Israel is shutting down its critics on social media. It happened to me
Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have come under enormous pressure to police their sites more rigorously. One of the unfortunate results has been a major clampdown on political speech.
The onslaught intensified after Russians were charged in a scheme to subvert the 2016 US presidential election, allegedly using fraudulent Facebook and Instagram accounts. It succeeded beyond the Kremlin's wildest dreams.
Since then, Americans have vilified Facebook for permitting itself to be exploited in such a fashion. In response, the company has placed restrictions on the use of its private data by third parties and removed hundreds of pages that touted fake news.
But while many of these changes have strengthened the security of the site and its users, the added scrutiny has bled into other areas, including political speech.
In truth, the prevailing ideology for these companies is capitalism: making money is their primary driver. But tech firms do fear government intervention in their marketplace, which is why their corporate chieftains have been traipsing to Washington to reassure legislators that they are honest brokers who take seriously their mission to be an open forum for all Americans.
Israel's leadership sees social media as the cutting edge of world communication, where its own reputation will be made or broken
One other major political force squeezing social media sites is the Israeli government and its US lobby. Israel has become aware of the immense power of social media to shape brands and impact public perception.
Its far-right government has designated the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, created in 2006 for Avigdor Lieberman, the spear-carrier for an international campaign to combat "delegitimisation," an awkward term connoting anyone who criticises Israel. Public enemy number one in this effort is the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, its leaders and those who support it worldwide.
Israel's leadership sees social media as the cutting edge of world communication, where its own reputation will be made or broken. It has undertaken a massive lobbying campaign targeting the major sites and their corporate leaderships.
Israeli ministers have met Google and Facebook executives, warning that if they did not police "anti-Israel" discourse on their platforms, the Israeli government would step in to do so. Facebook and other sites have acceded to many of these censorship demands.
Since this campaign began, the Israeli government has filed a litany of complaints about anti-Israel hate speech, succeeding in the vast majority of cases to have the content removed. Israeli ministers have, in turn, boasted about their effectiveness in essentially stifling political speech.
Palestinian pages shut down
However, kowtowing to the Israel lobby has brought with it some embarrassment. Scores of Facebook pages belonging to Palestinian media outlets have been shut down, while others have been suspended, spurring protests. Facebook did not issue a statement explaining its rationale for targeting these pages.
Social media companies are also cracking down on critical speech about Israel by American users. My own Twitter account was recently suspended after I tweeted that foreign and Israeli media were misleading readers in coverage of the murder of an Israeli-American settler by a Palestinian attacker.
Several media outlets called the man a pro-Israel "activist," a term usually reserved for human rights advocates, while in reality he was a heavily armed militant settler who rejected the claim that Palestinians even existed.
Two pro-Israel social media provocateurs organised a massive attack on my account, and scores 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," and wished that an Islamic State terrorist would stab me to death. None of these messages were flagged or censored.
The claim that my tweets incited violence was false, but no amount of protest from my Twitter followers moved the company to review its decision. Eventually, Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada inquired with the Twitter media team about the status of my account; almost immediately afterwards, my access was restored.
On the Israeli domestic front, the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, uses software to review much of the social media content published by Palestinians, scanning for trigger words and phrases that might indicate intent to harm Israel. Yet, how the spy agency determines a threat is central to this process - and the threshold appears astoundingly low.
In one case, a Palestinian day labourer posted in Arabic: "Good Morning," next to a picture of his bulldozer. Relying on a faulty Facebook translation that read: "Hurt them," police arrested the man. He was later released after the error came to light.
In another case, famed Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour published a poem advocating Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. Though nothing in her poem threatened violence, she was arrested and imprisoned. Tatour was released only last month, after three years of jail and house arrest.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested because of content they posted on social media, despite a lack of legal standards to distinguish genuine threats from political speech. Israeli judges uniformly bow to the evidence presented by security forces and the state prosecutor.
Intolerant of dissent
The spy agency boasts publicly about how many terror plots it has foiled, but the Israeli public has no way of judging the credibility of these claims, lacking any concrete evidence. It is expected 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 behaviour based on words published on a social media account? The whole process reeks of exaggeration and self-congratulation; what better way to justify a huge increase in next year's budget?
Israel isn't the only Middle Eastern nation that polices and censors social media content, of course. The Palestinian Authority, having learned its lessons well from Israel, vigorously roots out dissenting Palestinian political views. Aided by President Mahmoud Abbas's cybercrime law, his security services have become as intolerant of dissent as their Israeli peers.
Today, there is little to separate the methods of Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Both are governed by repressive regimes intolerant of critical ideas, willing to suppress democratic values to control public discourse.
- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A picture taken in Paris on 16 May 2018 shows the logo of the social network Facebook on a broken screen of a mobile phone (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.