Facebook could make or break Israel’s democracy

What about your right to type what you want on social media? Who should decide what to censor?

Facebook (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
August 25, 2016, was just another day on Israelis’ Facebook feeds: pictures of last days of vacation, mixed with the usual political quarrels and some heated debates about the role of religion in Israel. But then something happened. The former rapper and current extreme right-wing activist Yoav Eliasi – aka The Shadow – went one step further than ever before. On his page, he equated Palestinian terrorism to the common cold and the Israeli Left to AIDS, noting that “it can be easy to fight a cold, if you do not have AIDS.”
In 2016, Israel’s Facebook website is the second most clicked on in the country, overshadowing all news agencies. The Shadow’s page has a quarter of a million followers. He has become a powerful voice, spreading his venom and reshaping the public debate.
Nevertheless, Israeli users that submitted complaints to Facebook against The Shadow’s post received automated reply messages that it “does not violate community standards.” The post was deleted only after it got significant exposure and surely left a mark on many Israelis, myself included. Similar posts have remained online.
While protecting discriminatory posts by high-profile figures, Facebook began deleting activists’ posts that criticized tycoons, and more disturbingly that criticized Facebook itself. But let’s start with the racism.
The Shadow’s bigoted social-media activism is not the exception to the rule in Israel. The liberty of expression Facebook provides makes the amount of hateful comments on Israeli pages overwhelming. An Israeli page dedicated to exposing this atmosphere, called “Racists that depress me,” posts thousands of screen shots of such commentary on a regular basis.
As the media has been reporting, Facebook is changing the political discussion in America. So too in Israel. However, Israel’s democracy is much younger and therefore more fragile. Our press is facing an existential crisis, and Facebook’s role in influencing the public debate in Israel, for better or for worse, cannot be overstated.
(Full disclosure: Facebook has been the main platform for my own independent journalism, exposing conflicts of interest and promoting government transparency. Via the page “One Hundred Days of Transparency,” a dedicated team of volunteers and I have been able to elevate these key issues into the Israeli public sphere.)
There are many other examples. But as good as they may be in promoting civic engagement, they are drowned out by the poisonous debate that Facebook permits on its Hebrew pages. This problem was further aggravated recently when it became clear that Facebook not only lets this poison linger on its website, but in addition silences the activists and journalists who fight corporate interests.
A case in point is the page “Coming to the Bankers” established by the somewhat virulent activist Barak Cohen. Its demands for transparency and accountability by the banking system was backed by many in the Israeli society, but was silenced by Facebook, which repeatedly shut down the page. Reporters in Israel claim this is due to the efficient lobbyist the banks hired for that purpose. In any case, the page evaporated with no explanation.
True, the approach of these activists may have been distasteful. But whatever one might think of Cohen’s activism, the double standard is clear when compared to the freedom Facebook gives to The Shadow’s hatred, whose page flourishes.
This is just one case. More and more activist pages are being censored when they publish controversial posts. The most recent example is a feminist page that exposes comments made by prostitutes’ customers. Another is the right-wing activist Yotam Zimri, whose account is blocked again and again because of his use of certain words. There is no appeal process.
The duplicity is omnipresent. While activists need to fight for their freedom of speech, even our politicians get away with biased shaming. Moreover, an increasing number of journalists, including myself, who cover Israeli politics have reported being blocked from the pages of leading politicians. This includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition member Yair Lapid. We were blocked after posting polite yet challenging questions regarding “facts” published by them.
If we cannot comment on these pages, we lose access to a key venue – where most Israelis are. Nevertheless, many politicians choose “clean” profiles with strict positive commentary. This is particularly concerning since Netanyahu very rarely gives interviews to the Israeli press (he has rebuffed interviews since the elections in March 2015), and instead interacts with the public through his Facebook page without the “interruption” of journalists.
Furthermore, Israeli politicians are using security concerns to justify further supervision of Facebook, allegedly in an effort to limit incitement by Palestinian users. Indeed, a trend seems to be emerging of a cozy relationship between Israel’s politicians, tycoons and Facebook. This was further confirmed when Facebook appointed a confidant of Netanyahu’s to the position of director of government relations earlier this year.
The gravest concern however, is that Facebook might be actively marginalizing voices criticizing its own policies. As reported by Haaretz, a number of journalists have been censored after they posted comments critical of Facebook’s policies. These posts simply disappeared.
In one case, when prominent Israeli journalist Shay Golden called for demonstrations against Facebook’s censorship, his post was deleted.
The youthful days of the once open social network and its great promise for enhancing democracy and empowering citizens is at risk. Facebook is slowly experiencing what has increasingly bedeviled the traditional Israeli media – a tangled relationship with politicians and corporate interests. I have made my career thanks to its vibrant platform. But its recent lack of transparency and the preference it seems to give to certain interests, playing favorites, risks breaking the progress our free society had made.
Democracy is strong only inasmuch as its institutions are accountable. Facebook has fast become a key institute in the Israeli public sphere. We all should heed its transformations.
The author is an independent journalist and author.