools. Blocking it is a serious blow to freedom of expression, with social implications.
Even if right-wing activists did use it to distribute content that incites violence, the way of addressing the problem is through official channels and Israeli law enforcement. Clearly, Facebook is obligated to uphold the law and a certain standard of online discourse, but it must do so transparently – to notify users and enable them to respond and to appeal. Because, if they cannot, the company is undermining freedom of expression in a most serious way. It must restore the accounts immediately. Facebook cannot be the police, judge and executioner.