This Intifada is in Your Social Media Feed

  • October 20, 2015

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared on The Times of Israel Blog

The knife, brandished in the air and dripping with blood, is the icon of the current wave of Palestinian violence against Israelis. This visual is the new symbol celebrating the seemingly non-stop proliferation of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis – many of them stabbings – and incites more hate, more terror, more violence to an audience primed to act on it.

“The Social Media Intifada” is the title being used for the current spate of terror attacks, featured on Facebook and other social media platforms, where Palestinian attackers are celebrated as martyrs, heroes and even as victims of Israeli brutality. On Twitter, potential terrorists are exhorted to stab and kill Jews. Videos of Muslim preachers calling for attacks on Jews (one while holding a knife),even instructional videos on how to stab effectively, go viral. Proliferating on social media are cartoons of attacks on Israelis and allegations of a Jewish/Israeli conspiracy to take over the Al Aqsa mosque.

Palestinian incitement to violence isn’t new, but the medium and the method is. During previous periods of Palestinian violence – such as the Second Intifada – we saw calls for violence and widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Public squares, parks and schools were named in honor of those who perpetrated terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. Popular songs celebrated the attackers. But behind most of the prior violent chapters of the conflict, it was the Palestinian leadership – the PLO, Hamas, Fatah, the Palestinian Authority, and others – who were promoting and enabling the hate-filled messages and the violent action. Last Autumn, while social media emerged as a means of celebrating and encouraging violence against Israelis, its impact was limited.

To be sure, in this current period, PA President Abbas and other leadership are poisoning the atmosphere with incendiary rhetoric. His fantastical allegation last week that Israel had “executed” a Palestinian boy – who was in reality being treated in an Israeli hospital after stabbing a 13-year-old riding his bicycle near his Jerusalem home – is only the most recent example.

However, at present, Israeli security experts say social media – not Palestinian leaders – is the primary force driving the violence. The incitement, the misinformation, and the hate that inspire the stabbings, shootings, rock throwing and car ramming attacks are spreading via smart phone — and constantly. Terrorists who were killed mid-attack are upheld as heroes and martyrs, their deadly actions ignored.

And, yes, there are also Israelis who are posting hate-filled incendiary messages, including calls for “death to Arabs” and a “second Nakba.” While there have been only a handful of violent attacks by Israelis against Arabs in recent weeks, the risk of more Israeli violence increases as this crisis goes on.

Social media can mobilize for good and for evil. Democratic forces in the Jasmine Revolution and Tahrir Square used Twitter and Facebook to organize against authoritarian rule in the Arab Spring. Viral videos of people dumping ice water on their heads raised millions to find a cure for ALS. Social media has raised public awareness of a plethora of social justice issues – from #BringBackOurGirls to #BlackLivesMatter. But social media has also enabled ISIS and other extremist terrorist groups and their supporters to recruit youth from around the world to join their violent cause. And on this side of the ledger, we can add the current wave of violence.

ADL promotes two approaches to address this problem: removing incendiary speech and challenging hate speech with good speech. For years, we have been working with social media companies to improve policies and protocols for the removal of content that incites violence or bigotry, content that is contrary to the companies’ terms of service. But we also promote counter-speech, where activists and all concerned people use social media to condemn violence, to urge moderation, and even to try to dissuade potential terrorists before they move to action.

The reality is, what happens online reflects what’s going on in society. In order for counter-speech to be an effective tool addressing the “social media Intifada,” those with influence, whether in the online world or in world capitols, need to condemn Palestinian incitement and terrorism clearly and unequivocally. Internet users who come across calls for violence online, should report it immediately to the internet provider (see our guide to learn how). In many cases, such content violates their terms of service and the page will be removed.

The social media companies we work with are making good faith efforts to enforce their policies, but the content that appears online cannot be divorced from real-world hate. It is still too early to know how this current chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will develop. Let’s hope responsible voices and action prevail.

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