The power of social media
It hardly needs to be said that social media can be a force for good and enhance our lives. It can connect people, inform those who may otherwise not be informed, draw attention to causes and unite us in community concerns. Even better, we can spend all day comparing Kardashian surgical enhancements and watching cat GIFS.
But social media also gives oxygen to hatred and lies, and ignites fear and violence. Arguably nowhere is this dark side of social media brought into sharper focus than in the current flare-up of violence in Israel, where Palestinians are attacking Jews (because and only because they are Jews) with cars, knives, meat cleavers, guns, screwdrivers, rocks – whatever they can find. In fact, the catalyst for this violence is itself a conspiracy theory spread by social media: that Israel is threatening to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque/Temple Mount. This is not true, and Israeli PM Netanyahu has denied it repeatedly.
Jews, perhaps better than any other people, understand and fear the power of propaganda and incitement to cause catastrophic loss and death. They have for centuries been the subject of smears, unfounded allegations and conspiracy theories designed to cause hatred and violence: the blood libels, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 9/11, the Jenin massacre, and innumerable others. Even so, it is different now. The cancer that is Jew hatred is metastasized by social media with a depth and at a pace that the Nazis’ propaganda chief, Goebbels, could not have imagined in his most fanciful dreams.
Winston Churchill said that: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Today, that lie would have been posted and retweeted to every inch of the world and analysed by millions of people online, before truth has even awoken.
Palestinians and their fellow travellers are being inculcated in an ideology of hate, lied to, and incited to violence through social media. Twitter hashtags like #stabaJew are trending, and Facebook pages dedicated to variations on the theme of killing Jews are prolific. The UN agency UNRWA “very regrettably” suspended employees who were exposed by UN Watch for anti-Semitic posts.
Richard Lakin, a man who had dedicated his life to peace and dialogue between Arabs and Israelis, was the third victim to be murdered in the terror attack on bus 78 in Jerusalem on October 13. He was stabbed and shot in the head and chest by Palestinians. At least one of the murderers had posted on Facebook prior to the attack indicating his intentions.
There is an evil face to social media. I realized that social media has reached a level where incitement has run rampant…Massive amounts of incitement, of instructional videos that show people how to split stomachs open, how to cut veins, how to create injuries—inciting people to do this. This is at the core of this current intifada…these brutal stabbings in the street are a result of incitement that is passed along and strengthened by social media”.Micah Avni Lakin
Not only do Facebook, posts, tweets and Youtube clips stoke the fires of anti-Semitism and radicalise young Palestinians, they then glorify and praise such attacks. Richard’s son also wrote, in an op-ed in the New York Times on 3 November:
Sickeningly, my father, too, became a viral hit on Palestinian social media: Hours after he was shot and stabbed, a video re-enactment of the attack was posted online celebrating the gruesome incident, and calling on more young Palestinians to go out and murder Jews. Such images, YouTube videos and comments have become a regular feature on social media after every attack.”Micah Avni Lakin
For those Jews, particularly Israeli Jews, who are “lucky” enough to escape having their throats slit or being rammed by a car, the abhorrent images and words they see are a terrorising form of psychological warfare.
In New Zealand, a dishonourable mention must go to the Facebook pages of hate group Kia Ora Gaza. These pages unashamedly draw on some of the most vitriolic, mendacious anti-Israel sources that there are. Most recently, they have avowed their support for a third intifada – meaning that they are inciting the murder of Jews – and have posted articles accusing Israel of harvesting organs from dead Palestinians. Remember what I said above about blood libels?
Holding social media platforms to account
The role of social media in the current violence against Israeli Jews is not a phenomenon that should take anyone by surprise. Social media is awash in unabashed anti-Semitism. Facebook has self-prescribed community standards, and it is easy enough to report pages that one believes offends them. For the last year – since I have been paying attention to this issue – I have been shocked, however, to discover that pages proclaiming that Hitler should have finished what he started, for example, apparently do not breach these standards. There was a furore when a page “Death to Zionist Baby-Killer Israeli Jews” was initially found not to violate community standards last year. If calling for genocide does not, it is hard to imagine what does. (The page was removed after the furore).
Freedom of speech is of course a cornerstone of any democracy. Freedom from the fear of persecution, and the right to go about one’s business – grocery shopping, riding a bike, or praying in a synagogue – without being attacked on account of one’s religion is also fundamental to a civilised society. That is why all democracies have limits on freedom of speech. In New Zealand the Human Rights Act 1993 prohibits words or matter that is likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons in or who may be coming to New Zealand on the ground of the colour, race, or ethnic or national origins of that group of persons.
However, social media platforms are not necessarily bound by freedom of speech. As private companies, they can set their own rules. While understandably they would wish to minimise their interference for commercial and practical reasons, they must recognise that they are in a unique position in society and have a responsibility to prevent hate speech and incitement to violence.
In his landmark speech on countering Islamic radicalisation in July 2015, the British Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted the role of social media in propagating extremism, and the need for the providers to prevent it:
We need our internet companies to go further in helping us identify potential terrorists online. Many of their commercial models are built around monitoring platforms for personal data, packaging it up and selling it on to third parties. And when it comes to doing what’s right for their business, they are happy to engineer technologies to track our likes and dislikes. But when it comes to doing what’s right in the fight against terrorism, we too often hear that it’s all too difficult. Well I’m sorry – I just don’t buy that. They – the internet companies – have shown with the vital work they are doing in clamping down on child abuse images that they can step up when there is a moral imperative to act. And it’s now time for them to do the same to protect their users from the scourge of radicalisation.”David Cameron
Sure, it’s a huge task, but if there is the will to do it, there are the means. U.S. based software company GIPEC has developed software, which is used by law enforcement to monitor social media and identify terrorist-related pages and track piracy, counterfeiting and pornography.
Now, some 20,000 Israelis, including Richard Lakin’s family, have joined a civil lawsuit organised by the Israel-based non-profit Shurat HaDin (The Israel Law Centre) filed in the Supreme Court for the State of New York, seeking an injunction against Facebook. The director of Shurat HaDin stated that. “Facebook has been transformed into an anti-Semitic incubator for murder.”
The claimants hope to force Facebook not only to remove terrorists’ pages, but also to better monitor and block users who post videos glorifying and encouraging terrorist attacks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Facebook may already be doing a better job of removing offending pages.
The Centre has indicated it may file further lawsuits targeting other social media companies unless they begin to better counter terrorist postings and activities.
Dialogue and peace?
There are other more insidious effects of social media. When it first came into our lives, it was thought that it would provide an unprecedented forum for the “marketplace of ideas”, for opening one’s mind, for dialogue and debate, for discovering the truth. But social media can and does also do exactly the opposite – it provides a platform for trolling and “confirmation bias”, and allows a user to only follow sources and friends that conform to a chosen narrative and ideology. Sometimes the marketplace of ideas fails, and fails catastrophically.
Despite one of the stated aims of Kia Ora Gaza being “enhancing understanding of Palestine and the Middle East”, the moderators will not tolerate any comments, no matter how factual or respectful, that have the temerity to suggest that there may be another viewpoint or that one side is not entirely to blame. For example, they remove any comments that are critical of Hamas, or that suggest that their claim that the blockade of Gaza is illegal is not supported by Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s report for the UN. Further, they block such commenters so that they are censored from ever commenting again.
During the Gaza conflict in 2014, Sanjay Sanghoee wrote in the Huffington Post under the title “How Social Media Is Fueling the Israel-Palestine Conflict in Gaza”:
What the millions of people on social media are doing, in effect, is adding fuel to an already raging fire and making it harder for Israelis and Palestinians to hold a real dialogue about their disagreements. While the bloodshed in the region is certainly tragic and must stop, it is disturbing that those who deplore it refuse to recognize that there are still two sides to this conflict. Israel is being depicted as a sole aggressor but the reality is that Hamas, the terrorist group that muscled its way into Palestinian politics after 2005 and which has sidelined more moderate Palestinian factions, is just as responsible for the carnage taking place today.”Sanjay Sanghoee
Social media provides a forum for the evil that exists, and has always existed, in humanity. It makes it easier to poison the minds of the weak, the ignorant, and the alienated. But it can also draw them out into the open, shine a spotlight on them and allow them to be challenged. This last week photos went viral of the “Hitler 2” shop in Gaza with mannequins in snazzy clothes, keffiyehs over their faces and wielding knives. Talk about looking sharp.
Facebook pages like “The Arabs who support Israel“, “Arabs for peace“, and “Arabs and Jews refuse to be enemies” also remind us that social media can also unite and empower those people who have not given up on dialogue and debate, and on peace and justice. The Facebook page “BeTzaHal” was started by an Israeli Arab Muslim who served in the IDF and wanted to encourage other Arabs to do the same. It took on a life of its own and has now received photos and video clips from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and other countries with heart-warming messages of peace and love for Israel. Let us hope that in this battleground for hearts and minds, mutual understanding and dialogue will prevail over hate, censorship and propaganda. Social media can still be a force for good and for change.