Tel Aviv Diary: Social Media Blamed for Terrorism

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during a town hall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on September 27, 2015. Marc Schulman writes that Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google will face fines if they do not remove posts meant to incite terror. Stephen Lam/reuters

What do you do when you can't find any way to stop terrorism?

Recently, the Israeli government has come up with a solution: Blame Facebook.

During the last few months, various members of the government have blamed social networks in general, and Facebook specifically, for the rise in acts of terror. Members of the Israeli government asserts that these worldwide, public networks should be removing hateful posts that encourage terror.

The Israeli government was not alone in calling out Facebook. A private organization called Shurat HaDin (which translates to "letter of the law") defines itself as "an Israeli-based civil rights organization and world leader in combating terrorist organizations, along with the regimes that support" it.

Shurat HaDin, which seeks justice through lawsuits litigated in courtrooms around the world, filed a class-action lawsuit against Facebook on behalf of 20,000 Israelis. The lawsuit, Lakin vs. Facebook, was certified as a class-action suit by an Israeli judge and allowed to proceed. The plaintiffs claim that:

Facebook is much more than a neutral internet platform or a mere "publisher" of speech, because its algorithms connect the terrorists to the inciters. Facebook actively assists the inciters to find people who are interested in acting on their hateful messages, by offering friend, group and event suggestions, and targeting advertising based on people's online "likes" and internet browsing history.

Not to be outdone, the Israeli Knesset passed a new preliminary law on July 20 that would make social networks responsible for removing posts that promote terror. The bill states that managers of a social network will face fines if they do not remove posts meant to incite to terror. The bill specifically names Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google.

If one didn't know better, one would think the bill was submitted by the government itself, or that one of the right-wing Knesset members of the coalition might have introduced the bill.

However, that was not the case. The bill seeking to hold social networks accountable for posts considered to incite terror, but which the networks allow to remain posted, was submitted by MK Revital Swid of the Zionist Camp (the Labor Party).

In explaining the need for this bill, Swid wrote: "[In] recent months the State of Israel has faced a wave of terror perpetrated by individuals." He continued: "At the same time, there has been a rise in incitement in the virtual world specifically in social media."

The government was swift to back Swid's bill. When it was introduced, MK Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security, stated: "This bill is right, necessary, and one can say suits the need of the hour." The bill quickly passed its first reading by a vote of 50 to 4. (The bill must pass three readings to become law.)

To date, there has been no extended debate about the role of social media. Do we expect social media companies to become censors of all hateful speech? What happens in other countries, where criticizing the government is defined as hate speech?

The Knesset also did not debate the ramifications of passing a law targeting Facebook and Google. Both companies maintain large research and development facilities in Israel. Just this week, the Israeli Treasury proposed lowering the tax rate on companies that do substantial research and development in Israel to 6 percent—half a point below the rate charged by Ireland.

So on one hand, Israel the "Start-up Nation" does whatever it can to attract investments and interest from the largest global technology firms; on the other hand, it passes laws that make those same firms liable for customer posts.

Unfortunately, no one has a real solution to the global plague called terrorism. The scourge of terror has struck, and continues to strike far and wide, across the far corners of the earth. Regrettably, Israel's new, ill thought-out law will not be the last of misguided attempts to solve to this heinous problem.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman blogs at historycentral.com.

Tel Aviv Diary: Social Media Blamed for Terrorism | Opinion