[News] How Israel’s social media trolls conquered Facebook

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Oct 21 15:38:26 EDT 2019


  How Israel’s social media trolls conquered Facebook

By Ramzy Baroud - October 21, 2019
On October 9, the social media platform, Facebook, deleted the page of 
the popular Palestinian news website, the Palestinian Information Center 
(PIC). This act, which was carried out without even contacting the page 
administrators, confirms that Facebook’s war on pro-Palestine voices is 
continuing unabated.

PIC had nearly five million followers on Facebook, a testament to its 
popularity and credibility among a large cross section of Palestinians 
and their supporters internationally. For Israel’s trolls on social 
media, PIC was simply too effective to be allowed to spread its message. 
As usual, Facebook obliged.

This oft-repeated scenario – where pro-Israeli social media trolls zoom 
in on a Palestinian media platform while working closely with Facebook 
management to censor content, bar individuals, or delete whole pages – 
is now the norm. Palestinian views on Facebook are simply unwanted, and 
the margin of what is allowed is rapidly shrinking.

Sue, a Facebook user, told me that she had been warned by the platform 
for alleged “hate speech/bullying” for claiming that “Israelis are 
militarized in their psychology”, and that the “perceived threat of and 
real hatred for the Palestinians (are) kept alive by the (Israeli) 

‘Sue’ is, of course, correct in her assessment, a claim that has been 
made numerous times even by the Israeli president himself. On October 
14, 2014, President Reuven Rivlin, said that “the time has come to admit 
that Israel is a sick society, with an illness that demands treatment.” 
Moreover, the fact that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has 
been stoking the fire of fear, hatred and racism to win a few votes in 
the Israeli elections has made headlines around the world.

It is unclear where exactly ‘Sue’ had gone wrong, and what portion of 
her comment constituted “hate speech” and “bullying”.

I asked others to share their experiences with Facebook as a result of 
their pro-Palestinian speech. The responses I received indicated the 
unmistakable pattern that Facebook is indeed targeting, not hate speech, 
but criticism of Israeli war, siege, racism and apartheid.

For example, ‘José’ was censored for writing, in Spanish, that “there is 
nothing more cowardly than attacking or killing a child.”

“Damned coward army, assassins of Palestinian children, this is not a 
war, this is a genocide,” he commented.

Meanwhile, ‘Derek’ has been suspended from using Facebook for 30 days, 
“many times” in the past on “various charges.” He told me that “all it 
takes is a certain number of reports by trolls who have secret groups on 
who to target.”

The same pattern was repeated with ‘Anissa’, ‘Debbie’, Erika’, ‘Layla’, 
‘Olivia’, ‘Rich’, ‘Eddy’ and countless others.

But who are these “trolls” and what are the roots of Facebook’s 
unrelenting targeting for Palestinians and their supporters?

*The Trolls*
According to a document obtained by the Electronic Intifada, the Israeli 
government has funded a “global influence campaign” with a massive 
budget with the sole aim of influencing foreign publics and combating 
the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).

Writing in EI, Asa Winstanley, reported on a “troll army of thousands” 
that is “partly funded by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs”.

“To conceal its involvement, the ministry has admitted to working 
through front groups that ‘do not want to expose their connection with 
the state,’” Winstanley wrote.

One such troll group estimated to include 15,000 active members, is Act.IL.

Writing in Jacobin Magazine website, Michael Bueckert describes the main 
function of Act.IL app users:

“With the mobile application and online platform Act.IL, Israel aims to 
recruit a mob of slacktivists and trolls to join their war against the 
most insidious forms of violence: pro-Palestinian tweets and Facebook 

Act.IL is only the tip of the iceberg of a massive, centralized effort 
led by the Israeli government and involving legions of supporters around 
the world. However, Israel would never have achieved its objectives were 
it not for the fact that Facebook has officially joined the Israeli 
government in its social media “war” on Palestinians.

In 2014, Sohaib Zahda was reportedly the first Palestinian to be 
arrested by the Israeli army for his social media post, in a new 
strategy of cracking down on what Israel sees as “incitement”. The 
arrest campaign since then has expanded to include hundreds of 
Palestinians – mostly young artists, poets, and student activists.

But Israel only started monitoring Facebook in earnest in 2015, 
according to the Intercept.

“The arrests of Palestinians for Facebook posts open(ed) a window into 
the practices of Israel’s surveillance state and reveal social media’s 
darker side,” Alex Kane wrote. “What was once seen as a weapon of the 
weak has turned into the perfect place to ferret out potential resistance.”

Israel quickly manufactured a legal basis for the arrests (155 cases 
were opened in 2015 alone), thus providing a legal cover that was used 
in its subsequent agreement with Facebook. The Israeli Penal Code of 
1977, art. 144 D.2 was repeatedly unleashed to counter a social media 
phenomenon that was established much more recently, all in the name of 
cracking down on “incitement to violence and terror”.

The Israeli strategy began with a massive hasbara (propaganda) campaign 
aimed at creating public and media pressure on Facebook. The Israeli 
government activated its then-nascent troll army to build a global 
narrative centered on the purported notion that Facebook has become a 
platform for violent ideas, which Palestinians are utilizing on the ground.

*The Facebook-Israel Team
*When, in September 2016, the Israeli government announced its 
willingness to work with Facebook to “tackle incitement”, the social 
media giant was ready to reach an understanding, even if that meant 
violating the very basic freedom of expression it has repeatedly vowed 
to respect.

During that period, the Israeli government and Facebook agreed to 
“determine how to tackle incitement on the social media network,” 
according to the Associated Press citing top Israeli officials.

The agreement was the outcome of two days of discussions involving the 
Israeli interior minister, Gilad Erdan, and justice minister, Ayelet 
Shaked, among others.

Erdan’s office said in a statement that, “they agreed with Facebook 
representatives to create teams that would figure out how best to 
monitor and remove inflammatory content.”

In essence, this meant that any content related to Palestine and Israel 
is now filtered, not only by Facebook’s own editors, but by Israeli 
officials as well.

For Palestinians, the outcome has been devastating as numerous pages, 
like that of PIC, have been deleted and countless users have been 
banned, temporarily or indefinitely.

Quite often, the process of targeting Palestinians and their supporters 
follows the same logic:

-Pro-Israel trolls fan out, monitoring and commenting on Palestinian posts.
-The trolls report allegedly offensive individuals and content to the 
Facebook/Israeli “team”.
-Facebook carries out recommendations regarding accounts that have been 
flagged for censorship.
-The accounts of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian pages and individuals 
are deleted or banned.
While PIC did not receive any warning before their popular account was 
axed, chances are the decision followed the same pattern as above.

When social media was first introduced, many saw in it an opportunity to 
present ideas and advocate causes that have been, for one reason or 
another, shunned by mainstream media.

Palestine suddenly found a new, welcoming media platform; one that is 
not influenced by wealthy owners and paid advertisers, but by ordinary 
individuals – millions of them.

Israel, however, may have found a way to circumvent the influence of 
Facebook on the discussions pertaining to Palestinian rights and the 
Israeli occupation.

When exposing apartheid, condemning child killers and discussing the 
fear-mentality pervading in Israel become “hate speech” and “bullying”, 
one should then ponder what has become of social media’s promise of 
freedom and popular democracy.

While Facebook has done much more to discredit itself in recent years, 
no other act is as sinister as censoring the voices of those who dare 
challenge state-sponsored violence, racism and apartheid, anywhere, with 
Palestine remaining the prime example thereof.

/(Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer and editor, contributed to this article)
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine 
Chronicle. He has authored a number of books on the Palestinian struggle 
including ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’. Baroud has a Ph.D. in 
Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident 
Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, 
University of California Santa Barbara./

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