This is the full version of an article published by Middle East Eye. It examines Israel’s social media crackdown not just inside Israel, but its attempt to police speech on social media platforms around the world. It also incorporates my personal bout of censorship at the hands of Twitter last month.
Over the past week, I also published another article there: What will Trump do about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance? Please read the articles and promote them on listservs, e-mail lists, online forums or social media platforms to which you belong.
The onslaught began after the 2016 presidential election in which Facebook was found to have shared the private information of over 100-million Americans in a massive, fraudulent political advertising campaign reportedly organized by the Russian government. The goal was to elect Donald Trump president. It succeeded beyond the Kremlin’s wildest dreams.
In the two years since, Americans have vilified Facebook for permitting itself to be exploited in such a fashion. As a result, the company has placed restrictions on use of its private data by third parties. It has also ferreted out and eliminated hundreds of pages which touted the fake news and persuaded so many Americans that their vote wasn’t worth casting.
Though many of these changes are welcome and have strengthened the security of the site and its users; the resulting added scrutiny has bled into other areas of the site, including political speech. Because so much of the fake news peddled on social media during the election was based on incendiary, bogus claims, all forms of political advocacy and speech have become suspect.
Israel and GOP Pressure Social Media, Alleging Bias
Facebook and its fellow social media platforms have also faced intense pressure from several different political constituencies. The far-right complains mightily about the prevailing liberal bias of Silicon Valley. It believes its voice is suppressed and discriminated against by the powers that be who “rule” the Valley. In truth, these companies have no ideology but capitalism. Making money and producing revenue are all that counts.
But such tech companies do fear government intervention in their marketplace, which is why one sees the corporate chieftains traipsing to Washington to reassure legislators that they are honest brokers who take their mission seriously to be an open forum of communication for all Americans.
The other major political force squeezing Jack Dorsey (Twitter), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Sundar Pichai (Google) is, strangely enough, a particular foreign government and its U.S. domestic lobby. Israel in the past few years has become aware of the immense power of social media to shape brands and impact public perception. Its far-right government has designated a former backwater entity, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, as the spear-carrier for an international campaign to combat “delegitimization.” That is an awkward invented word connoting anyone who criticizes Israel or brings its reputation into disrepute.
Israel’s Public Enemy No. 1: BDS
Public enemy number one in this effort is the BDS movement, its leaders and those who support it worldwide. The ministry has a $50-million budget (some expenditures may be off-the-books) to conduct surveillance, opposition research, and dirty-ops to sabotage this effort to end Israeli Occupation. They’ve hired scores of former intelligence agents to perform these activities and demanded the ministry’s operation be conducted in secret.
Israel’s leadership sees social media as the cutting edge of world communication. It is there, they believe, that Israel’s reputation will be made or broken. As such, they’ve undertaken a massive lobbying campaign targeting the major companies and their corporate leadership. Israeli ministers have visited the Silicon Valley headquarters of Google and Facebook, meeting with executives and warning them that if they don’t police “anti-Israel” discourse on their platforms that the Israeli government will step in to do so. Zuckerberg sent his top executives to Israel for meetings with ministers, assuring them that their “concerns” would be heard and acted upon. And Facebook has acceded to many of these censorship demands. Google’s YouTube subsidiary has done the same.
Since this campaign began, the Israeli government has filed thousands of complaints about anti-Israel hate speech on these sites. The companies side with the Israeli authorities in the vast majority of cases. Israeli ministers have in turn boasted about their effectiveness in essentially stifling political speech in the most effective soapbox in the world.
Social Media Purge of Pro-Palestine Content
However, bending the knee to the Israel lobby has brought with it some embarrassment. Scores of Facebook pages belonging to Palestinian media outlets were shut down, some simply entirely disappeared without being offered an opportunity to appeal. Others were suspended temporarily and a vigorous protest campaign caused the company to relent.
Though Facebook never released any statement explaining a rationale for this purge of pro-Palestine pages, it seems clear that the lobbying by Israeli authorities and perhaps their direct complaints about the sites, led corporate censors to accede to the pressure.
Attacks on Israel-Related Free Speech in U.S. as Well
Social media companies are also cracking down on critical speech concerning Israel by U.S. users. In fact, my Twitter account was recently blocked by Twitter after I tweeted that foreign and Israeli media were misleading readers concerning coverage of the murder of Israeli-American settler, Ari Fuld, by a Palestinian attacker. Several media outlets called him a pro-Israel “activist,” using a term usually reserved for social justice or human rights advocates.
“A Palestinian Has Fatally Stabbed an American-Israeli Activist in the West Bank.” Wrong again. A militant, armed, messianic settler is NO activist. He is timebomb. https://t.co/ezrFdjgfs1
— Tikun Olam (@richards1052) September 17, 2018
In reality, Fuld was a heavily armed militant settler who embraced Palestine denial. He not only rejected the notion of a Palestinian state; he rejected the claim that Palestinians even existed. He has served in the élite paratroop division of the IDF and organized security patrols in his Efrat settlement.
After two pro-Israel social media provocateurs organized a massive attack on my account and scores, if not hundreds of pro-Israel users reported it for “promoting hate and violence.” They also posted death threats, suggested I commit suicide, warned me of a “beat-down,” wished that an ISIS terrorist would stab me to death, etc. None of these messages were flagged or censored.
The claim that my tweets incited violence was a fraud, but no amount of protest from my Twitter followers would move Twitter to review its decision. Then, Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada inquired with the Twitter media team about the status of my account. Almost immediately after receipt of his inquiry, the account was unblocked and my access restored.
Shin Bet Reliance on Artificial Intelligence Causes Embarrassment
On the Israeli domestic front, the Shin Bet has installed artificial intelligence software which crunches much of the social media content published by Palestinians. It reviews posts searching for trigger words and phrases which might indicate intent to engage in acts threatening Israel. Of course, how the spy agency determines what is a threat is the key issue. And its threshold is astoundingly low.
In one case, a Palestinian day laborer posted in Arabic “Good Morning” next to a picture of his bulldozer. A Shin Bet agent who did not read Arabic used a faulty Facebook translation which said: “hurt them.” The man was arrested as a potential terrorist. Though he was later released after a media outcry, this is not an unusual occurrence.
Famed Palestinian poet, Dareen Tatour, published a poem advocating Palestinian resistance against Occupation. Though nothing in her poem threatened violence, she was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison and house arrest. Even a massive international protest did not move Israeli authorities. She was recently freed.
There are 400 Palestinians currently detained or serving prison sentences solely because of content they published on social media. Over 800 have been arrested at one time or another for such charges. There is no legal standard defining what is a genuine threat and what is legitimate political speech. Under Israel’s legal system whatever the Shin Bet says is illegal is. Judges uniformly bow to the evidence presented to them by the security forces and the State prosecutor.
Predictive Artificial Intelligence as False Panacea
The spy agency boasts in the media about how many terror plots have been foiled by these AI tools. But the Israeli public has no way of judging the credibility of these claims because they are never accompanied by concrete evidence. It is told to trust that the Shin Bet is telling the truth, when there is little reason to do so.
How can an algorithm predict someone’s future behavior based on words published in a social media account? The whole process reeks of exaggeration and self-congratulation. What better way to justify a huge increase in next years’ budget than trot out statistics confirming how many attacks your agency averted through its miracle technology?
The Palestinian Authority Adopts Israel’s Repressive Social Media Approach
Israel isn’t the only Middle Eastern nation which polices and censors social media content. The Palestinian Authority, having learned its lessons well from Israel, vigorously roots out dissenting political views by Palestinians. Aided by a Cybercrime Law Mahmoud Abbas invoked by decree, his security services are as intolerant of dissent as their Israeli peers. They arrest violators and imprison them including journalists. When summoned for questioning they’re interrogated not only for their posts, but their private messages as well.
This confirms that there is little separating the methods of Israelis and Palestinian authorities. Both are governed by repressive regimes intolerant of critical ideas and willing to suppress democratic values to control public discourse.