The original German Language version of this article was published as: Christoph Gunkel, Facebook and Google Earth: Anti-Semitism in Web 2.0, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, October 14 2008. This English version was translated by Ricarda Krenn.
It was the massacre of seven youths and one adult that turned David into an internet warrior.
In March a Palestinian radical killed eight students of a Yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, in Jerusalem. Little later, Ahmad from Saudi Arabia founded a group on the online network Facebook, praising the murderer Alaa Abu Dhaim as a martyr. Before long, it had about three hundred members. For David, himself a Facebook member for several years, this was a ‘key moment’, leading him to increasingly seek public attention and ‘give a similarly clear answer’.
Together with like-minded friends, he founded the website ‘Jewish Internet Defence Force’ (JIDF), its name an allusion to the Israeli army, the ‘Israel Defence Force’. The JIDF’s logo is as martial as its name: a fighter jet in front of the blue-white Israeli flag with the Star of David.
The site’s goal is to act specifically against online antisemitism and anti-Israeli hate tirades in Web 2.0 – in popular social networks such as Facebook, Wikipedia or YouTube.
The work has its price: after several death threats, David doesn’t want to give any information about himself other than his first name. For years, he and his comrades-in-arms had watched the ‘rising tide of anti-Semitism’ and had started various political campaigns – now they want to combine them in a high-publicity way under the mantle of the JIDF.
The usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories
The JIDF claims to have five thousand supporters; it searches for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda, reports it to the provider, urges other users to do the same and exerts pressure by involving the public. Since this does not always work, the JIDF also has ‘other means’, as David nebulously hints. Be that as it may, the JIDF claims to be have been successful in ‘infiltrating and destroying dozens of Facebook groups’. The biggest of these was alleged to have had 118.000 members and advertised the Shiite Hezbollah. Even today its old start page can be found on Facebook, but now the Logo of the JIDF proudly adorns it – and the old contents are no longer available.
The Near East-conflict finds its political and ideological continuation in the popular internet forums of Web 2.0. This poses great problems for the social networks, which are in themselves conceived as apolitical, since they are misused as propaganda platforms. Thus one finds on Facebook groups pictures of Hamas-fighters, dead Palestinian babies or children who pose in mock suicide vests. In an innumerable number of comments users from all over the world assert that ‘we all hate Israel’, that the country is ‘a terrorist state’, ‘the cancerous tumour of the Near East, a disease which we must destroy.’ Siet from Egypt, for example, asks: ‘Where will you go, Israel?? The sea in front of you, the Arabs behind you.’ The usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories aren’t missing either: The Jews control the media, the world, American foreign policy – and the Holocaust did not take place as we believe. Those who do believe in the Holocaust praise Adol Hitler (‘That man burned your people to death!’) or point to Hitler-groups on Facebook. One of the largest is called ‘We respect you Hitler’ and currently has 357 members. There is even a group of 151 members whose cause is the denial of the Holocaust.
Of course there are counter-movements, the JIDF alone has twelve subsidiary groups. And there are violent outbursts by Jewish or Israeli users as well. ‘All Palestinians are murderers who kill little children’, claims one Israeli woman. And Johnny from London sees Mecca and Medina as originally having been ‘Jewish cities’ and places the entire Muslim world, which ‘only contributes to war and hatred’ in the darkest Middle Ages. ‘You animals, what have you ever given the world apart from oil?’
Facebook is the biggest social networking site in the world; according to its own claims, it has more than a hundred million active users and is the fourth-most visited website on the net. Messages snowball here. As soon as someone joins a hate-group, all their friends are informed about it. ‘Had Facebook existed in the times of Hitler’s ascent, the Nazis would probably have made use of it’, says the Australian computer scientist Andre Oboler who is working on a book about ‘Anti-Semitism 2.0’. ‘The top-sites on the net are search engines or Web 2.0-sites. Hatred can spread there.’
Facebook remained silent – for a year and a half
Oboler, who describes himself as a modern Orthodox Jew, fears that the online social networking sites could cause a ‘new global wave of anti-Semitism’ and ‘heighten the social acceptance of anti-Semitism’.
What is new is the speed with which classical anti-Semitism spreads via YouTube-clips, social networking sites or Wikipedia-articles. Most providers currently lack ‘the competence for an appropriate response’.
In Oboler’s view, Facebook should also ‘take more initiative on its own accord’. Over 48.000 members joined a group called ‘Israel is not a country!’ which cynically urged Facebook to delete Israel from the system’s country menu and spread hate-filled rants on their forum. In spite of many complaints, Facebook didn’t act for a year and a half. But the protest grew from within. A large counter-group was founded, strongly supported by the JIDF, which has over 67.000 members today. It urged Facebook to delete the group ‘Israel is not a country!’ – in early September, Facebook gave in.
Hate-filled sermons is allowed as long as nobody is being threatened
In the short-lived world of the Web, this win for the JIDF only lasted for a few mouse clicks. ‘The Zionists have taken over the old group, so we have founded a new one of the same name. If they destroy this one as well, we will create another, and another, and another.’ But those in charge of the new ‘Israel is not a country’-group are careful to aver that ‘this groups strongly condemns racism’. By now there are several groups of the same name with thousands of members – and counter-groups, who now complain that Facebook users can give ‘Palestine’ as their home country, ‘even though there is no state of Palestine’.
The groups grow faster than Facebook can shut them down – or wants to shut them down. Facebook’s own guidelines do prohibit the dissemination of contents, which Facebook deems ‘threatening, unlawful, inflammatory, vulgar or racist’. But asked about the anti-Israel groups, a spokeswoman reacts with a moral tightrope act. Facebook takes its guidelines ‘very seriously’ and reacts ‘quickly’ to abuse. Groups that threaten violence or are supported by terror organisations are closed. ‘We do not, however, take down groups that speak out against countries, political entities, or ideas.’ The aim is a ‘very delicate balance’ of freedom of speech and the users’ need for security. In other words: Hate-filled sermons are all right as long as nobody is threatened. But even so, Facebook doesn’t always stick to its own guidelines, even in unequivocal cases such as that of the group ‘Hamas Fan’ (1.300 members) which has existed since May. And the question of what Facebook intends to do about a group of Holocaust deniers, which has existed since July 2007, is discreetly left unanswered in the written statement by a company spokeswoman.
From fighters against online-hatred to anti-Islamism
Google Earth has followed a far clearer policy. If one visits Israel on Google Earth, one used to find there, until recently, a mess of orange dots: markings indicating Arab villages which Israel allegedly destroyed in the 1948 war – these are not-verifiable by lay people. Each orange dot was linked to the site palestineremembered.com. Google Earth has now deleted the links.
The JIDF follows an open political agenda as well. Many of its members protested the clearing of Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip in 2005 – they regard this policy of trading Land for Peace as wrong. Ultimately the JIDF also wants to propagate ‘Jewish values on the Internet’. This leads to the self-appointed warriors against online-hatred to link their own homepage to a dubious site named ‘thereligionofpeace.com’. The name is pure sarcasm. The site portrays Mohammad as a supporter of murder and paedophilia, draws a picture of Islam as a religion of hatred and compares it to the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Spanish Inquisition – with a clear result: Islam is much worse.
And sometimes even David loses his countenance as he tilts at the windmills of propaganda: ‘You are sick,’ he writes on Facebook to Ahmad from Saudi Arabia who brags about having devoted a group to the murderer of the Yeshiva-students – and who later provocatively joined one of the counter-groups which protested against it. ‘Get out of here,’ writes David angrily. ‘You terrorist-celebrating, disgusting pig!’