Cyber unit reports 800% increase in online terror incitement amid recent attacks

5,815 complaints of online incitement or support for terror filed, with most of the cases on Facebook; Twitter only removes 30% of reported posts

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: The US online social media and social networking service Facebook's logo on a tablet screen in Moscow, on October 18, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)
Illustrative: The US online social media and social networking service Facebook's logo on a tablet screen in Moscow, on October 18, 2021. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

In the weeks since the March 22 terror attack that claimed the lives of four Israelis in Beersheba, the cyber unit in the State Attorney’s Office has received 5,815 requests by security officials to remove posts from social media that incite or appear to support terrorism.

The attack in the southern city was followed by several deadly attacks in other major cities across the country, as well as violent incidents in the West Bank, in a wave of terror the likes of which Israel has not seen in years.

The cyber unit said in a statement Wednesday that following that first attack, it launched a joint effort with the security establishment to identify and remove publications on social media platforms that incite violence and terror or praise terror activities.

According to the statement, the number of such publications grew exponentially in the past three weeks, hitting 800% of the usual volume of complaints.

Defense officials quoted in the statement said online incitement plays a major role in “promoting local terror activities or copycat attacks.”

Identifying about 3,900 complaints out of the 5,815 received that violate the terms of use of the platform they were posted to, the unit has taken action to contact the relevant social platforms and oversee the content’s removal.

The four victims of the terror attack in Beersheba on March 22, 2022: Laura Yitzhak, top left; Rabbi Moshe Kravitzky, top right; Doris Yahbas, bottom left; Menahem Yehezkel, bottom right. (Social media, courtesy)

The unit has also held discussions with major platforms, including Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Telegram in order to ensure a quick response to urgent cases.

As of Wednesday, the statement said, some 2,950 inciting posts had been removed and 491 awaited further examination by the large platforms.

The cyber unit said that the large majority of complaints (about 3,330) over inciting posts were made on Facebook, with 87 percent of them already removed. Some 770 complaints were about posts on TikTok, with 84% of them being removed.

On Twitter, removing inciting posts proved more difficult, with only 30% of the 980 complaints received removed so far.

An unusual issue the unit was forced to deal with was having to shut down the Instagram profile page of one of the victims of the recent terror attacks after it  turned into a platform for incitement, with some users praising the attack in which he was killed.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a Q & A session on TikTok on September 1, 2021. (Koby Gideon/GPO)

“Our activity throughout the last three weeks represents an 800% increase in instances of incitement and support of terror on social media platforms, compared to regular times,” said Haim Wismonsky, director of the cyber unit.

“Our assumption, based on previous tragic experiences, is that content that supports terrorism with a widespread distribution online can lead to follow-up attacks by those who consume such content,” he said.

“Thus, our expectation is that once such content is identified and reported to the relevant online platform, it will take swift action, and by doing so refrain from contributing, even in a passive manner, to the continued circulation of banned content,” Wismonsky added.

The recent terror attacks have had other related effects.

Data released by the Public Security Ministry two weeks ago indicated a sharp spike in applications for gun licenses among Israelis.

The data also showed a large jump in the number of people calling the ministry to inquire about how to obtain a license.

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