Over the last few years Israel and its most ardent supporters have waged a campaign to restrict critical speech of the Jewish state on social media. They want the state to have the same rights as individuals under Facebook’s community standards. As it stands, threats against individuals, are prohibited. But smearing a nation, or threatening it, is viewed by Facebook as protected political speech.
Recently, the dispute has gotten ugly. Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called Facebook a “monster” last week for not increasing its censorship. Now this disagreement between Israel and Facebook is headed to the courts.
Relatives of four Israeli-Americans and one American tourists killed in Israel and the occupied West Bank between 2014 and June 2016 are suing Facebook for $1 billion in damages, claiming the social media site promotes “terrorism” and “knowingly and intentionally assisted” in their deaths.
The case was filed in New York federal court.
Representing the bereaved is an Israeli law and advocacy group, Shurat HaDin, which describes itself as litigating on “the forefront of fighting terrorism and safeguarding Jewish rights worldwide.” The group states its goals are “safeguarding the Jewish state,” and has special activists projects in “Defending Israel from War Crimes and Combating Lawfare and BDS [the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement].”
Shurat HaDin is experienced in seeking payment from companies in U.S. courts over the killings of Americans that took place in Israel. It has filed droves of victims compensations claims from terrorism-related incidents in the past. Most target financial institutions that provide bank accounts for members of Hamas or the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, with few victories. Although in 2015 Shurat HaDin won a case against the Palestinian government’s U.S.-based mission over the deaths of Americans.
The Facebook case is its first against a social media site.
Suing Facebook for $1 billion in damages
In a lengthy complaint submitted Monday, many of the plaintiffs’ charges levied on Facebook seem innocuous. The hashtag #PalestineRiseUp and #AlQudsIntifada—the latter a popular tag for media outlets covering the region—are listed as examples of supporting terrorism.
Others appear more a matter of poor taste. Line item 251 references a cartoon of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu portrayed as a vampire.
However, the case will likely be taken seriously as it mostly focuses on the Gaza-based group Hamas using Facebook’s communication services.
Because Hamas was designated a terror organization by the U.S. government back in 1997, it is illegal for Facebook to allow the group to maintain public profiles on its site. Facebook has a history of taken action to delete these pages. Last Tuesday it removed two profiles of Hamas leaders, according to the Jerusalem Post. But just as quickly as the pages are taken down, new ones appear, a pattern that could gain the plaintiffs some footing in court.
However, the lawsuit oddly enough is not trying to prove that Facebook is careless about monitoring and deleting Hamas linked accounts. Instead it takes leaps beyond; most of the complaint is not about if Facebook at all, rather it seeks to prove the killers of the plaintiffs’ relatives were members of Hamas.
There is just one problem: As far as anyone knows, their relatives were not killed by people who were involved in Hamas.
What is perhaps most bizarre is that Israeli leaders over the past nine months have addressed this issue and came to the opposite conclusion. The general consensus is the slain named in the civil suit were attacked in uncoordinated actions by individuals, often teens—teens with Facebook accounts—but not members of Hamas.
In a statement in late June, Israel’s Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked said, “In the latest wave of terror there has been a direct link between online incitement and the so-called ‘lone wolf terror’ attacks.” This “wave” they were referring to includes the deaths in the lawsuit.
“In the past, we could find the organizations and send agents in and try to prevent it before it happened,” Erdan said in December 2015, referring to killings that are included in the lawsuit. “Today, it is individuals making their own decisions,” he said, as reported The Independent.
Also Prime Minister Netanyahu has weighted in on the matter. He told his Likud party also in December, Palestinian attacks on Israelis were the product of “individuals” not organizations, relaying this trend was a “new kind of terrorism.”
Israel lawmakers announce anti-Facebook censorship bill
In the same week of Shurat HaDin’s filing, the Israeli government announced their own legal intervention into Facebook.
Lawmakers hope to pass a bill that would force Facebook to take down certain types of speech posted by Palestinians, with no mention of similar types of posts made by Israelis directed at the Palestinians. The range of what would qualify as illegal posts is anything from criticism of Israeli forces entering the Haram al-Sharif, the holy sites complex in Jerusalem that houses both Jewish and Muslim sacred sites, to more severe language calling for the destruction of the Jewish state, to explicit death threats.
If passed, the Israeli law would override Facebook’s ability to determine what content is appropriate and what is removable. That authority would then be turned over to Israel’s security service who could use secret evidence in making their decisions.
In instances where Facebook would refuse to comply with Israel’s demands, the law would reportedly grant Israel the power to issue fines against Facebook.
As is the case with the American civil suit, many of the posts Israel hopes to remove do not violate Facebook’s current regulations. A spokesperson for the site said last year, “Language attacking a country is not considered hate speech in our community standards,” according to the Washington Examiner (this statement was also cited in the American civil suit). In other words, writing “death to Israel,” is OK by Facebook’s standards, but wishing death on a person is off-limits.
In the past Israel had sought to change that policy on a case by case basis.
Writing for the Intercept, Alex Kane found Israel has increased its requests to Facebook to remove the writing of individual Palestinians since 2013. Kane found Israel sent 585 demand letters to Facebook between 2013 and 2014, of which around half were honored. Then in June Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked met with Facebook officials. Presumably the two sides did not see eye-to-eye, because afterward Erdan and Shaked said Facebook is “encouraging terror attacks, shaming, insulting public officials and slandering.”
That view is shared by a small but vocal number of Israelis who have protested outside of Facebook’s offices in Tel Aviv. In 2015 activist Rotem Gez painted red handprints on the building’s exterior. (Strangely, Gez legally changed his name to that of Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg during the course of a 2011 lawsuit the company filed against him.)
Facebook as the new security frontier
Underpinning both the U.S. lawsuit filed by the Israeli law firm and the Israeli legislation are concerns over soaring violence during the last nine months, and the role social media have played in it. Since October 2015 Palestinians have killed 35 Israelis and Israelis killed at least 209 Palestinians. From the beginning of this period Israeli leaders pointed to Facebook as proliferating the spread of attacks.
It was on Facebook where the first Palestinian attacker in this current wave, Mohanned Halabi, posted his intentions, when he stated “the Intifada has started,” hours before he killed two in Jerusalem last October. Halabi was 19, and his age seemed to explain the fact taht he selected social media as his final venue for what read almost as diary entries. A report by Israel’s security service in February said that half of more than Palestinians who had carried out or attempted attacks on Israelis were age 20 or under.
Israel security agency is on the lookout for Facebook posts that can be interpreted as farewell messages, or death threats. Since last October nearly 200 Palestinians from the West Bank have been arrested for postings on social media.
A spokesperson for the Israeli military told Al Jazeera that 59 Palestinians from the West Bank have been convicted of “incitement” on Facebook. A further 100 were detained and not charged during that same period, according to the Palestinian legal rights group Adalah, which indicates the arrest net is being cast much wider than the number of persons who use Facebook to signal they are about to carry out an attack.
The role of social media in inspiring violence is very difficult to pin down. Most Palestinians reject the Facebook argument all together. They say the attacks since October were a response to the hardships of living under Israel’s occupation and balk at the idea that tweets or posts are a motivating factor.