Cyber-defamation of fatal Palestinian crash should be delegitimized

A tragic accident causing the death of ten Palestinian children brought out the hateful side of Israeli Internet readers. This should be a wake-up call; the answer is not to conceal such speech from the public domain, rather to delegitimize it.

By Ido Liven

Rarely does my Facebook news feed keep me occupied for more than it takes to skim through it. But last week, a screenshot of a thread of comments under a headline from the popular news site Walla about the Palestinian school bus accident showed a list of loathsome comments. And it didn’t take long until that screenshot went viral.

I was bewildered. Expressing blatantly racist views (including blessings that the children were dead), using their real names runs counter to common wisdom about online hate speech. The belief that hate-comments are posted under false names is so common that legislators in a number of countries – including in Israel – have proposed bills demanding online comment-writers disclose their identities, precisely in order to prevent the abuse of anonymity in proliferating hate speech, defamation and the like.

What surprised me further were the comments on the coverage of the incident presented on Ynet, Israel’s most popular news site. When I read the item, there were over 60 comments – all anonymous – and the vast majority were sympathetic with the victims. Several even called to avoid racism.

The difference [in tone] might stem from the talkbacks on Ynet’s article being subject to moderation. Even without a law in place, Ynet maintains a policy of regulating talkbacks. And in fact, the controversial comments on the thread on Walla’s Faebook page were later removed. At the same time, another hate-filled string of comments happened to evolve the same day following the same event, this time on none other than the official Facebook page of the Prime Minister’s Office – in other words, using their names. In response to discontent expressed by some users regarding those comments, and despite Facebook’s own policy, the Office’s new media director Dr Eitan Eliram responded that the Office disapproves of extremist comments, but they also do not censor Facebook discussions.

But regulation aside, the attention this case received does not mean it is an exception. Explicit xenophobic expressions are increasingly common, and these online discussions offer a glimpse at contemporary public discourse in Israel. Anonymity is apparently a non-issue.

Many might say that talkbacks are not representative of the general – and obviously more complex – public opinion in the country. But hate-speech, racism, defamation and other supposedly socially unacceptable expressions are in practice tolerated in Israel, and talkbacks are already infamous as fertile grounds for this kind of speech.

Like some of the commenters on the counter-debate that evolved under the screenshot of the link to Walla’s article, I’m still perplexed realizing that some people see no problem with openly expressing opinions they know are not only out of the consensus, but some of them may also be illegal under laws, like amendment Nno. 20 to the Penal Code and a number of court rulings). Yet they do this using their full real name and even on the official Facebook page of the Prime Minister Office.

The pattern is not confined to this case. Xenophobic speech is strikingly evident in debates on countless current topics – from the role of the ultra-orthodox community in the greater society to the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Many arguments can be used to dismiss what might seem like an insignificant incident. One might say, that this is merely a harmless Facebook thread. Others would assert that it’s nothing but an extremist minority on the margins of society. Yet, extremist minorities are detrimental to the society as a whole, and failing to acknowledge the significance and implications of these seemingly small, random outbursts of hate means they are effectively legitimized. Moreover, these threads demonstrate that racism is no longer a phenomenon endemic only to the margins of the Israeli society, but rather on the verge of, if not already at, the mainstream public discourse.

This case surely calls for revisiting proposed legislation on online anonymity. Websites’ self-regulation, voluntary or legal, are not enough to tackle this trend. Had it been merely a PR issue for Israel abroad, as some had often suggested in the past, removing the controversial comments would not be a problem. Moreover, censoring some comments is not really a sanction – if anything, such a move (possibly motivated more by websites’ liability concerns) is more likely to provoke these commenters rather than discourage them.

If we are to accept John Stuart Mill’s approach to discovering the truth (as pronounced in his On Liberty), a diverse discourse, where different perspectives are expressed, is necessarily a better one. In this context, the internet has often been hailed for being an inclusive media platform with a democratizing effect.

It’s true that an inclusive public discourse that seeks to include also those who are intolerant toward any views different to their own is an oxymoron. But, although frustrating, I cannot see an alternative.

Facing these increasingly prevalent assertions, Israeli society should find a way not to conceal them from the public domain – we really couldn’t ask for a louder wake-up call – but rather to delegitimize them. More importantly, Israeli society must tackle the roots and the mindset leading to racism and xenophobia.

Ido Liven is an independent journalist covering mainly environmental issues and foreign affairs for Israeli and international publications. He is currently based in Amsterdam.