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President Herzog partners with Facebook for new campaign against cyberbullying

Prime Minister Bennett, ministers, MKs and celebrities join call to ‘transform online discourse’ on social media

President Isaac Herzog (center) in a new campaign to raise awareness about cyberbullying and hurtful online discourse, alongside singer Anna Zak (left) and judoka Peter Paltchik. (Courtesy)
President Isaac Herzog (center) in a new campaign to raise awareness about cyberbullying and hurtful online discourse, alongside singer Anna Zak (left) and judoka Peter Paltchik. (Courtesy)

President Isaac Herzog launched a new awareness campaign on Tuesday, in collaboration with Meta (Facebook), to combat cyberbullying and “change online discourse” in Israel.

A number of Israeli ministers and politicians will be taking part in the initiative, dubbed “Think Good” (a play on words from the Hebrew original which also means “think carefully”), where they will share short video clips of themselves reading out hurtful or insulting comments directed at them with the offensive words censored and replaced with positive language.

To anyone familiar with the format “Mean Tweets,” made popular by late-night US TV host Jimmy Kimmel, this campaign appears to be similar but without the implied humor. For “Mean Tweets,” celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and others are filmed reading out hurtful tweets and their reactions to them — these can vary between laughter, embarrassment, a sharp retort, or just silence.

The Israeli campaign aims to address the way discourse on social media can “become so violent, so extreme and unrestrained,” Herzog wrote in an op-ed published by The Times of Israel Tuesday. “How did social media become a place where nothing seems to be off-limits, where people feel free to badmouth others, humiliate them, denigrate them, and treat rivals or simply people with different opinions as enemies?” asked Herzog.

The president wrote that although social media networks “have brought a lot of good to the world,” the boundaries of online discourse “are too blurred” and “these wonderful platforms are also used for harassment, bullying, and violence.”

The initiative is backed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Likud MKs Miri Regev and Miki Zohar, both known for their sharp tongues on TV spots. A number of celebrities and content creators will also take part in the campaign, including singer and online personality Anna Zak, judo star Peter Paltchik, and Arab Israeli journalist Mohammad Magadli, a regular commentator on Israel’s most popular newscast on Channel 12.

The vertical format of the screenshots made available to the media indicates that the videos with the participating figures will run on Instagram Stories (Instagram is owned by Meta/Facebook) and possibly Facebook Stories.

The purpose of the initiative, Herzog’s office said, was to “expose to millions of followers the difficulty of reading nasty replies, to encourage people to think twice before using hurtful language, and to think positive thoughts before hitting ‘reply.'”

The campaign will seek to raise public awareness about the consequences of online bullying and “encourage a more conciliatory and inclusive discourse on social media instead of hurtful rhetoric,” Herzog’s office said.

“People have become too ‘keyboard-happy,’ and red lines are constantly being crossed on social networks. I have set myself the central mission of moderating the hurtful discourse and bullying online, which harm us as individuals and as a society on a daily basis. I am glad to lead this very important project,” the president said in a statement Tuesday.

Adi Soffer-Teeni, country director in Israel for Meta/Facebook, said she was “excited to collaborate with the President of Israel and dozens of local opinion leaders as part of the ‘Think Good’ campaign, which will put a spotlight on the most difficult moments on social networks in order to spark a discussion and make a clear statement against a phenomenon that has no place on our platforms.”

Facebook, recently renamed Meta to reflect the company’s growth and focus, has had a negative record so far of addressing harmful content on its platforms, and it is often not entirely clear what, if any, personal online attacks violate its policies and merit deletion.

The company was back in the headlines in recent months following a high-profile whistleblower testimony that shed new light on its alleged wrongdoings, raising the ire of governments and regulators across the world.

The testimony by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen came after weeks of silence from Facebook in the face of a Wall Street Journal series based on internal documents leaked by her. She told Congress that Facebook prioritizes its own interests like making more money over the public good, fuels division, harms children, and must be regulated.

Coalition whip Idit Silman of the Yamina party at the Knesset House Committee, July 25, 2021. (Knesset)

Israel has also been weighing measures to rein in global social media companies, including Facebook, and possibly hold them accountable for posts on their platform.

Meanwhile, the political discourse has been heating up in recent months. In November, Lapid warned that the violent political discourse in the country could see a politician murdered and that such language was defining Israeli society as a whole.

Lapid’s comments came after MK Idit Silman — of Bennett’s Yamina party — said she had been physically attacked by a man at a gas station a month prior amid Likud’s scathing, months-long online campaign against Yamina joining the government that ousted former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Bennett and Shaked have both received death threats and their security had been tightened.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu requested that high-level protection of his family members be extended further, arguing that local and foreign actors could still target them. Netanyahu himself is entitled to protection for 20 years after leaving the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Two weeks ago, an elderly man was indicted for making online threats against the former premier, and this week, another man was charged for an online threat to sexually assault Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

Also last month, Likud lawmaker David Amsalem landed in hot water for a fiery tirade against the coalition, with Meretz MK Michal Rozin asking the Knesset Ethics Committee to look into his statements and an unnamed woman filing a police complaint against him.

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