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Redefining anti-Semitism on Facebook

  • Written by Neve Gordon


"The objective is to force Facebook to alter its hate speech definition so that its own “detection algorithm” will characterize any criticism of Israel as hate speech and automatically remove the pertinent content from the platform". Neve Gordon.

Given that Facebook has 2.7 billion users and is the world’s largest and arguably most influential media platform, it comes as no surprise that right-wing Zionist organizations have identified it as a site to promote their agenda.

Several years ago, for example, the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs alongside students and professors from IDC, an Israeli university in Herzliya, helped create Act.IL, an “online community that will act to promote a positive influence on the international public opinion towards the state of Israel via social media platforms.”

ACT.IL established an army of trolls and then developed an app whose role is to render the trolls’ work more effective. The idea behind the app, Act.IL’s founder Yarden Ben-Yosef explained, was simple:

“Companies, such as Facebook, remove content following reports from the community. If there is only one person reporting it, he usually gets told by Facebook the content doesn't meet the criteria for removal. If 300 report it—the content is removed immediately. As soon as content inciting against Israel is posted online, we send a message through the app and all of its subscribers immediately report it.”

While the establishment of a trolling army to stifle criticism of Israel might already seem pernicious, a slew of right-wing Zionist organizations have recently come up with an even more pernicious strategy, and, if successful, all content critical of Israel will be removed from Facebook and other social media platforms without the intervention of a single troll.

Algorithms instead of Trolls

The Zionist organizations understood that no army of trolls, even when such an army receives aid from the Israeli military and Shin Bet, can monitor the massive amount of content on Facebook. They therefore decided to alter their strategy and shift the burden of surveillance to the social media giants themselves.

Adopting the by now well-known approach of weaponizing anti-Semitism, they began pressuring Facebook to introduce a specific definition of anti-Semitism to its own data mining tools, so that instead of trolls labelling criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, algorithms would.

The objective, in other words, is to force Facebook to alter its hate speech definition so that its own “detection algorithm” will characterize any criticism of Israel as hate speech and automatically remove the pertinent content from the platform.

The Campaign

Working closely together with the Israeli government, this past summer the pro-Israel lobbying group StopAntisemitism.org launched a new campaign funded by right wing philanthropist Adam Milstein. 

In July, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs published an op-ed in Newsweek urging social media companies to root out the anti-Semitic “virus” by fully adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. A few weeks later, on August 7, 120 organizations representing the “who’s who” of Zionist right-wing groups (the number has since risen to 145) sent a letter to Facebook’s Board of Directors, calling upon them to fully adopt the IHRA definition as the “cornerstone of Facebook’s hate speech policy regarding antisemitism.”

This definition, which has been endorsed or adopted in some official capacity by over thirty countries, includes eleven examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which involve criticism of Israel. This is just the latest concrete manifestation of the how any critique of the Israeli government and its politics now assumes the taint of anti-Semitism.

There is, to be sure, an irony here. Historically, the fight against anti-Semitism has sought to advance the equal rights and emancipation of Jews; yet, in the IHRA definition those who speak out against the subjugation of Palestinians are called anti-Semites. In the first case, someone who wishes to oppress, dominate and exterminate Jews is branded an anti-Semite, while in the second, someone who wishes to take part in the struggle for liberation from colonial rule is branded an anti-Semite. In this way, Judith Butler has observed, ‘a passion for justice’ is ‘renamed as anti-Semitism’.

Yet the people behind this campaign are neither interested in irony nor in justice, and certainly not in justice for Palestinians. As Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace who wrote an expose on the Facebook campaign for Jewish Currents, has pointed out, their letter to the Board of Directors “represents the latest front in the battle to use the IHRA definition to officially exclude criticism of Israel from the bounds of acceptable discourse.”

Facebook Responds

The campaign seems to have had an immense impact. Four days after receiving the letter from the Zionist organizations, Guy Rosen, Facebook Vice President for Integrity, announced that the organization had updated its hate speech policy to take into account certain kinds of implicit hate speech, such as “stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world.”

Facebook’s vice president of content policy sent a letter to the signatories, noting that the company “draws on the spirit—and the text—of the IHRA,” and that under Facebook’s policy, “Jews and Israelis are treated as ‘protected characteristics.’”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, even  wrote a personal note to Milstein who financed the campaign. She assured him that the IHRA definition has been “invaluable—both in informing our own approach, and as a point of entry for candid policy discussions with organizations like yours.”

Yet, as Friedman from the Foundation for Middle East Peace explains, the company still seems to be reluctant to adopt the parts of the definition that relate to Israel, and it is not coincidental that in Facebook’s responses they mention only hate speech towards Jews.

Friedman cites senior Facebook official Peter Stern who three months before the campaign was launched asserted that “We don’t allow people to make certain types of hateful statements against individuals. If the focus turns to a country, an institution, a philosophy, then we allow people to express themselves more freely, because we think that’s an important part of political dialogue . . . and that there’s an important legitimate component to that. So we allow people to criticize the state of Israel, as well as the United States and other countries.”

The Battle Continues

Not surprising, Facebook’s new hate speech policy hasn’t satisfied the pro-Israel lobby, and in the August 7th letter part of the ire was directed towards Stern, claiming that he had “admitted that Facebook does not embrace the full adoption of the IHRA working definition because the definition recognizes that modern manifestations of antisemitism relate to Israel.”

In a tweet responding to Sandberg’s letter, Milstein made it clear that the campaign will continue: “We look forward to working with @Facebook to ensure #antisemitism is eradicated from the platform and the #IHRA working definition of antisemitism is fully adopted by your organization.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, a group of scholars (myself included) specializing in antisemitism, Jewish and Holocaust history, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wrote Facebook about the dangers of adopting the IHRA definition.

While urging Mark Zuckerberg to: “Fight all forms of hate speech on Facebook,” we called upon him to refrain from “adopting and applying a politicized definition of antisemitism, which has been weaponized to undermine free speech, in order to shield the Israeli government and to silence Palestinian voices and their supporters.”

If Facebook does eventually bow down and include the full IHRA definition in its algorithms, free speech on Israel/Palestine, which is already under immense pressure, will receive a lethal blow. It is up to Facebook users to voice their concern by notifying Zuckerberg and Sandberg that they will abandon the platform the moment the media giant decides to adopt the IHRA definition. Ultimately, we, the users, do hold the power.

A slightly different version of this piece was first published on Al Jazeera

Neve Gordon is a professor of international law at Queen Mary University of London. His most recent book is Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire. He can be followed @nevegordon
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