As Israel has struggled to stem a recent wave of violence, the age-old regional conflict has moved to a new, unfamiliar battlefield: Facebook.
The outbreak of stabbing attacks, which have killed 11 Israelis over the past few weeks, appears to have its roots in the virtual realm. Palestinian social media is teeming with slogans, memes, videos, and other shareable propaganda urging young people to take up arms—specifically knives—against their perceived oppressors.
And some have done so. Subhe Abu Khalifa, a 19-year-old electrician, allegedly stabbed an Israeli after repeatedly watching a widely circulated video of a female Palestinian apparently being harassed by police. Like Khalifa, most of the recent attackers have been young, not particularly religious, and had no connections to extremist groups. Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler, a social media expert with the Israel Democracy Institute, calls the recent wave of violence a viral “Instafada” powered by Facebook—the site is especially popular in hyper connected Israel—and other social media such as Instagram. “Stabbings and violence in the real world and on social media kind of collide,” says Shwartz-Altshuler. “This is something Israeli authorities were not prepared to cope with.”
Instead, the authorities have lashed out at Facebook. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the recent bloodshed “Osama Bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg.” In a letter to Simon Milner, Facebook’s Europe, Middle East and Africa policy director, Knesset Member Revital Swid, who chairs the Caucus Against Violent and Inciting Dialogue in Social Media, called for the company to act to “immediately locate, monitor and remove pages that spew incitement and encourage murder… Facebook cannot detach itself from the terrorism being enabled through its network.” Thousands of Israelis have also joined a class action lawsuit against Facebook, accusing the site of “intentionally disregarding the widespread incitement and calls for murder of Jews.” (A Facebook spokesperson has said the suit is without merit.)
Could the social media giant be doing more? Facebook relies on users to flag posts as a “credible threat of violence,” “terrorism,” or other violations, with specific reporting options tailored to the region and the company said in a statement to TIME it prohibits hate speech, specific threats of violence or bullying.
But Facebook itself decides what is permissible political speech and what is considered incitement towards violence. There’s no algorithm that scans the site for dangerous posts or keywords, and the company instead relies on a multilingual Community Operations teams working 24/7 in four locations around the globe to monitor activity. Rooting out extremism and terrorist propaganda is entirely a crowd-sourced affair, with little room for intervention by politicians or governments.
Milner, who had previously met with Israeli policymakers about Facebook’s community standards and reporting policies, acknowledged in a statement that “there are rare occasions when our teams don’t get it right. When this happens and we are alerted, we will quickly work to restore or remove content as appropriate. We usually make the right decision, but we make mistakes from time to time and we apologise when we do so.” But beyond encouraging officials to let the company know if reviewers refuse to remove a post that violates its standards, it did not signal any policy change.
The tension shows how the freedom of speech and wide reach offered by social networks have put both governments and companies like Facebook in a difficult spot.
From Israel’s perspective, Facebook is allowing its enemies to radicalize potential terrorists while refusing to let the country assist in enforcing local laws. While Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service does use Facebook postings to monitor terror threats, according to a source familiar with the intel service, the agency does not have the resources to monitor millions of feeds for offending posts, leaving the job of flagging violent incitement to civilians.
Some also argue Facebook’s dependence on user reporting allows for abuse by those who simply want to silence Israeli voices. “More content is being removed in Hebrew than in Arabic, because anti-Israeli users all over the world complain,” says Shwartz-Altshuler. Facebook says the company only removes content that violates its standards, regardless of how many times it is reported.
But Facebook, as perhaps the largest communication platform in the world, must also balance local security interests with its international reputation. While Knesset members criticize Facebook for being too closed off to the security apparatus, Palestinians like Amjad Rantisi, a 36-year-old accountant, believe the company is out to help arrest them.“I am totally against the idea of social media and I am certain that it has been created to spy on everyone,” he says. Another West Bank resident told of friend requests from good-looking men she didn’t know, with little activity on their accounts.
Others like Majeda Saleh, a 17-year-old student living in Ramallah, believe Facebook’s current reporting policies lump together incitement with legitimate political opposition. “I see it happening all the time, Facebook posts are being deleted,” Saleh says. “Students of the Al Quds Open University share various posts on Facebook expressing their anger at the harsh occupation.”
In the absence of more cooperation from Facebook, there’s one tactic Shwartz-Altshuler thinks Israel could use more of: Positive social media postings by the government highlighting Palestinian-Israeli unity. “If [violent incitement] is a social engineering phenomenon then you can do reverse social engineering and show Jews and Arab people working together in hospitals, university, posting together,” she argues. “Sometimes it’s easy to talk about social media becoming a ground for terror but it can also be a ground for peace.”
Additional reporting from Rami Nazzal
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