(photo credit: REUTERS)
Social media has changed the face of international affairs. In both dictatorships and democracies we have witnessed many digital revolutions in recent years: Facebook and Twitter played a crucial role in the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, the Tunisian Jasmine revolution that broke out a year later, the “Day of Rage” in Egypt less than two weeks after that, and several additional revolutions in Yemen, Libya and Syria.
In other parts of the world social media has helped shape historical moments like Occupy Wall Street or the social protest of 2011 that brought one in 10 Israelis to the streets following a Facebook page protesting the high price of cottage cheese, and “tent cities” that formed following a YouTube clip about soaring rent prices. As an optimized platform for user-generated content, social media carries the potential to upset the old order in which discourse has been designed exclusively by social and economic elites.
Also during more routine times, the Facebook pages of political figures provide a public and immediate opportunity to communicate with elected representatives and to drive the public discourse from the bottom up. Nevertheless, the online political discourse in Israel isn’t conducive to change, but instead solidifies the order that has prevailed almost uninterrupted for the past four decades.
As demonstrated in the New Israel Fund’s index for online violence already in 2012 and 2014, the left wing is the most hated group in Israel’s cyberspace.
Use of verbal violence and threats of physical violence toward it are twice as common as toward settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Such attacks are also independent of specific events in the news, and the Left is perpetually blamed for tensions around Palestinians or asylum seekers. Even when the Left backs the governments, as most of the opposition did during Operation Pillar of Defense, about 10 percent of Israelis on Facebook still blamed it for being the main cause for the deterioration in security.
One explanation for this is the way Facebook “fan pages” of Knesset members and ministers are being operated. The discourse of hate and polarization is sustained and reinforced in the pages of senior rightwing political leaders through selective tolerance of comments. For example, the Facebook page of Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Yisrael Katz hosts messages such as “why are all the traitors coming from the left? Isn’t it time to put them all in jail?” in response to former head of the Mossad Efraim Halevi and his critique of the government policy.
On Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev’s page many comments can be found such as “we must put an end to all the leftists and all the anti-Semites who condemn and undermine the state.”
Other positions are treated with much less tolerance.
Left-wing activists who aren’t deterred by explicit and frequent threats of violence from rightwing Facebook users and continue protesting online are doing so rather in vain. While supportive comments are tolerated – also when they are hateful and violent – even eloquently articulated critique is censored. That is how one of the authors of the article (T.H.) was blocked from the page of minister Ofir Akunis, after criticizing the lack of achievements following the most recent war in Gaza.
In other instances, when critique is tolerated it is spun to attack the Left. In February last year Education Minister Naftali Bennett published the photo of Naama Lazimi (co-author of this article), after she protested homophobic trends in his party, Bayit Yehudi. In comments to her photo unrestrained attacks and threats of violence against Naama were left untouched and unedited, while administrators of the page actively deleted comments supportive of her.
Facebook thus only gives a false impression of a free marketplace of opinions while in reality what is published (and what does not get published) is the result of planning and direct scrutiny by its pages administrators. Thereby a shrinking public sphere for challenging government policies is created.
To deal with this conduct it ought to be made public.
It is important to shed light on that “discourse administration” whenever possible. A good example of that came during the campaign of MK Sharon Gal (Yisrael Beytenu) to introduce a death penalty for convicted terrorists. During his campaign, blogger Tal Schneider exposed a screen shot of a comment calling for expanding the death penalty to leftists as well – a comment that Gal himself “liked” on his own page. The exposure embarrassed Gal, who removed the original post. Further exposure of what may be called online “discourse administration” can help mitigate the delusion of a free conversation that takes place and demonstrate how it actually plays a part in preserving right-wing hegemony.
Naturally not every traitor is coming from the Left, although a glance at the social media channels of right-wing politicians may very well give that impression. This article showed how this is hardly coincidental, and how social media is no more than a platform that may advance positive social changes, but it can equally be exploited for the benefit of the elites.
Tal Harris is a PhD candidate at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Naama Lazimi is a social and political activist from Haifa. They are both members of the Israeli Labor Party.
A longer version of this article appeared in Hebrew on the online magazine Haokets.