Written by Dalia Othman. Ellery Roberts Biddle, Jillian C. York and Ivan Sigal contributed reporting to this post.
After three Israeli teenagers, who were later killed, were first reported missing, a page called, “Until our boys are returned – we will kill a terrorist every hour” appeared on Facebook. The page has been active for over three weeks, featuring multiple posts in Hebrew calling for violence against Palestinians and Arabs. Despite many formal abuse reports made by Facebook users, the page has not been taken down. Global Voices spoke with Facebook and they say they are reviewing the page.
The June kidnappings led to a revenge attack on 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was burned to death, and set off a massive Israeli military operation across the West Bank and Gaza, leading to the arrest of hundreds and deaths of dozens of Palestinians. The conflict has escalated further in recent days, with the massive “Operation Defensive Edge” declared against Gaza, which has killed 90 Palestinians so far, many of them women and children. From Gaza, Hamas, a group that has ruled the strip since 2007, has fired hundreds of missiles into Israel. As of July 9, Israeli officials reported that no Israelis had been killed as a result.
Conversations on social media have mirrored the rapidly rising tensions on the ground. The About section of the “Until our boys are returned – we will kill a terrorist every hour” Facebook page says:
We must use a strong hand to fight violent and life-threatening terror. The weakness shown by the Israeli Government, which released thousands of murderers has only increased their drive and led to the kidnapping of the teens. The only way to bring the teens back is to instill fear in our enemies and make them understand that they will suffer. We support executing a terrorist every hour until the teens are released.
Among some Israelis, the word “terrorist” is commonly used as a stand-in for “Palestinian”. For any person familiar with local terminology, it is difficult to see this as anything but a call to execute all Palestinians. One post on the page urges readers to “kill them while they are still in their mother’s [womb].” Violent language dominates the page and messages clearly target Arabs, specifically Palestinians. For those who do not read Hebrew, even a machine translation reveals the explosive nature of the page’s content.
The comment above was reported to Facebook and was deemed not a violation of the community standards. This comment both calls for “price tag” actions (defined as acts of terrorism by the US Department of State in 2013) and the transfer of Palestinians, a clear attack against a people and a call for violence.
Does the page violate Facebook’s Community Standards?
The first section of Facebook’s Community Standards reads:
Safety is Facebook's top priority. We remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety. You may not credibly threaten others, or organize acts of real-world violence.
A later section on hate speech is also relevant to the page:
Facebook does not permit hate speech….we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.
Since the page first appeared, concerned citizens (among them multiple trusted sources and friends of Global Voices) have used Facebook’s process for reporting abuse to call the company's attention to the page and ask for its removal. Some have taken to Twitter, urging others to do the same. But more than three weeks since it went live, the page remains active on the site.
This page is not an anomaly. After news that the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers had been killed, similar pages have sprung up with explosive racist and violent language. These pages have also attracted mainstream media’s attention. Facebook users once again tried to report the pages calling for revenge against the Palestinian population. Nevertheless, Facebook responded with similar claims (see screenshot below) that the page is not a violation of their community standards.
The Third Intifada page
Back in 2011, there was a similar situation, in which a group of young Palestinians started a Facebook page calling for a third intifada or uprising that would build on the two historic intifadas that took place to end Israeli occupation in Palestinian territories.
Although the group's administrators set out to promote non-violent civic action in support of a free and independent Palestine, page members began posting messages that promoted violence and hatred towards Israel and Israeli people. CNN later reported that the page was taken down from the site after Facebook received a removal request from the Israeli government.
Online rights experts later suggested that the company could have suspended the accounts or pages of commenters promoting violence, rather than taking the page down altogether. In the social media ecosystem, these details matter – free expression is better preserved when harmful speech can be targeted at the level of the individual, rather than an entire page or platform. But it was understood that Facebook removed the page in an effort to extinguish violent and hateful language, and the potential real-life consequences that it could have triggered. It is troubling to see now that Facebook is not following the same standards when it comes to the recent pages.
In an interview, Global Voices asked Monika Bickert, Facebook Head of Global Policy Management, to explain why this page isn’t a violation of community standards. She responded: “We clearly list the characteristics that we consider to be hate speech, and if it doesn’t come under one of those categories, we don’t consider it hate speech under our policies.”
Bickert spoke generally about their policies and not this specific case:
Facebook sets policies that can be implemented by a global, 24-hour staff of content reviewers. They seek to make decisions quickly and consistently[…] One of the toughest areas for Facebook is the area of hate speech. Here, Facebook is looking for characteristics that specifically target either an individual or a defined group [..] Because Pages change, unlike posts, they can be reviewed more than once. Decisions about individual pieces of content tend to be final, although can be reviewed for error.
Facebook should not serve as a platform for promoting violence against anyone
As defenders of free expression, we do not want Facebook to become a more controlled, more heavily censored platform. But we also cannot stand by and watch as this and other pages gain hundreds of followers by the day. It is not only hateful and discriminatory towards Palestinians and Arabs, it is a plain, unequivocal threat of violence towards human beings. With full recognition of the complex and delicate political context of this situation, we ask that Facebook reconsider this case and engage with us in a conversation about their decision-making process on this and other similar pages.
This story was updated at 17:10 GMT on July 11 to clarify that Mohamed Abu Khdeir was killed in a revenge attack.