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January 13, 2016

Many Israelis and Israel-sympathizers fear the impact that social media has had on terrorism. They also believe that a dangerous indifference is at work in terms of what a site like Facebook will allow enemies of Israel to post on their pages.

To test this theory, on Dec. 28 the Israeli NGO Shurat HaDin (also known as the Israel Law Center) launched “The Big Facebook Experiment” seeking to prove whether the social-media giant has a measurable bias against Israel.

The design was simple: Create two Facebook pages, one anti-Palestinian and one anti-Israeli. Then report them to Facebook as violating its user rules, e.g., against hate speech and incitements to violence. Then wait and see what happens.

For purposes of the study, Shurat HaDin posted twin messages on both pages, one page called Stop Israel and the other Stop Palestine. The messages featured increasingly inflammatory material—including “Revenge against the Arab enemy” and “Death to all the Arabs” on the anti-Palestinian page—with the matching “Revenge against the Jewish enemy” and “Death to all the Jews” on the anti-Israeli page.

Shurat HaDin also posted graphic photos on both pages. For example, a photograph on the anti-Israel page featured a young girl preparing to punch an Israeli soldier, with text reading, “these children will liberate Palestine with blood.” That photograph was mirrored on the anti-Palestine page by a picture of a bare-chested Israeli soldier wielding a gun and vowing war with all Arabs.

On Dec. 30, Shurat HaDin reported both pages as violating Facebook standards, using Facebook’s report mechanism of a simple button-click available to all users. Within 24 hours, Facebook sent the NGO a message that the anti-Palestine page it reported had been closed down for “containing credible threat of violence” and that it had “violated our [Facebook’s] community standards.” The page immediately became inaccessible to all Facebook users.

The complaint about the anti-Israel page (which had spiraled into an explicitly anti-Jewish page) also received a reply from Facebook. This reply stated that the content was “not in violation of Facebook’s rules.”

Facebook changed its tune after Jan. 4, when Shurat HaDin published a video detailing the experiment, which made waves in the Israeli press and on social media. After taking down the anti-Israel page, Facebook released a statement on Jan. 5 saying that “Facebook does not tolerate hate speech, including against people on the basis of their nationality. We review all reports and take down such content. Both these pages have now been removed from Facebook.”

Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, an attorney who heads Shurat HaDin, said the test had made its point. “With over 30 Israelis killed in terror attacks since October—with many of the murderers receiving encouragement and motivation from social media—it is shocking that Facebook would continue to ignore instances of incitement against Israelis, while quickly fulfilling its obligation to remove other instances of incitement when it sees fit to do so, as we showed in this experiment,” she told the online newspaper Times of Israel on Jan. 5.

Shurat HaDin is trying to make Facebook follow its own standards through other means as well. In October the NGO filed a lawsuit in New York against Facebook on behalf of 20,000 Israelis claiming that the social media network allows incitement to prosper and go unchecked. The lawsuit demands that Facebook take down inciting content as soon as it is made aware of it (presumably through reports by Facebook users).

While Facebook’s double standards are troubling, the media giant is not at the root of the problem. Facebook serves as an avenue for culture; it is not its initial creator. Yet if anti-Israel bias—or even anti-Semitism—has entered the mainstream, then perhaps Facebook may want to reconsider its role as a bystander.