First Monday

The rise and fall of a Facebook hate group by Andre Oboler

One Facebook group has repeatedly caught the media’s 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 user–generated content.


Meet Facebook
A Facebook hate group
What makes this group different?
The JIDF response
Responding to hate in user–generated content



Meet Facebook

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 individual’s “wall” (a section of screen real estate designated for this purpose). Members can also share photographs and multimedia and install and use third–party applications based on the Facebook platform.

Facebook’s founder and chief executive officer is Mark Zuckerberg, a Jewish self–made billionaire, aged 24. The valuation is based largely on Microsoft’s 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 anti–semitism, 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 (O’Neill, 2008).

Left to their own devices in a wild west–like atmosphere, those using Facebook have also been pushing the boundaries, including the boundary of acceptable content. The rules governing the use of Facebook are created and modified by Facebook, published in their “terms of use” (Facebook, 2008a). They include a prohibition on “content that, in the sole judgment of Company, is objectionable or which restricts or inhibits any other person from using or enjoying the Site”. Facebook also has a “code of conduct”, stating that “certain kinds of speech simply do not belong in a community like Facebook” and enumerated examples including material that is “derogatory, demeaning, malicious, defamatory, abusive, offensive or hateful” (Facebook, 2007). Despite these conditions of use, Facebook has, in some cases, failed to act.



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 anti–Israel and often anti–semitic.

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 Facebook’s 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 re–inclusion, 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 of a Facebook hate group
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 counter–groups noting that “not unlike college campuses in the real world, when it comes to Israel, it’s an all–out 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 campus–style 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 anti–Israel and anti–semitic, attracting more like–minded Facebook members and changing administrators a number of times. Having Palestine re–instated, the group’s initial goal was met, and the collective membership began to form new goals. The group’s logo, a map with Israel entirely replaced by “Palestine”, promoted replacement geography in a similar manner to the anti–Israel campaign in Google Earth (Oboler, 2008a). The group became highly linked with anti–Israel and anti–semitic Web sites and campaigns. It was used as a base to promote general anti–Israel 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 anti–semitism. As a result it drew significant attention in early 2008. Addressing the Global Forum for Combat Anti–semitism in February, I described this group and highlighted its use of apartheid rhetoric and clever use of denial. Half the statements in the group’s introduction were anti–semitic, the other half were designed to fend off charges of anti–semitism. The New York Jewish Week carried a front–page 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 anti–semitism 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 group’s 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 anti–Israel elements took over in a very similar manner to that used five months later by the JIDF. The anti–semitic 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 anti–semitism; Israel is “an apartheid regime”, Israel “has no right to exist”, “Israelis accuse people of anti–Semitism every time someone criticizes Israel”, “Arabs are Semites ... unlike most Jews”, “80–90 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. Ala’a 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 Anti–Semitic 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 JIDF’s 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: ‘Anti–Semitic’ group hijacked by Jewish force” (Moore, 2008).

Hate groups picked up the story too. The Neo–Nazi site Stormfront had the story almost from the start as did forums at Al–Jazeera. 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 group’s size had been reduced, with its multimedia and wall gone, but the group’s problematic description reappeared. Even if the JIDF has maintained control of the group, setting up a new group takes only a few clicks. JIDF’s action, however, was effective.

During the few days that the JIDF controlled the group they expelled 59 percent of the group’s membership. Based on the membership increase in the days immediately following JIDF’s 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 anti–semitic group.



Responding to hate in user–generated content

Facebook is not the only place where user–generated 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 Zuckerberg’s hands–off approach on the topic of anti–semitism 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 Facebook’s 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 anti–semitic 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 JIDF’s 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 can’t 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 ill–prepared to deal with anti–semitism 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 anti–semitism 2.0, the social acceptability of anti–Jewish racism online. Given their responsibly to Facebook users, not to mention to society at large, Facebook’s current hands–off approach is legitimizing online hate and allowing it to spread. Facebook’s 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 anti–semitism 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. End of article


About the author

Andre Oboler is a Post–Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at Bar–Ilan University and Legacy Heritage Fellow at NGO Monitor in Jerusalem.
E–mail: oboler [at] zionismontheweb [dot] org



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Editorial history

Paper received 12 August 2008; accepted 21 October 2008.

Creative Commons License
“The rise and fall of a Facebook hate group” by Andre Oboler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–No 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