One Facebook group has repeatedly caught the medias attention. The group is called Israel is not a country!... ... Delist it from Facebook as a country! Despite the opinions of experts who highlighted the racist nature of the group, Facebook refused to take action. After unsuccessfully lobbying Facebook for intervention, a organization known as the Jewish Internet Defense Force took control of the Facebook group in late July 2008 and began to manually dismantle it from the inside. The rise, fall and eventual deletion of this group open questions on the correct response to online hate in usergenerated content.
A Facebook hate group
What makes this group different?
The JIDF response
Responding to hate in usergenerated content
With over 115 million users Facebook is the largest social networking site on the Internet (Holahan, 2008). It was initially limited to colleges in the United States, though later expanded to educational institutions in other countries and then to the general public (Arrington, 2006).
Facebook allows users to share personal information, join groups, send private messages and leave public notes on either a group or an individuals wall (a section of screen real estate designated for this purpose). Members can also share photographs and multimedia and install and use thirdparty applications based on the Facebook platform.
Facebooks founder and chief executive officer is Mark Zuckerberg, a Jewish selfmade billionaire, aged 24. The valuation is based largely on Microsofts investment of $US240 million to buy a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook in 2007 (Stone, 2007). Rather than going public or selling out, Zuckerberg has expressed a desire to develop the technology and push the boundaries. He believes in an intense focus on openness, sharing information, as both an ideal and a practical strategy to get things done (McGirt, 2007). The things that get done could however be for better or for worse. Asked if Facebook would take proactive measures to fight against antisemitism, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook does not need to be proactive about it and that Facebook users should use the platform to generate more worldly perspectives (ONeill, 2008).
A Facebook hate group
The group Israel is not a country!... ... Delist it from Facebook as a country! (Facebook, 2008b) is a Facebook group established around January 2007. A group with an almost identical name and description was created in the Hi5 social networking site on 9 January 2007 (Hi5, 2008). That group today has only 1,076 members, while the Facebook group at its height had over 48,000 members, over 120,850 posts, over 150 videos and over 100 photographs. While some of this content was in disagreement with the nature of the group, the majority was decidedly antiIsrael and often antisemitic.
The long running controversy was mostly likely started by Facebook itself when, in October 2006, they removed Palestine from the list of countries individuals could join. It had been included in Facebooks original list but was replaced by an entity known as Gaza and the West Bank. Some Palestinians objected to this alteration, claiming it advocated a position that denied Palestinians ownership of the old city of Jerusalem as well as East Jerusalem. Facebook quietly restored Palestine to the country listing in early 2007 (Jacobs, 2007). Shortly thereafter a group was established in protest at the reinclusion, and another group, the now infamous Israel is not a country group was created in response (Zerbisias, 2007). The growth of the group from October 2007 is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Growth and decline of a Facebook hate group.
While they may have stared off in a similar manner, there is something very different in the nature of the Israel is not a country and Palestine is not a country groups. The difference is not about international law or the legitimacy of countries. In the electronic world there is no requirement to mirror reality, comply with international standards, or even include all countries in any given list. To give one example, Israel and about four other countries are missing from the list of countries in the causes application (in this case it is in the donations section and the missing listing means people in Israel cannot donate money via Israeli credit cards). These things happen, people complain, and usually they get fixed.
The Israel is not a country and Palestine is not a country groups differ in size, but this is not the fundamental difference, though it does have an effect on the impact the groups can have. The most popular Palestine is not a country group has 3,353 members at the time of writing. This is less than seven percent of the size of the Israel is not a country group prior it being taken over and members being booted out by new administrators. Size matters, but it is not what makes this group so different.
What makes this group different?
What makes Israel is not a country different from other groups in Facebook is the way it is used. The Israel is not a country group was not designed to seriously protest the listing of Israel in Facebook, it was simply part of Facebook politics. That however changed as more radical elements joined the group something Facebook themselves seems to have missed.
The earliest press report about the group appeared in the Toronto Star on 3 May 2007 (Zerbisias, 2007). The author, Antonia Zerbisias, notes a proliferation of groups and countergroups noting that not unlike college campuses in the real world, when it comes to Israel, its an allout war ... of words. Zerbisias also contacted Matt Hicks, senior manager of corporate communications at Facebook, who had until then been unaware of the problem. This newspaper story establishes that Facebook knew about the group for over a year before the takeover, and for over year Facebook decided to do nothing. If Zerbisias analysis of this as a college campusstyle war of words remained accurate the group would not have grown as large as it did, or would it have attracted the attention it received.
This protest group eventually altered, becaming decidedly antiIsrael and antisemitic, attracting more likeminded Facebook members and changing administrators a number of times. Having Palestine reinstated, the groups initial goal was met, and the collective membership began to form new goals. The groups logo, a map with Israel entirely replaced by Palestine, promoted replacement geography in a similar manner to the antiIsrael campaign in Google Earth (Oboler, 2008a). The group became highly linked with antiIsrael and antisemitic Web sites and campaigns. It was used as a base to promote general antiIsrael sentiment and to promote an ideology that advocated the destruction of the Jewish state. This group, with its large membership base, was used as a recruitment site where new campaigns against Israel could prosper.
The role of this group was to promote online hate, and specifically online antisemitism. As a result it drew significant attention in early 2008. Addressing the Global Forum for Combat Antisemitism in February, I described this group and highlighted its use of apartheid rhetoric and clever use of denial. Half the statements in the groups introduction were antisemitic, the other half were designed to fend off charges of antisemitism. The New York Jewish Week carried a frontpage story on Antisemitism 2.0 on 20 February 2008, noting the growth of the Israel is not a country group (Snyder, 2008). That report was partly based on a draft of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs Antisemitism 2.0 report (Oboler, 2008b) which provided the first extensive coverage of antisemitism on the social Web and coined the phrase Antisemitism 2.0. The Israel is not a country group was one of two detailed case studies examined in the report. Particular attention was paid to the groups clever introduction of itself as a group against racism, while simultaneously attacking both Israel and the Jewish people. Israel, it claimed, has no right to exist.
The introduction was reused in 75 different groups which antiIsrael elements took over in a very similar manner to that used five months later by the JIDF. The antisemitic takeovers were originally reported in the press in February 2008. Many of the groups taken over had names completely unrelated to the conflict. They included local sports or film appreciation groups. The common thread is simply that the groups had their location set to Israel or otherwise indicated Israeli or Jewish interests. Some of these groups are still up with the original message still visible. The message is a diatribe familiar to any who deal with antisemitism; Israel is an apartheid regime, Israel has no right to exist, Israelis accuse people of antiSemitism every time someone criticizes Israel, Arabs are Semites ... unlike most Jews, 8090 percent of Jews today are Ashkenazi (which is the term for European Jews that are descendants of converts), they use the Holocaust to silence critics of their own crime, Israel never met the conditions for its entry into the UN, the lies go on in some of the remaining clones despite the efforts of the JIDF.
Not all the attention showed the group in a negative light. Alaa Ghosha, the hostess of a television show aimed at teenagers, discussed the Israel is not a country group on official Palestinian TV in March 2008. She praised the group, describing Facebook as a new battleground between the Arabs and Israel and encouraged viewers to join it (Marcus and Crook, 2008).
The JIDF response
On 27 July 2008, Arutz Sheva published a short report titled Jewish Activists Hack AntiSemitic Facebook Group. The report notes how the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) had taken control of the Israel is not a country group. The JIDF confirmed that the takeover occurred earlier on 27 July.
Following the takeover, the JIDF worked around the clock to empty the group of members. Once a group is empty it can be deleted. As a first step, the problematic description, multimedia and the wall were removed, significantly mitigating the hate that this group was promoting.
The Jerusalem Post followed up with a story in its 29 July issue (Rubenstein, 2008). This corrected the misrepresentation of JIDFs activities as a hack. It was certainly a takeover, but nothing illegal or indeed outside the rules of Facebook had occurred. Next in the U.K., the Telegraph picked up the story with a headline on 31 July declaring Facebook: AntiSemitic group hijacked by Jewish force (Moore, 2008).
Hate groups picked up the story too. The NeoNazi site Stormfront had the story almost from the start as did forums at AlJazeera. On Facebook itself two groups were immediately setup up against JIDF.
On 1 August, only a few days after the takeover, the JIDF lost control of the group. The groups size had been reduced, with its multimedia and wall gone, but the groups problematic description reappeared. Even if the JIDF has maintained control of the group, setting up a new group takes only a few clicks. JIDFs action, however, was effective.
During the few days that the JIDF controlled the group they expelled 59 percent of the groups membership. Based on the membership increase in the days immediately following JIDFs loss control, it looked like the group has been set back 12 and 18 months in terms of its membership numbers. A month later Facebook, however, took decisive action. They deleted the group in response to continued press coverage and the emergence of a consensus in Wikipedia that Facebook was indeed publicly hosting an antisemitic group.
Responding to hate in usergenerated content
Facebook is not the only place where usergenerated content promotes hate. Google Earth has come under fire for allowing replacement geography (Oboler, 2008a), eBay came under fire for its role in selling Nazi memorabilia and other goods that encourage hate (ADL, 2001), and Craigslist has had issues with racist accommodation postings (Beck, 2008). In all these cases there was an effort by corporations in control of the sites to acknowledge the existence of this sort of material and they sought ways to resolve the issue. In this case, after a year of inaction by Facebook, users stepped in to respond to the problem. This reaction seems in keeping with Zuckerbergs handsoff approach on the topic of antisemitism and his desire for users to resolve these matters within the Facebook platform. Facebook in the end acted to protect its public image, and only under increasing public pressure.
The actions of the JIDF, however, raise interesting questions. If they acted within the law, and within Facebooks terms of service ... did they do anything wrong? Should similar attempts be encouraged or avoided? One might interpret the closure of specific groups as acts of censorship, but is censorship always wrong? The most common approach to antisemitic Web sites in the past, before Web 2.0, was to push for the groups to be shut down by their specific Internet service providers. Even in this case, many were from the start urging Facebook to step in and remove the group. There are only really two differences between what occurred through the JIDFs action and what later occurred when Facebook themselves intervened. The differences are as much about values as they are about technical details.
The first difference is that the action taken by Facebook required far less effort. Facebook staff, with a few clicks, can remove material that it would take the JIDF hundreds of people hours to accomplish. As the owner of the platform, Facebook also has the legal and moral authority to determine when a breach of the rules has occurred and to take whatever action it deems as appropriate. Had Facebook taken action, the result would have been new protest groups, added publicity and accusations that Facebook was taking a political position. This is not so different from what occurred back in October 2006, and again with another controversy in March 2008 (Reuters, 2008). Facebook, however, as a large corporation with a huge amount of power absolute power, in fact, within Facebook needs to realize it cant avoid these issues. By simply stepping back and trying to give everyone whatever they ask for, they become a platform open to misuse and abuse. Despite their terms and conditions, Facebook seems illprepared to deal with antisemitism 2.0. Such online hate is designed to appear socially acceptable. As such, it aims to have itself classed as legitimate political discourse. Allowing such hate speech to be published is indeed taking a position by default.
Facebook itself is falling victim to those pressures that spread antisemitism 2.0, the social acceptability of antiJewish racism online. Given their responsibly to Facebook users, not to mention to society at large, Facebooks current handsoff approach is legitimizing online hate and allowing it to spread. Facebooks senior management team needs to take another look at the implementation of their terms of service and need to consider more carefully what counts as legitimate discussion and what counts as the promotion of hate.
The problem can only really be solved by Facebook, either voluntarily or if left alone, through external pressure and even legislation. The Facebook platform is too powerful and widespread to be manipulated by those promoting hate. The only question is who realizes this first Facebook, the public, or legislators.
As for the JIDF, it will continue to take action against antisemitism in all of its digital forms. Some will agree, some will disagree with their strategies and solutions. Unfortunately, Facebook will probably continue to hope in vain that problems will be resolved without specific intervention by Facebook itself.
About the author
Andre Oboler is a PostDoctoral Fellow in Political Science at BarIlan University and Legacy Heritage Fellow at NGO Monitor in Jerusalem.
Email: oboler [at] zionismontheweb [dot] org
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Paper received 12 August 2008; accepted 21 October 2008.
The rise and fall of a Facebook hate group by Andre Oboler is licensed under a Creative Commons AttributionNo Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
The rise and fall of a Facebook hate group
by Andre Oboler
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 11 - 3 November 2008