This page is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)

November 6, 2015

“It has been Osama bin Laden meets Mark Zuckerberg.”

With that headline-grabbing phrase, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried last month to sum up a wave of violence that has seen 11 Israelis killed by young Palestinians wielding crude weapons. These mostly spontaneous attacks have sparked talk of a Third Intifada, and major militant groups have expressed increasing support for them. Now, a class-action lawsuit filed by 20,000 Israelis is alleging that there’s another culprit: social media giant Facebook, whose fundamental business model is allegedly helping to fuel the violence.

The lawsuit, brought in the New York State Supreme Court by the legal advocacy group Shurat HaDin, accuses Facebook not only of allowing the proliferation of imagery and videos encouraging violence against Israelis, but also of effectively serving as a matchmaking service for terrorists. More specifically, it argues that Facebook’s trove of personal information about its users’ tastes and preferences has allowed the company to inadvertently connect people interested in carrying out terrorist attacks, in effect aiding and abetting any subsequent attacks. The suit seeks an injunction against Facebook “to stop allowing Palestinian terrorists to incite violent attacks against Israeli citizens on its internet platform.”

“[Facebook] basically says to you, ‘OK, you’re a jealous wife? I know a hitman that you should meet. Why don’t you two get together?’” said Asher Perlin, one of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit, though he quickly described that as an extreme example.

“The fact is that they don’t want to know,” Perlin said of Facebook. “They want to stick their head in the sand. Their business is very successfully brokering connections among terrorists and facilitating attacks. That’s the bottom line.”

In a statement, Facebook spokesman Andrew Souvall said the company wants “people to feel safe when using Facebook.”

“There is no place for content encouraging violence, direct threats, terrorism, or hate speech on Facebook,” Souvall added. “This lawsuit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend ourselves.”

Previous efforts to sue major social media companies for user posts have foundered in part because of a provision of the U.S. Communications Decency Act, which offers liability protection to publishers reliant on third-party content. In layman’s terms, Twitter can’t be held legally responsible if one of its users posts a defamatory tweet. The Shurat HaDin lawsuit tries to get around that provision by arguing that Facebook is abetting terrorism.

But as violent content has proliferated on Facebook and other platforms, major social media companies have begun to actively police their networks. Facebook, for example, operates a set of community standards that, among other things, explicitly prohibit encouraging or threatening violence against others. To find and remove such content, the company relies on its users to report content deemed abusive. Facebook decides whether to delete the content after a review.

The question of how to regulate violent or threatening content is one that all major social media companies face. When, for example, the Islamic State uploads videos to YouTube showing the beheading of its captives, the service scrambles to quickly take them down. Twitter, meanwhile, has become one of the most popular ways for Islamic State operatives to communicate with the outside world. Twitter has tried to ban some users, but the suspension of one account typically only results in the creation of another.

The violence at the heart of the current lawsuit has involved mainly Palestinian men, most of them young, who have attacked Israelis with knives and axes on city streets over the last several weeks. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been filled with images, cartoons, and videos glorifying the stabbing of civilians. Some videos offered instructions on how to best stab a Jew, and at least one anatomical diagram has been circulating showing the major blood vessels that should be punctured for a knife attack to be deadly.

Some analysts monitoring Facebook’s response to the ongoing violence — which has left 67 Palestinians dead, including many of the attackers — said the company has done a good job trying to tamp down content that incites violence.

“When somebody flags something, they are pretty good about removing it,” said Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “The challenge that they face is one that all social media companies face: the volume of it.”

Freeman said content on Facebook that incites violence, and subsequently is flagged by the ADL, is typically removed from the site the same or following day. The timeliness of Facebook’s removal of content is sure to be a major point of contention in its legal battle with Shurat HaDin, which argues the site has been negligent in carrying out takedowns.

The allegation, however, that Facebook serves as a brokerage for terrorism highlights what has been an unprecedented role for social media in not only encouraging violence between Israelis and Palestinians but strengthening the political divide between them. “I was living in Israel during the last intifada, when buses were blowing up left, right, and center, and while we saw harsh visuals of torn-up buses in newspapers, the imagery didn’t come close to what’s been spreading on Facebook and WhatsApp over the past couple of weeks,” Gilad Lotan, a data scientist who has closely studied social networking tools, wrote in an email. “In today’s world of hyper-polarized politics, social media acts as an accelerant of information, but also actively strengthens this polarization.”