Israel needs legislation limiting online incitement - opinion

Social media has great power to influence the masses, but sometimes it is not used responsibly.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Gideon Sa’ar addresses the Knesset plenum. He has promoted a bill to prevent incitement on social networks.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Gideon Sa’ar addresses the Knesset plenum. He has promoted a bill to prevent incitement on social networks.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

‘With great power comes great responsibility.” Every fan of Spiderman films is familiar with this age-old adage. It made me think that perhaps Mark Zuckerberg does not identify with this cinematic genre, since the protagonists use their superhuman powers to protect the world. The founder of Facebook has kind of become a superhero, since he has tremendous power through the technology he controls. This technology can do a lot of good in the world, but also a lot of bad.

"With great power comes great responsibility."

Ben Parker

The whistleblower who last year documented the depth of this danger is Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, who exposed documents that show how from 2018 Facebook’s algorithms fostered discord, promoted violent content and incited hatred. That year, Facebook’s annual revenue more than doubled from $56 billion to $119 billion. Facebook is of course not alone in this story. Other social networking companies, including TikTok, Instagram (which is a subsidiary of Meta, Facebook’s parent company), Twitter and YouTube are all focused solely on their financial gain. Hate-filled posts are worth a lot of money to corporate executives. For some people, though, the cost is loss of life.

In recent attacks, what stood out so blatantly was the young age of the terrorists who are active on social networks, which are flooded with disturbing messages of incitement and calls for murdering Jews. In the current wave of terrorism, the virtual world and social networks are for all intents and purposes functioning as a laboratory that produces explosives. These sites disseminate anti-Israel venom that flows drip by drip into the veins of thousands of youths who are willing to grab any weapon they can use to kill Jews.

Israel’s defense establishment has stretched itself to its limit in an effort to protect Israeli citizens. For several months now, IDF soldiers have been sealing breaches in the security fence with their bodies, while the social networks remain wide open and full of extremely violent messages that lead to incitement and fan the flames of terrorist activity.

Content supporting terrorism that has gone viral can propel viewers to commit future attacks. Obviously, when this type of content is monitored and reported to the social networks on which they appear, it is expected that they be removed in the fastest way possible. In practice, however, Facebook and other similar platforms are actually contributing to the intensification of this wave of terrorism. For example, let’s look at the Facebook page of Dia Hamarsha, who murdered five people in the recent attack in Bnei Brak. Dozens of toxic nationalistic posts and pictures of terrorists who’d murdered Israelis were found on his Facebook page. And yet, Facebook did not remove any of these violent messages or images.

 Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken, July 13, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC) Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken, July 13, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC)

The statistics are alarming. In the last two months, Israel’s state attorney’s cyber department received 19,000 requests from security forces to remove provocative and pro-terrorism content from various social networks. Our hope was that due to the dangerous nature of this content, and the proven link between violence-inciting content and terrorist attacks, the social media companies would respond to these reports within hours or even minutes, but in reality, this did not happen. Not only do the social networks not respond quickly enough to requests from the defense establishment, but senior officials in Israel’s Ministry of Justice and the State Attorney’s Office estimate that 15% of requests to remove violence-inciting content are rejected. This amounts to hundreds of toxic and dangerous posts.

Seder night

Take for example, the incident that took place this past year on Passover Seder night, at six o’clock in the evening, when attorneys from the cyber department approached the District Court judge requesting an injunction to remove content that was considered to be a ticking bomb. The site was indeed shut down, but Facebook refused to remove the violence-inciting page. It’s important to emphasize here that the procedure for issuing an order to remove content from the internet is similar to the procedure for extending the custody of a suspect. All matters are examined in depth, and it is disgraceful that the security of the state of Israel depends on a gesture of goodwill from a conglomerate.

At the moment, Israel is currently conducting a round of diplomatic relations with Facebook, whose status is on the same level as a country, with its own independent laws. In the absence of legislation, Israel cannot exercise governmental authority over Facebook and other social media networks, and as a result, they remain at their mercy.

FOR YEARS, numerous attempts have been made to enact laws that would allow regulation and the removal of content from social networks, and it almost succeeded in 2018. At the start, the Facebook Law was a bill promoted by then-MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union), which was designed to assist authorities by providing them with tools to effectively handle incitement on social networks.

Later on, MK Swid’s proposal was consolidated with another bill led by then-minister of public security Gilad Erdan and by Ayelet Shaked, minister of justice at the time. Unfortunately, a few days before it was expected to pass in second and third readings, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered it be removed from the daily agenda, on the grounds it was a danger to individuals’ rights and the right to freedom of expression. It’s possible that Netanyahu’s opposition to the bill was not actually connected to freedom of expression, but instead to his struggle to maintain control of social media and prevent regulation of his online activity.

The Facebook bill promoted by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar to prevent incitement on social networks once again came up for public discussion last year. According to this bill, which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs but for which the legislative procedures had not yet been completed in the Knesset, the prosecution may, with approval of the attorney-general, approach the district court judge and request that an order for offensive content posted on social media be removed.

Once again, there was an uproar surrounding the bill. Some people argued that the bill was draconian and went too far with regard to freedom of expression. Others believed it provided the authorities unprecedented and disproportionate tools for governmental censorship. Currently, the Davidi Committee, headed by the Ministry of Justice director general, is examining possible courses of action vis-à-vis social media in many areas, and alternative wording of the Facebook Bill.

Terrorist organizations are exploiting these liberal tools employed by Western democracies. In today’s reality in which we are suffering again and again by terrorist attacks, the time has come for us to ask ourselves if the struggle to uphold freedom of expression (which in any case is unlikely to be harmed), is more important than human life?

It’s important to remember that Meta is an American conglomerate that the Israeli authorities usually work well with, though there is plenty of room for improvement. On the other hand, the situation vis-à-vis TikTok is much more complex, since it is a Chinese-owned entity. What this means is that Israel is much more dependent on a corporation that functions according to the whims of a dictatorship. Israel cannot rely on gestures of goodwill and therefore the passing of legislation is a necessary step.

The entire world understands that we have no choice but to limit the power of social networks. US President Joe Biden supports significant reforms and believes that social networks need to be held accountable for any damage they cause. There have also been calls to split Meta into a number of smaller companies that would compete with each other. The EU is also promoting a new Digital Services Act that would oblige Facebook to fully disclose information about its algorithms and filtering considerations.

Israel must vigorously enact legislation that is worded precisely in a way that will maintain the correct balance between maintaining freedom of expression and the acute need to create a mechanism that would allow authorities to do their work in the face of growing danger. At the same time, additional steps must be taken, such as enabling the families of individuals who were murdered during the recent wave of terrorism to sue social networks for failing to remove content on the pages of terrorists who carried out attacks in which their loved ones were killed.

Israel must also enact economic policies. It is ludicrous that social networks can simply refuse to comply with orders handed down from a judge of the state of Israel to remove violence-inciting content, while Israel is paying over NIS 50 million to the conglomerate for advertising. Granted, this is an insignificant amount for a conglomerate that brings in tens of billions of dollars a year, but this action still has declarative significance.

In any case, it’s important to take practical steps so that people posting on social media will understand that Israel takes this threat seriously.

The writer is a journalist at Maariv.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.