Facebook suspends Netanyahu’s chatbot for hate speech against Arabs
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Facebook suspends Netanyahu’s chatbot for hate speech against Arabs

Social media giant says Likud violated its policies with claim Arab politicians want to ‘annihilate us all’; top Arab MK cheers penalty

Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh filming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a discussion on the cameras bill at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 11, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Facebook on Thursday announced it was suspending a chatbot operated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official page for violating hate speech policies, after a message spread by his campaign warned that Arab Israeli politicians “want to annihilate us all.”

A spokesperson for the social media giant said the bot was temporarily suspended for 24 hours and that action would also be taken against any possible future violations of the company’s policy.

“After careful review of the Likud campaign’s bot activities, we found a violation of our hate speech policy. We also found that the bot was misusing the platform in the time period allowed to contact people. As a result, we temporarily suspended the bot for 24 hours. Should there be any additional violations, we will continue to take appropriate action,” the spokesperson said.

The head of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, who had complained to Facebook about the bot, welcomed the move.

“Yesterday we went directly to Facebook and demanded that they stop giving a platform to Netanyahu’s dangerous incitement and today we are seeing the results. We won against the camera project and we won the incitement too. There is an effect,” he said.

Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ayman Odeh speaks at a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The suspension came after Netanyahu’s Likud online campaign materials appealed to voters to thwart the formation of a left-wing government that, it said, would partner with Arab Israeli lawmakers. Responding to criticism of the campaign, which urged Likud volunteers to adopt the campaign script  to sway voters, the right-wing party on Wednesday disavowed the content as a “mistake by a campaign worker” and said it had not been approved by the prime minister.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu did not see these things, did not approve them, does not agree with them, and opposes them,” a Likud statement said. “When the content was brought to his attention, he asked that it be taken down immediately.”

Netanyahu, in a radio interview on Thursday, again maintained it was a mistake by a campaign employee, stressing: “I have friends in Arab countries and have respect for all people.”

In response to the Facebook chatbot, Odeh on Wednesday called the prime minister a “psychopath” and complained to Facebook.

“Netanyahu is a psychopath with no red lines,” fumed Odeh. “He wants blood. This disgraceful criminal will continue his bloodletting of us as long as he believes it will help him avoid prison.”

Netanyahu’s warning that his defeat in next week’s polls would result in the formation of a left-wing coalition with Arab support has been a centerpiece of his campaign, along with a bid to allow party operatives to bring cameras into polling stations.

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

Netanyahu’s cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved legislation to allow cameras into polling stations, with the prime minister insisting the bill was only intended to prevent voter fraud, which Likud claims is rampant in some Arab-majority areas.

Though the bill was subsequently held up in committee and can no longer be passed before the elections, the ruling party brought it to a first vote Wednesday in the Knesset, where it failed to pick up the support of a majority of lawmakers.

Likud warned that opponents of the bill want to “steal” the national vote.

During the April 9 elections, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims was widespread fraud that has occurred in the community.

Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

On election day in 2015, Netanyahu famously warned that Arabs were voting “in droves” in a bid to get out right-wing voters, comments for which he was pilloried and later apologized.

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