The Times of Israel and its bloggers

Op-ed: New precautions amid the mini-conflict online

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

In the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, a verbal mini-conflict has been flaring online, over The Times of Israel’s blogging platform.

It erupted on Friday, shortly before the start of the Sabbath in Israel, when a blogger in the US, who had been blogging for some time, posted an incendiary blog post under the repugnant headline “When Genocide is Permissible.” We removed the post, which breached the guidelines ToI bloggers are required to accept and follow — including the requirement not to post material that “incite(s) to violence or promote(s) hatred based on race, religion, gender or sexual preference” — as soon as it was brought to our attention. We were appalled and extremely sorry that it had appeared. We closed the writer’s blog. (Incidentally, he later apologized for the post.)

The blog post prompted an outcry online, including some reports that misrepresented it as an article written and published by the editorial staff of The Times of Israel. In fact, our blog platform had, until now, enabled bloggers, once we accepted them and they agreed to be bound by our guidelines, to post their own material, as was the case here.

The online conflict subsequently switched to two other blog posts — one which looked at the war with Hamas in Biblical terms, and another in which a blogger agonized about gaining weight amid the stress of war. These posts too were widely attacked online, albeit with a little less fury and intensity, and often from quarters with an agenda hostile to Israel.

The Times of Israel introduced an innovative blog platform when we launched in February 2012. With content often very different from the journalistic core of the site, it has given thousands of bloggers a unique opportunity to have their say, be heard and influence the public discourse. In bringing aboard those many bloggers, with their many different viewpoints, we have created a vibrant “marketplace of ideas.” Millions of readers share this content, with fascination, delight, exasperation, indignation.

The model that enabled bloggers to publish their own posts has rarely been abused. But with The Times of Israel’s steady growth, and the immediate resonance of everything that appears on the site — as underlined on Friday afternoon — we are now introducing additional precautions to prevent those rare abuses, including a pre-checking function for blog posts. The goal is to maintain the openness, immediacy and diversity of our blogs section, while working to ensure it is not sullied by those rare posts that breach the limits of acceptable freedom of speech.

The vast majority of The Times of Israel bloggers are not journalists or professional writers. They are people from all walks of life with all kinds of passions and interests, and all kinds of things to say about our teeming world. Often, what they write is more immediate, and more emotional, more raw and unpredictable, than traditional journalism.

They, we and our readers were harmed by that unacceptable blog post on Friday. What followed in the mini-conflict online, extending to other blog posts, says rather more about the vituperative critics — including at some purportedly reputable websites. Being concerned about the incitement of hatred online is laudable. Loudly and distortedly fostering greater intolerance, while claiming to be appalled, is not.

Our new safeguards aim to ensure that we and the rest of our bloggers cannot be undermined by repugnant content, and that readers will not be subjected to it. But we have not removed the blog post that quoted the Bible, and we did not remove the blog post whose writer agonized about weight gain — a small cri de coeur from a member of the Israeli public, about an aspect of her own suffering in an Israel at war. In the latter case, the writer chose to remove her own post — horrified by the toxic online assault to which she was subjected.

People have been dying this past month in a conflict that has provoked immense controversy, emotion, and dreadful expressions of hatred. The Times of Israel does its best to report on that conflict in its news, analysis and feature material. And our blog platform allows non-professionals to weigh in on this — as on other subjects — within the acceptable limits of free speech.

As we entirely fallible humans, writing and editing at The Times of Israel, try to do our work with integrity, to enable greater understanding and wisdom to prevail in this vicious world, we ask both that our bloggers do the same, and make the same appeal to those who have rushed to inflate and inflame.

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