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It was Oct. 27, 2015, shortly after 10 am. Two terrorists from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber boarded an Egged bus in the East Talpiot area. One was armed with a gun, the other with a knife. They started shooting and stabbing passengers, including 76-year-old Richard Lakin, who died two weeks later from his wounds.
“We spent almost two weeks at Hadassah Hospital trying to save his life,” recalls Richard’s son Micah Lakin Avni, CEO of Peninsula Group Ltd., a publicly traded Israeli commercial finance institution. “During those two weeks, we had a lot of time to think.”
Avni, who spoke in late June at a conference hosted by the Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center legal rights NGO, spent most of those two weeks pondering what could bring two middle class, seemingly normal 20-year-old Israeli Arabs to do something so evil. He wondered, “How is terror spreading so rapidly around the world?” And he searched the Internet.
“Two days after the attack, I saw a video on the Internet that the Hamas Student Union put out,” says Avni. “It was a reenactment of the attack. It went viral, was viewed by millions of people.…What could make two people do something like that? If you watch this stuff, it has an effect on your mind.”
A quick Wikipedia search of “List of Islamist terrorist attacks” reveals a significant spike in such attacks worldwide during the last decade. In 2005, there were 16 Islamist attacks, according to the open source Internet encyclopedia, mainly in Israel, Indonesia, and India. In 2015, there were Islamist 117 attacks, which took place all over the world—including in Afghanistan, France, Egypt, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
Avni quickly realized that while social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other networks — are not the platforms generating incitement, they are the pipes passing it along and facilitating the spread of incitement-laden information.
“We need to call it what it is: open source jihad,” says Avni. “Al-Qaeda, Hamas, individuals at home making motivational films — they are all part of this open source holy war.…Open source jihad is the new Nazism. If it is allowed to continue with its exponential growth, it will destroy our world on 10 years.”
Avni continues, “We need to revisit free speech. Instead of asking, ‘How do we protect it?’ we need to ask, ‘Where do we limit free speech?’”
But how can social media be regulated? And will social media platforms’ owners and users get on board with such efforts?
Former senior Israeli Mossad spy agency operative Uzi Shaya, speaking at the same Shurat HaDin conference, says that social media companies hide behind phrases like “freedom of speech,” relinquishing responsibility for the content they host. Yet he says that if driven to do so, these platforms could partner with other entities to stop incitement.
Shaya points to a recent incident on Twitter. After the November 2015 Paris attacks, Twitter deleted 125,000 accounts associated with the Islamic State terror group within a matter of days.
“I presume this is an intentional coincidence,” Shaya quips. “If there is no legal justification for deleting the accounts after the attacks, they should have remained operational. If there is legal justification, they should have been deleted beforehand.”
Twitter’s cleanup work on terror accounts stopped at Islamic State. Musa Abu Marzuk, Khaled Mashaal and Hamas’s other leaders continue to have Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“If Hamas would try to open a bank account, no one would let them,” says Shaya. “If a Hamas member tried to get a visa to fly to the US or another country, he would be denied. But they can get a Twitter account. Why?”
Member of the Israeli Knesset Revital Swid (Zionist Union) says she has tried to get some answers. In late 2015, Swid wrote a letter to Simon Milner, Facebook’s policy director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, requesting that Facebook “immediately locate, monitor, and remove pages that spew incitement and encourage murder,” and insisting that the social networking giant “cannot detach itself from the terrorism being enabled through its network.”
Swid says Milner downplayed the letter, responding that Facebook has “standards” and a team investigating that posted content adheres to those standards. Milner encouraged Swid to make use of Facebook’s reporting tools to report issues, explaining that if inappropriate content is cited just one time or as many as 100 times, it would be deleted.
“They did not remove the pages we suggested,” says Swid. “Then I understood. There is no other way to deal with this except for legislation.”
Now, Israeli lawmakers, following Swid’s lead, are drafting legislation that could force Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms to remove online postings that incite terrorism. Speaking earlier this month at the 6th Annual International Cybersecurity Conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Israel could use a judicial injunction to have the content removed.
“There should be some measure of accountability for Internet companies regarding the illegal activities and content that is published through their services,” Shaked says. “The Justice Ministry is taking a leadership role in this — for example, we are promoting cooperation with content providers, sensitizing them as to content that violates Israeli law or providers’ term of service.”
“If you try to look for pedophilia on Facebook, you cannot find it,” says Swid. “Why not? Because Facebook has an interest to remove all the pages that have even something that seems like a sexual attack or pedophilia. It’s very good. But if they are so aware of pedophilia, how come they are not concerned and not aware of incitements to terror?”
Swid’s legislation plan involves hitting these social media companies “where it hurts” — their wallets. She says the new legislation would shift the responsibility for content to the social networks themselves.
“We tell them to remove those pages. If they don’t, they will have to pay money,” she says. “Lawsuits, fines, brand damage — that will hurt them. Then they will start to deal with it.”
Not just advocacy groups and lawmakers, but every individual can fight this cyber-war, says Geoffrey S. Corn, a professor of law and presidential research at the South Texas College of Law.
Corn explains that both legislators and private citizens should be cautious in assuming that social networks are simply being unresponsive or uncooperative in not rapidly deleting profiles that incite to violence. Rather, law enforcement agencies may be pressuring the social media to keep these profiles live so that they can use them to help identify the people they should be targeting as well as their motivations.
“The idea of shutting off the flow of information is unrealistic,” says Corn, who also spoke at the Shurat HaDin conference.
The professor says that misinformation should be countered with information. Corn says governments — mainly that of Israel — should be unapologetic about the “legitimate use of force” and that the Israel Defense Forces as well as other armies should invest in humanizing their soldiers on social networks.
“If we believe in the integrity, morality, and legitimacy of our causes, we should be celebrating that and be overt about sharing it,” says Corn. “It won’t affect everyone, but it will gradually affect people.”