Lawrence Rifkin, The (Sometimes) Antisocial Network, Jerusalem Report, May 9 2011
Israel and Jewish organizations are scrambling to exploit the good side of Internet 2.0, but also to minimize its potential for spreading anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.
NOT LONG AGO, IF THE conversation veered toward anti-Semitism on the Internet, it would focus on what seemed like an endless number of dedicated hate sites. These sites were so ubiquitous that Google, which relies on complex computer codes called algorithms to find entries that are relevant to what’s typed in its search window, would trumpet the hate site Jew Watch at the very top of its results for the word “Jew.”
The barrage of complaints that rolled in apparently made Google rethink at least some of its algorithms – so that typing the word “Jew” now brings in, high on the list of results, the following disclaimer: “If you recently used Google to search for the word “Jew,” you may have seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by Google.
…Sometimes subtleties of language cause anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted.
A search for ‘Jew’ brings up one such unexpected result.”
While there is far more than just one “unexpected result” (dedicated hate sites have probably multiplied since the Google/Jew uproar was first heard), some of the hatred has been migrating to a still evolving phenomenon called Internet 2.0. A sobriquet conjured up to imply a completely new Internet – which, in a way, it is – Internet 2.0 is unlike traditional websites designed for passive use. Internet 2.0 is built around what’s called “interoperability.”
This is hi-tech-speak for user interaction, and its denizens include social networking sites like the immensely popular Facebook and video-sharing sites such as Google’s YouTube, where, according to publicists, the servers upload 35 hours worth of footage from users every minute.
INTERNET 2.0 BRINGS PEOPLE together and further democratizes an already democratic medium. It allows anyone with a computer browser and modem – and no web publishing knowledge at all – to post text, photos, audio recordings and videos on the World Wide Web, usually for free.
That’s clearly a significant upside, and to revert to an old catchphrase, it can be very good for the Jews.
On Facebook alone, one can find any number of pages devoted to things Jewish and Israeli, ranging from organizations such as Chabad, USY and Peace Now to ad hoc groups calling themselves “I Stand with Israel Today” and “I’m Not Yelling… I’m Jewish… That’s How We Talk.” And as for YouTube, who among us in the lead-up to Passover did not receive at least one e-card or e-mail linked to an impressive holiday video presentation or a hilarious rendition of an old classic somehow reworked into a modern-day iteration of Moses and the 10 plagues? Israeli officials responsible for hasbara – a Hebrew term that refers to explaining Israel’s official policies and points of view – have zeroed in on Internet 2.0. The army has its own YouTube “channel” (www.youtube.com/ user/idfnadesk) with how-to videos for soonto- be inductees – along with spy drone footage of rocket-launching crews at work in Gaza.
And Benjamin Netanyahu got in on the act in late March when he was interviewed in a live television broadcast that, because it simultaneously appeared on YouTube, allowed questions to be put verbally to the prime minister in real time from around the world.
The official Internet 2.0 face of Israel is the Foreign Ministry’s Information and Internet Department.
“Over two years ago, we noticed that more and more people are getting their information from social media and not just from websites,” department head Chaim Shacham tells The Jerusalem Report. “We don’t really have a strong sense of where the best hasbara should be, so we decided to go where most of the people are.”
The department has its own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/israelmfa), You Tube channel (www.youtube.com/israel) and Twitter account (www.twitter.com/israel), and uses them for what might be termed “proactive hasbara.”
“We view our business as branding Israel, not defending it,” Shacham says. “More and more people can identify with Israel if they can identify with the content. People using the new media usually want a burst of information and then to be drawn in. We use Internet 2.0 as a net, and then try to guide them to Internet 1.0 for a reservoir of content.”
On Facebook, the netting process begins when a client looks up a friend. The friend’s page reflects things he or she does and likes. If the friend has seen the Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page and recommends it to others, the friend will note this with the nowomnipresent “Like.” And because so much of Facebook relies on links – perhaps the World Wide Web’s most unique tool – if the friend hasn’t posted a “Like” for the ministry’s page, there’s a chance the client will link to the page of a mutual friend who has.
Once you reach the Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page you’ll see Shacham’s “burst of information,” links that take you to his “Internet 1.0,” the ministry’s dedicated website (www.mfa/gov.il). That site is jam-packed with just about everything you might want to know about Israel – or, to be more blunt, just about everything Israel would want you to know. It is, after all, about branding.
“Yes, we want people to know about issues,” he tells The Report. “But we want them to learn about them while learning about Israel with its rich history, about the innovative Israel with hi-tech success and business opportunities, and about the Israel experience, with its tourism, arts and multiculturalism.”
Of course, as with any website, the address of one’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitter page is important: the simpler and more direct, the easier it is to remember. The Foreign Ministry’s YouTube and Twitter pages once had the “MFA” suffix that its Facebook page still has, but just plain “Israel” has been the goal.
“YouTube was withholding the name and we had to go through a lengthy process to prove we were the official representative of the Israeli government,” Shacham explains. “With Twitter it was a little different. It turns out that a pornographer in Florida whose first name is Israel owned the name. We ended up paying him $5,000 for the rights.”
SO MUCH FOR THE UP – or lighter – side of Internet 2.0. Its biggest downside, on the other hand, is the ease of accessibility for purveyors of hatred and hostility. And with regard to Israel, these are not limited just to anti-Semites or Israel-bashers.
They prominently included Jews and Israelis who vent their wrath on Arabs and on each other.
The recent brouhaha over a Facebook advocacy page in Arabic titled The Third Intifada serves as an illustration. On the surface, The Third Intifada exhorted followers from the West Bank and other Arab countries to stage something of a “million-man march” right up to the border with Israel on May 15, the Gregorian date of Israel’s independence and a day the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, or the catastrophe. However, according to critics, the page had an undertone that could be construed as incitement to hatred and even violence against both Israelis and Jews, while user comments often were much less subtle.
Jewish watchdog groups, such as the Anti- Defamation League, appealed to Facebook, which in late March, after a bit of foot dragging, removed the page. Nonetheless, it has since reappeared in several forms, in turn spawning Facebook pages such as “Against the Third Palestinian Intifada” and “Crush the Third Intifada Page.”
“New ways of using the web, such as social networking sites like Facebook and user-generated content sites such as YouTube, have led to an explosion of online bullying,” says Deborah Lauter, ADL’s director for civil rights. “Social networking sites are also used to promulgate hate and extremist content, increasing the depth and breadth of hate material that is available and which confronts nonextremist users,” she tells The Report.
Lauter says her organization works directly with “service providers such as Facebook” to confront the problem.
“Our discussions are fruitful and ongoing,” she says. “It is critical to note that the amount of material – Facebook has hundreds of millions of pages, YouTube has hours of videos uploaded every second, and Twitter has 140 million tweets per day – makes it virtually impossible for pre-posting policing of material.”
Replying to a Jerusalem Report query on the Intifada page matter, Facebook spokesman Simon Axten e-mailed the following – apparently boilerplate – response: “[W]e don’t typically take down content that speaks out against countries, religions, political entities, or ideas.
However, we monitor Pages that are reported to us, and when they degrade to direct calls for violence or expressions of hate, we have and will continue to remove them.”
The spokesman referred to the specific issue as follows: “The Third Palestinian Intifada Page, while using a term that has been associated with violence in the past [referring to the term Intifada - ed], began as a call for peaceful protest. In addition, the administrators initially removed comments that promoted violence. However, once the Page gathered publicity, comments deteriorated to direct calls for violence, and eventually, the Page administrators themselves also participated in these calls. After sending several warnings to the administrators about posts that violated our policies, we removed the Page.”
ENTER ANDRE OBOLER, A SOCIAL media expert who directs the Community Internet Engagement Project at the Zionist Federation of Australia and co-chairs the working group on online anti-Semitism for the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. Oboler holds a PhD in computer science and in 2007-2008 was a post-doctoral fellow in political science at Israel’s Bar- Ilan University.
Taking his cue from the moniker given the new interactive Internet when it began gathering speed several years ago, Oboler coined the term “anti-Semitism 2.0.”
“The difference from classic anti-Semitism,” he tells The Report, “is that it tries to put on a socially acceptable face. Success here lowers social resistance to bigotry.”
By way of example, Oboler says he is bothered less by Stormfront, an openly anti- Semitic website run by white supremacists, than he is with the ostensibly benign Facebook, which can give similar material a veneer of respectability.
“I’m not so concerned about the spread of hate among people who hate us already,” he says. “I’m far more concerned about the spread of hate material to our friends and to those we’d want to be our friends in the future.”
Beyond the veneer, he says, the issue is also in the presentation.
“Anti-Semitism 2.0 mixes 50 percent racism and 50 percent claims of why it’s not racism. It compares Israel to Nazis, but goes on to say ‘we’re not racists,’ and then offers what it calls citations, but which are not really citations,” Oboler explains.
He claims that this modus operandi is particularly striking on Wikipedia. “You see a lot of things that are referenced to faulty, misused and fictitious citations. It is an attempt to portray hatred as an academic argument, all wrapped up in a legitimate website rather than an overtly hateful site.”
An overtly hateful website, he goes on, is much easier to have removed or filtered by search engines. “But you’re not going to pull down Facebook because of the anti-Semitism it contains. So the question is, what sort of ethical stand are Facebook and YouTube, for example, going to take on enforcement against hate messages?” Facebook’s Axten offers a short and, again, stock explanation of policy.
“Facebook is highly self-regulating,” his statement reads. “We provide report links on nearly every page and encourage people to let us know when they see something they think might violate our standards. Our team of investigators reviews and takes action on reported content according to our policies.”
Paul Solomon, spokesman for YouTube in Israel, is equally succinct. “Essentially, the community is the first line of defense. We review all flagged videos quickly, and if we find that they do violate the Guidelines, we remove them.”
Yet he provides a bit of depth by explaining just how the company’s review system works: “There are three components,” Solomon wrote in response to a request from The Report.
“1) The community flags the video. Despite the rumor that flagging campaigns will remove a video, a single flag is sufficient to trigger this system. 2) Our algorithms prioritize the video in the queue. The algorithms examine things like flesh tones (for sexual content), the history of previous flags (i.e., has it been flagged and approved before?), and a few other demographic factors. 3) Our reviewers perform a manual review using our review tool.”
In reconsidering a video, YouTube looks at both content and intent.
“Consider, for example, the video of the death of [post-election demonstrator] Neda Soltan in Iran,” Solomon continues. “We have policies that prohibit shocking or graphic content.
On the face of it, a video showing a young woman bleeding to death would likely be removed if it were flagged. But we make exceptions for videos that have educational, documentary, scientific or artistic (EDSA) value, provided that it is balanced with the additional context.”
More recently, the Israel-based Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), which, according to its website, looks for mass incitement and demonization against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had a run-in with YouTube, where it maintained its own channel. Apparently, an organized flagging campaign was mounted against PMW, and YouTube, most likely having taken only a superficial look without considering the context, eventually removed enough PMW videos to justify shutting down the entire channel – which, after a short appeal process, was reopened.
The same happened to a photo presentation uploaded by Jewish settlers after the government, in a highly controversial move, released graphic and gruesome photos of the bodies of five members of the Fogel family, including a three-month-old baby, who were butchered in their West Bank settlement in March. The move, Israeli officials openly said, was intended to show the true brutality of Arab terrorism, but YouTube looked at the content and said no – although it later relented.
Facebook and YouTube seem to have divergent approaches, Oboler tells The Report.
“With YouTube it’s ‘If in doubt, remove.’With Facebook it’s, ‘If in doubt, don’t remove.’” In a report published earlier this year, Oboler illustrates that flags and even written complaints might not always be enough, even with YouTube, where a group calling itself “theytnazism” presented a “list of people we hate and we want to kill… 1. Blacks, 2. Jews, 3. Indians.”
“I reported this to YouTube in February ,” Oboler writes, “and on November 22 – 10 months later – [the group’s YouTube page] was still active…. I then included [a screenshot of the page] in a set of slides for a conference on anti-Semitism run by the World Zionist Organization in France… and suddenly the group was gone.”
He believes this was not coincidental, as other groups he had complained to YouTube about, but never mentioned publicly, remained online.
“It’s all good and well to tell the public to report things,” Oboler tells The Report.
“Having people flag things is far more effective than any algorithms. But what happens afterward? The problem is how you decide when you’ve crossed the bridge. The driving force that pushes these companies to do anything is public pressure. It becomes a threat in a corporate sense.”
In a forthcoming report titled “A legal model for government intervention to combat online hate,” Oboler, as part of his work with the Zionist Federation of Australia, calls on that country to broaden existing anti-hate laws to more effectively combat the growing phenomenon on the Internet.
“Governments have a responsibility to take an active role in the online world; if they don’t they cannot meet their wider obligations to the people they serve,” he writes. “The powers, rights and limitations that apply to governments and private citizens in the real world need to be reflected online.”
He also aims his words at “[t]hose advising clients in the technology sector,” warning them that they “should be aware of the potential for increased government intervention.”
Oboler tells The Report that “the use of new media technology can bring governments and communities together. It’s just a channel that can be used for good and for ill, and we have to maximize its use for good.”