Micah Avni marked four weeks since the burial of his father killed in a Jerusalem terror attack by visiting the Knesset Wednesday, where he urged lawmakers to do more to quash social media incitement in hopes of heading off another tragedy like the one that left his father dead.
Richard Lakin, a US-born teacher and peace activist living in Jerusalem, was shot and seriously wounded on October 13. Even before his father succumbed to his injuries two weeks later, Avni had begun campaigning against social media incitement, with Lakin named as lead plaintiff in a 20,000-complainant-strong lawsuit against Facebook.
The hearing on online incitement in the Knesset’s Science and Technology Committee was requested by MKs Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and Dov Khenin (Joint List).
Avni told The Times of Israel that he had reached out to Knesset members asking them to consider passing laws that would force social media sites to take down material that calls for the killing of Jews and Israelis, or incites to violence in any way. If regulations prohibiting the posting of incitement were put into place, then companies—not only local, but also foreign-based—that did not comply with them would be banned from operation in Israel.
Following the hearing, committee chairman Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism) released a statement saying he was establishing a Knesset subcommittee to deal with the subject of incitement on the Internet. Shai, along with fellow Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, are working with Avni a bill to prohibit incitement of violence on social media.
Avni, 46, argued before the committee that social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, virtually inhabited by millions of people every day, should be thought of as countries or continents. It would follow, he said, that it is necessary to regulate social media in the same way that nations regulate other areas such as finance, transportation, communication, broadcast, healthcare, and food.
“In Israel, like all Western countries, we spend billions of dollars a year on self-regulation and policing to prevent violence and terror, and to protect our citizens,” Avni noted.
“With hundreds of thousands of jihadists calling [on social media] to murder innocent people randomly in the streets, and providing detailed instructions how to butcher people with knives, this makes no sense,” he said about the lack of will and resources put into policing social media sites.
Avni argued that removing these kinds of posts and videos does not violate free speech or freedom of association.
“To [those who would defend the posts as free speech] I answer, Israel is a great democracy. Unlike our neighbors, free speech is a core value held high above all others. However, it is a well-established principle that one cannot run into a crowded movie theater and yell ‘fire.’ One certainly cannot run into a crowded movie theater, distribute AK-47s and yell ‘fire,'” he said.
Avni opened his speech on a personal note. He told the committee that as he watched his father fight for his life for two weeks in the trauma intensive care unit at Hadassah Medical Center, he came to the conclusion that incitement to violence against Jews on social media was in large part to blame for what had happened.
‘My father’s brutal murder…[is] part of a radical Islamic insurgency which has been facilitated and accelerated by the use of social media’
“On October 13, 2015, two terrorists boarded public bus number 78 in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem and started randomly shooting and stabbing people. My father, Richard Lakin, was shot in the head, and after he fell to the ground, he was stabbed multiple times in the head, face and stomach. Most of his vital organs were punctured,” Avni told the committee.
“My father’s brutal murder…, the recent terror attacks in Paris, and the thousands who have been murdered in terror attacks around the world… are all part of a radical Islamic insurgency which has been facilitated and accelerated by the use of social media,” he continued.
Avni’s campaign to shut down what he believes is the source of the current wave of Palestinian terror against Israelis has quickly reached far beyond Israel’s borders. Foreign news outlets have picked up on the story, with the New York Times publishing an op-ed by Avni on November 3 and the PBS Newshour running a segment on the lawsuit this week as two high-profile examples. Avni told The Times of Israel that the US Department of Justice contacted him after his op-ed ran.
Avni has also taken his fight to the United States, home of the major social media companies. He filed a class-action lawsuit in a New York court against Facebook in an effort to get the social media giant to remove all posts containing incitement to murder Jews, as well as to change its algorithms so as to prevent inciters from connecting with potential terrorists who could be swayed to murderous action by watching videos glorifying terrorists and terror attacks or demonstrating methods for effectively killing Jews, or anyone for that matter.
As important as the lawsuit and legislative action are to Avni’s strategy for combating online incitement, he also believes that that his goals can be achieved in other ways.
“I think publicity around the issue is increasing significantly. Raising awareness and some well-placed calls to Facebook from advertisers would also be effective,” Avni said.
In the meantime, Avni said that Facebook has requested and been granted an extension until January to respond to claims brought in the lawsuit. Facebook has reportedly also refused to engage in any discussion with him or legislators in Israel about the issue.
‘When you look at the world, you see that many people are apathetic and don’t get involved with big picture issues. My father’s murder by terrorists was the trigger for me to become active’
A letter sent online by Avni to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also gone unanswered. In it, the bereaved son appealed to what he believes is Zuckerberg’s responsibility as a person with global influence.
“As a world leader, you bear the moral responsibility to lead the fight against hatred and violence everywhere, including with respect to radical Jihadist Islam, which will undoubtedly claim countless more innocent lives over the coming years,” Avni wrote.
Avni essentially told Zuckerberg that Facebook can no longer hide behind what it vaguely terms its “community standards” in determining what it does and does not allow on it site.
“There’s no transparency about Facebook’s review process for posts. We don’t know how many people are doing this work, how many of them are fluent Arabic speakers, or how any of this review is done,” Avni noted.
He believes it is time for social media sites to be proactive rather than merely reactive in relation to violence. If Facebook and other social media companies can police themselves when it comes to material related to child pornography, then it should also be able to do the same with videos like the ones that reenact Lakin’s murder.
Avni is not surprised by the extent of the media coverage of his father’s murder, nor by the outpouring of grief and sympathy from all over Israel, the US and beyond.
“It’s a powerful story of evil happening randomly to a good person. People are very touched by something like this,” Avni said.
He just hopes that memories will not be short and that momentum and support for achieving the change he seeks will not fall off as time passes.
Although the Lakin family was visited during the shiva mourning period by politicians from across the Israeli political spectrum, Avni, his mother Karen Lakin and sister Manya Lakin deliberately chose not to have any politicians speak or act in an official capacity at Richard’s funeral.
“Our family doesn’t view the issues as political. They are issues of right and wrong and morality,” Avni said. Accordingly, he hopes to gain support for his campaign against incitement to violence on social media from all quarters.
‘I don’t want my kids to have to go through what I am going through in 15 or 20 years from now’
An American who immigrated to Israel as a young teenager 31 years ago, Avni has come to feel very Israeli. Unfortunately, he has joined the ranks of the tens of thousands of his fellow citizens who have lost a loved one to war or terrorism.
“It’s increased my tie to Israel. It’s a strong, powerful bond. It’s given me strength to help Israel and the Jewish people,” Avni said.
When asked if going public with the lawsuit against Facebook and the campaign against incitement to violence on social media has been a way for him to cope with his personal grief, Avni was circumspect.
“When you look at the world, you see that many people are apathetic and don’t get involved with big picture issues. My father’s murder by terrorists was the trigger for me to become active,” he answered, choosing not to speak about the emotional pain of losing his father.
As Avni sees it, he can’t change the past. But he can try to influence the future.
“I don’t want my kids to have to go through what I am going through in 15 or 20 years from now.”