Facebook and the “Third Intifada”: The Aftermath

This is cross posted by Dr. Andre Oboler, who is the Zionist Federation of Australia’s Community Internet Engagement Director on technology, digital diplomacy and anti-Semitism 2.0.  This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

In the last week the Facebook group for the Third Intifada made headlines around the world. First in the Arabic language press, advertising and supporting it, then in the Jewish and Israeli press condemning it, and finally in the mainstream media always thirsty for more stories of ‘cycles of violence’ in the Middle East and perhaps sensing a bloodletting was in the pipeline. Real world events, in the form of unrelated Palestinian terror attacks, provided a backdrop.

The Third Intifada page has now been taken down, yet others are rapidly springing up in its place. A leading member of Fatah, Demetri Deliani, told the official Palestinian news agency Wafa that “Minister Yuli Edelstein needs lessons in human rights and freedom of expression as he is not aware of the world’s respect for individual opinion”. Edelstein is of course not only Israel’s Minister for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, he is also a human rights hero. Born in the Soviet Union, in what is today Ukraine, Edelstein spent his twenties illegally teaching Hebrew and promoting aliyah. The authorities eventually caught up with him and he spent three years in a soviet labor camp.

It is his personal experience that gives Edelstein an insight into the balance between the human right of freedom of expression, and the responsibility to protect other human rights, like life and physical safety. Yuli holds not only a mandate to tackle antisemitism as part of his ministerial portfolio, he was also made chair of the Working Group on online hate of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism, a group of Parliamentarians and experts from over 40 countries. It was Yuli, in his personal capacity, and not in his official capacity as Minister Edelstein, who wrote to Facebook.

Perhaps Facebook initially failed to appreciate the significance of that.

Demetri Deliani is assuming people everywhere will value freedom of expression so highly they that they will allow its use for any purpose. Perhaps he is right, and this is how people at Facebook, in their naivety, would like to see it. After all, it suits their business purpose, they more content they can publish, without having to implement safe guards, or take any responsibility for the deaths, violence, suicides and mental harm that can result, the higher their profit margins. Imagine the cost to Facebook if they had liability in the same way the owner of a hall has when they rented it out for a gathering they know may be unsafe and might turn to violence. Perhaps it is self-interest and not naivety that drives Facebook to keep the standards low and the intervention slow.

The official explanation from Facebook has been that the group became a problem only very recently. As Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s public policy communications manager, tells it, “after the publicity of the page, more comments deteriorated to direct calls for violence”, he added that the page admin then made calls for violence too. This is nothing but spin. The calls for violence were there from the start. The administrators actions were consistent throughout. Those of us who were watching it for weeks and months can testify to this. What changed for Facebook was the public outcry. This is the same pattern we saw in 2008 with the group declaring Israel was not a country, the first documented case of antisemitism 2.0. Facebook cares not for values, but for business interests, and enough public outcry and negative press becomes a business liability.

A system where companies, like Facebook, can facilitate human rights violations when it is in their business interest is a system that needs fixing. Companies must be accountable. Human rights do not only apply when they are popular and can garner public outrage and media attention. Facebook’s responsibility to close a group advocating violence arose when the first complaint was made. The number of complaints should not matter, only the fact that the clock has started and Facebook should respond in reasonable time. I still believe we need legislation to make this the law.

In the mean time, there are new pages and groups carrying forward the third intifada message. Some of these are new replacement groups and pages, others are older groups and pages that have adopted this popular call for violence as a way of increasing their membership. One page I saw had over a million members. It’s up to Facebook to set the standard and remove all these groups the minute their administrators turn to advocating violence, or fail to properly administer the flow of comments.

A cynic might draw comparison between the battle to remove the pages of hate, as more continually spring up, and the myth of Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods to spend all eternity pushing a rock up a hill, watching it roll down, and then starting again. The first lesson is from the myth itself, some say Sisyphus beat the gods by taking joy from ownership of the rock. We too can take joy, or at least pride, for standing up against hate in all its forms. A more practical lesson is one I adapt from lecture Dr Boaz Ganor gave. He was speaking on counter terrorism strategies and said there were only two: either you decrease the desire for terrorism, or you decrease the capacity to deliver. In our context, each time a group or page is removed, that community must rebuild from scratch. It’s a setback, it disrupts communication, and it stops the growth of hate. Ultimately they may get tired of it and take their hate to another platform, but even if they don’t, the response it helpful. It outlines what is right and what is wrong, and it inhibits those seeking to use the power of social media for ill.

Ultimately the causes of hate need to be addressed, but that does not mean removing hate groups and pages is a futile task. Meantime, at least down here in Australia at the Community Internet Engagement Project, we continue to work on more long-term solutions.

The limiting factor is not the need for change, or the lack of a plan, its dollars. I’m told once you reduce the problem to that, solutions are possible. As the number of hate groups grow, I can only hope that prediction holds true, if it does a year from now our plans will have been implemented and we will all be living in a very different reality.

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