Justice minister: Twitter must be reined in, Facebook gets it

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked blasts Twitter’s refusal to cooperate against the platform’s use for incitement; says Facebook is on the right track.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

Addressing the Global Forum for Fighting Anti-Semitism on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked launched into a blistering account of the current dangers of online incitement on social media and argued for government action.

The cyber department at the State Attorney’s Office has recently analyzed the connection between incitement and terrorism during 2017, she said. “There is a close connection between the two. It is clear that the perpetrators of terror attacks in Israel are directly impacted by the consumption of incitement. We documented that after large-scale terrorist attacks, the social media are flooded with incitement, hate, anti-Semitic and terror-supporting content.”

The Justice minister explained that two pieces of legislation are in the works to counter online incitement. In 2017, Israel approved a bill that blocks access to websites that promote terrorist activity. The police cyber unit actively does just that. During 2017, the cyber unit of the State Attorney’s Office submitted 12,300 requests to remove content or restrict access for forbidden content. That same year, 73 percent of this content was related to terrorist activity or was in support of terrorism. The rest of the banned content related to racism, minors, violation of privacy and bullying. This was a dramatic increase over 2016, when only 2,200 requests were submitted.

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Shaked said that a new draft law is being written that allows for a court order to remove content constituting a personal or public security offense. These two processes are designed to give law enforcement agencies the proper tools to demand the removal of illegal online content and restrict access to it.

Terrorists shift from Facebook to Twitter

“The success rate for removal is high and we get good cooperation from Facebook, but we get no cooperation from Twitter at all. Since Twitter is not reacting and not cooperating with us, there has been a shift by terror organizations that used to post on Facebook but now moved to Twitter,” Shaked said. She then issued a warning: “We are preparing to take legal action against Twitter.”

Shaked noted that Israel has also launched accelerated activity pertaining to online activity against minors, bullying and humiliation against a sexual background.

Facebook’s Regional Director of Policy Delphine Reyre told a skeptical Global Forum audience on Tuesday that the social network is onboard to “find ways to fight together against online hate speech.” Reyre claimed that Facebook “always has taken a strong stand against hate speech, racism, incitement to violence or extremism. This is very much our DNA since our service was first made available to a large public.”

Reyre confirmed that things have changed over the past 18 months and that Facebook is “invested to make sure that we are better enforcing our policies. We are closing the gaps we may have in our policies and are working with NGOs and also with governments. We are in a listening mode and continuing to refine and improve our policies in this goal.”

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Reyre also claimed that “the investment has paid off and we have gotten better at detecting and taking down reported hate speech.”

Not everyone convinced Facebook meets obligations

The Facebook executive concluded by telling the Jerusalem gathering, “We recognize the immense challenges that we all face as societies, the rise toward polarization, terrorism, violence and hate speech that has spread in our societies. We want to do more and more with those gathered today.  Here in Israel we are fully cooperating with the cybercrime unit.”

Dr. Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute weighed in at the Global Forum, saying she is not convinced that Facebook is even close to meeting its obligations on the issue of online hate and incitement. “We have some kind of informal relationship with Facebook, and the most important thing is to realize that we, as a civil society, are entitled to set community standards…and have our own opinion on how exactly they are being enforced,” she said. “Once we have enough data to make policy recommendations, then we can start our public relations journey to convince both government and the tech companies that this is an important issue that needs to be seriously addressed.”

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‘A degree of power’ unlike anything before

“Nowadays the distribution of the world’s attention is controlled by just a few digital platforms. These companies, which claim to be the pinnacle of free speech, have attained a degree of power unlike anything the world has seen. For Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all speech – whether it’s a breaking news story, fake news, an  animal video, an anti-Semitic meme or a clever advertisement – is nothing but content. But as Jonathan Swift wrote in Gulliver’s Travels, ‘Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it.’ This is an apt description of social media today. Falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter. Fake news and false rumors reach more people and penetrate deeper and faster into social network than do accurate news stories,” Altshuler said.