After a bus accident killed several Arab children last week outside Jerusalem, racist comments appeared on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook profile, some delighting in the fact that “only Palestinians” were harmed.
Local Hebrew media highlighted the phenomenon. Haaretz pointed out that while the prime minister said he regretted the accident, his aides didn’t remove or denounce the bigoted comments.
The racists comments were actually responses to the prime minister’s message of condolences, and were removed a short while after they were posted.
But it was already too late. Dozens of smaller and larger websites had picked up on the news that there was racist stuff on Netanyahu’s Facebook profile and spread the word, some of them hinting that the prime minister’s staff didn’t seem to care about racism. Even Israel’s neighbors listened: As reported by The Times of Israel, a leading Jordanian daily ran a headline reading, “Netanyahu: I wish death to all the Arabs,” apparently quoting the Haaretz piece.
The racist comments have since been removed from Netanyahu’s wall. But why were they there to begin with, for the whole world to see?
According to Dr. Eitan Eliram, the director of New Media at the Prime Minister’s Office’s Communications Department, Facebook doesn’t allow comments that incite racial hatred. Since such comments also violate the law, Eliram and his team will remove them — but not always immediately. As soon as staff members sight an illegal comment on Netanyahu’s wall, they will try to ascertain whether it was posted by an authentic person or a fake profile. If a real person is behind a comment and it is possible that he or she is ignorant of its illegal nature, the team will ask the author to remove it. “We have zero tolerance for incitement and racism,” Eliram asserted.
But everything else is fair game.
“We will allow extremism in our pages because we are not into censorship,” Eliram told The Times of Israel. “The entire reason we delved into the world of social networks is because we want to be interactive, we want different opinions to be heard. Censorship is not our role.”
Eliram is responsible only for the official Facebook page and Twitter account of the Prime Minister’s Office, though Netanyahu also has a personal account run by his Likud party. When Eliram created the Facebook and Twitter profiles, he visited Macon Phillips, the social media mastermind who helped heave Barack Obama into the White House and currently heads its new-media department.
“He convinced me to be as liberal as possible,” Eliram recalled. Phillips’ advice: Don’t delete comments if you don’t have to. It’s better to have other surfers — members of a politician’s online following — respond to distasteful content than to have his or her aides do it, Eliram learned. Indeed, while the nasty comments on Netanyahu’s wall were still visible, more tolerant surfers forcefully rejected and condemned the racist comments.
“If someone who ‘likes’ our pages tells us he was offended by a comment he saw on the page, I immediately delete it,” Eliram added. “We’re learning together with the community, with the people who like our page, how to effectively monitor extremism.”
Netanyahu actually has three Facebook profiles, in English, Hebrew and Arabic. “On the Arab pages, we have a lot of cursing and anti-Semitism, we see swastikas and people saying that it’s a shame Hitler didn’t finish the job, so we have to monitor this a lot,” Eliram said.
While fewer than 40 Facebook users have been permanently banned from the prime minister’s English and Hebrew profiles, the number of people who can no longer post on the Arabic site is “in the hundreds.” But getting Netanyahu’s message across to the Arab world — parts of which are genuinely interested — is worth suffering the verbal abuse, Eliram concluded.
“Whether to delete or not delete user-generated content, that is a question that everyone who has an online presence has to ask himself everyday,” said Saar Siklai, a lawyer specializing on social networks. While deleting comments is considered bad Web behavior, users are responsible for the potentially illegal content published on their sites, such as libel or incitement, and should therefore be very prudent as just how much free speech to allow.
“The same is even more true for official online presences of government authorizes and the sites of elected officials,” Siklai said. “They cannot choose the option to allow people complete and unlimited freedom of expression. Government authorities and elected official have to live up to higher ethical standards, and therefore they also need to be more cautious how they conduct themselves online.”