Israeli journalists accuse Facebook of infringing on freedom of speech
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Israeli journalists accuse Facebook of infringing on freedom of speech

Media professionals says social media giant is targeting their industry, and must be more transparent in how it chooses which posts to block

Facebook's creator Mark Zuckerberg  on the opening day of the 2015 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, March 2, 2015 . (AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE/File)
Facebook's creator Mark Zuckerberg on the opening day of the 2015 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, March 2, 2015 . (AFP PHOTO/LLUIS GENE/File)

A group of Israeli journalists and media and advertising professionals is accusing Facebook of a “harsh infringement” on their freedom of speech, saying they cannot remain silent any longer as the social network giant “tramples over” their freedom of expression by blocking posts.

In a letter to Adi Soffer-Teeni, the Facebook Israel General Manager, a group of over 40 journalists and media, advertising and content professionals and social media activists — both religious and secular, from the left to the right of Israel’s political spectrum — called on Facebook to conduct itself in a “responsible manner” and be more transparent with its policies on blocking content.

They called on the social media company to publish a detailed guide to what words it will block from its site and to enforce that policy in a unified and transparent matter.

The media activists claim the social media giant started blocking their content about three months ago and that this censorship reached a peak in the past few days. Many of the users were blocked over content posted a year ago and even two to seven years ago, the letter said.

The authors said that they use the Facebook platform as their core activity for traffic and distribution of their content and they are no longer willing to accept “Facebook’s harsh infringement of our freedom of speech and that of our community.”

Public security minister Gilad Erdan (right), and Facebook's Joel Kaplan and Monika Bickert together with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at meeting on September 12, 2016 (Courtesy)
Public security minister Gilad Erdan (right), and Facebook’s Joel Kaplan and Monika Bickert together with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked at meeting on September 12, 2016 (Courtesy)

“Since Thursday we have noticed a wave of Facebook’s removal of posts,” said Dori Ben Israel, in a phone interview. Ben Israel is an advertising professional who runs a digital advertising website, and is one of the signatories in the letter. “We are noticing that they are not blocking the average surfer, but specifically targeting journalists, those with many followers and who are public opinion leaders.”

Posts including the Hebrew equivalent of “nigger” and the Hebrew word “koksinel,” a denigratory term for a transvestite, were removed, Ben Israel said, even if they had been posted many years ago. After the removal of the posts, some users had been blocked from the site for a week and at times also a month, he said.

“From what we understand, Facebook has been active recently particularly with Israeli posts. We follow what is going on in the world and we don’t see something similar happening abroad,” he said.

A Facebook spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said via email, “We want people to feel safe when using Facebook and there is no place for content encouraging hate speech on Facebook. Therefore we’ve developed a set of Community Standards which makes it clear we remove content that attacks and offends people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender or gender identity or serious disabilities or diseases. We also urge people to be conscious of their audience when sharing this type of content.”

Facebook came under fire from the Israeli government earlier this year for allowing incitement on its site, which it claims is fueling terror. The government has repeatedly said that Facebook should do more to monitor and control the content on its site, raising a host of legal and ethical issues over whether the company is responsible for material posted by its users.

The social media company has community standards which say that the company can remove hate speech, including content that directly attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or gender identity, serious disabilities and diseases. “Organizations and people dedicated to promoting hatred against these protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook. As with all of our standards, we rely on our community to report this content to us,” Facebook says in its community standards. “While we work hard to remove hate speech, we also give you tools to avoid distasteful or offensive content.”

“We believe there is some reform underway at Facebook to keep us silent,” said Ben Israel. These words that were banned are indeed not politically correct, he said, but Facebook has been erratic about whose posts it blocks, and its policies in Israel are not clear, he said. Facebook has also ignored all inquiries by journalists into the matter, he added.

Avishai Ivri, a journalist at Israel’s public broadcasting corporation, said in a phone interview that he was blocked from his Facebook page for a week. “One day, I just received a message saying that my post had been removed because it is against Facebook’s community standards,” he said. “I was blocked from the site for a week and only later did I realize that the offending words I had used were ‘stupid Palestinians.’ Two of my friends were blocked for a month, and this is not the first time this has happened.”

The main problem is that Facebook policies are not standardized, he said. Not all posts containing offensive content are taken down, the process appears to be erratic and Facebook needs to clarify its policies in Israel, he said. “Facebook plays a significant role in our freedom of speech, but it behaves like a monopolistic bully. They are doing a bad job. Their monitoring against incitement is not transparent, not equal and not wise.”

In the letter to Facebook, the authors said they expect “Facebook to conduct itself in a responsible, direct and transparent way concerning its policies and relationship with the community. We expect Facebook to immediately remove all blocks and to publish clear and detailed guidelines in every language spoken in Israel that will define the words and other content items that are forbidden from use and sharing on the platform.”

“Facebook is a significant (part) of our lives and our demand for appropriate conduct on the network’s behalf is legitimate. This is the only way us content creators will be able to continue creating content and maintaining our Facebook pages, without the constant fear of arbitrary, unexplained blocks,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We will no longer remain silent as Facebook censors us and tramples over our freedom of expression for no reason, while ignoring our attempts to communicate, declining to explain reasons for blocking accounts and not providing an opportunity for users to themselves remove flagged content that has been posted unknowingly.”

A copy of the letter was sent to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook officials.

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