It happened in recent weeks to hundreds of Israelis. Their Facebook pages were suddenly blocked, without any advance warning. And no, they weren’t sexually harassing others or uploading violent or racist films to their Timeline. Their pages were victims of the first Israeli Facebook war that is being waged on the internet. Ideological battles between Right and Left are no longer confined to public squares [demonstrations]; instead, they have long since moved to Facebook. Perhaps this isn’t new, but what is new is the use of the Judgment Day weapon — the Report button.
The method is simple. Each side has tens of thousands of Facebook activists and a black list of personal pages and walls that they want to bring down. Facebook allows users to report content that is abusive or bullying, and surfers have learned to exploit this feature — and abuse it too. In order to block a specific page, hundreds of complaints must arrive within a short time period. Theoretically, Facebook is supposed to check if the content is really abusive and if its removal is justified. But in reality, the page is removed almost automatically.
Last week, the mutual Report war reached its peak. The “We are all against the extreme Left” group declared war on a number of left-wing activists. Their names were advertised on the group’s wall, and 15,000 right-wing surfers began to tattle to Facebook on the pages of the Leftist activists. Simultaneously, their walls were bombarded with a gamut of "greetings," the most polite being, “Our best wishes that some Sudanese illegal immigrant will rape your daughter.” Some included threats of violence, even murder.
Amir Shibi, one of the Left-wing activists who got caught in the cross-fire, got sick and tired of this behavior. After his page was blocked and distributed [though hate calls and threats], he arrived last week to the Modiin police and filed a complaint against the operators of a group whose identity is unknown. “The policemen gave me a look of ‘what do you want, it’s only virtual. Come back when they stab you, when they run you over, why are you coming now’?” Shibi recalls. “The truth is, I understood them. But for me and many others, this is a real war.”
Retaliation is on the Way
Shibi, a far-leftist by his own admission and musician by profession, is one of the prominent surfers in this battleground. The tool used by Shibi and his friends in their retaliation are memes, or concepts and sayings that are quickly disseminated on the internet, and especially in the social networks. One of the war-tools of the left-wing surfers is to take real events from current affairs and disseminate them as comics or amusing pictures. When Netanyahu was photographed smiling in the background of the reunion of Noam and Gilad Shalit, the meme-creators immediately disseminated photos of the smiling Netanyahu on the background of historical events such as the liberation of the Western Wall, the landing on the moon and the blowing up Hiroshima. Of course, the most popular, often-used meme is Anastacia Michaeli [an MK who threw water on another MK during a Knesset Education Committee meeting, due to political tension between them]. These memes, some of which poke fun at settlers or rabbis, arouse the ire of surfers from the right side of the map, who then respond with invectives, caricatures of their own or organized [cyber] war.
“We don’t allow topics be removed from the public agenda,” says Shibi. “This is an alternative media. People access social networks in order to update themselves on current events, and that’s what I do in Facebook with the help of Photoshop, a picture, and a few words. We have a few closed groups on the network with which we conduct brain-storming sessions and raise ideas for memes. And this gets the Right-wing activists angry.” And in fact, last week Shibi’s page was blocked for 24 hours after thousands of surfers ratted on him. After it began working again, the page immediately was blocked again for an additional 72 hours.”
“Their Reports also removed scores of pictures of my children, my profile picture, and transmitted the message that it’s not worth my while to start up with them.” After filing a complaint with the police, Shibi decided to turn to Big Brother himself: he found his way to one of the employees of Facebook, explained the situation to him and was privileged to receive special “immunity.” Currently his page is immune from removal, but the battle is not yet over. “Despite the immunity, I still receive ten curse messages a day,” says Shibi.
As part of the cyber war, Shibi and his friends opened a group with the objective of organizing themselves for reprisals, and to accumulate a large number of left-wing surfers to pull down pages from the Right. “We collect intelligence about people and fight back. It is a secret group. We don’t want all kinds of trolls to enter the group and destroy it from the inside. We currently number 400 people, struggling against tens of thousands of surfers on the other side.”
So why are you complaining? This is the very embodiment of democracy.
“It is tyranny of the majority. Facebook represents what is taking place in the country. What to do when the Right is stronger and more dominant these days in the state? But I was happy to see that the Facebook authorities are liberals and they granted me immunity.”
What will be considered ‘a victory? What are the conditions for a cease-fire?
“If there will be honest, real dialogue, that will be victory. But that won’t happen. The human race loves to fight, and that’s evidently what will continue to happen. At the moment there is no cease-fire, the war continues. Perhaps my complaint caused a temporary respite, but we continue to fight.”
Shibi faces tens of thousands of surfers who sharpen their swords into pens and their spears into keyboards. At their head stands Benzi Gopstein, 43, resident of the Forefathers [Avot] neighborhood in Hebron, and a known far-Right activist. Gopstein heads the Lehava organization for the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land (what they try to do is dismantle relationships between Arab males and Jewish girls). Gopstein views Facebook as a tool for disseminating ideology, and especially to provoke the Left. “I work opposite two computers, so I always have a screen with Facebook opposite me,” says Gopstein. “That is the [cyber] war-weapon of the Right. Rabbi Kahane [American-Israeli rabbi and ultra-nationalist writer and political figure, whose work became either the direct or indirect foundation of most modern Jewish terrorist groups, whose party was outlawed as racist] had to walk around the streets, I get updated information from my cell phone.” Every morning, Gopstein uploads a daily Torah lesson from the words of Rabbi Kahane, kisses his wife and kids goodbye and then goes to report for battle.
How does one crash someone else’s page?
“A large number of people Report the page within a short time period. We have groups of 15,000 people, and some 6,000, and also a commando of 100-200 surfers, [and] I personally authorize each and every one of them. They do what they are told. If a left-winger crosses the boundaries [of good taste] we crash his profile. While our main objective is to disseminate Torah [religion], if someone is disruptive we simply eliminate him.”
Gopstein has also suffered quite a few losses. Today he works from four different profiles, whose names he refuses to reveal due to field security concerns. “Every time they close one of them, the second shields me. I report to the activists that one page is going to crash, and everyone quickly connects to the second.” When Gopstein’s friend, MK Michael Ben Ari also became a target for left-wing surfers, Ben Ari’s advisors quickly turned to the Facebook administration. They protested that since Ben Ari is a member of Knesset, the crashing of his profile could cause a “severe diplomatic crisis.” Using these terms!
But it’s not only one lone right-wing activist from Hebron who pulls the strings. If you ask Nitai Peretz, a left-wing surfer and director by profession, what we are seeing is an organized war in which government ministries are involved; ministries controlled by the Right. “I have no secret tapes from ministers’ offices, but I do have several clues that need to be checked out,” says Peretz. Shibi also thinks that the surfer activities are not spontaneous. “According to the [high] levels of organization and activity, it definitely seems that some organized body stands behind this, a government ministry or the 'My Israel' organization.”
Ayelet Shaked, founded of the My Israel organization, emphatically rejects these theories. “We are not at all involved in crashing pages because a page that crashes, can be immediately opened afterwards.” Shaked is one of the veteran fighters in the field. Even since she founded the movement in 2010 together with Naftali Bennett, their Facebook page has collected more than 87 thousand surfers. Recently, it was ranked as one of the top 10 influential Facebook pages in Israel, together with the pages of Yair Lapid, Benjamin Netanyahu and Eyal Golan [the popular Israeli singer].
So what do you do?
“If there is a company that is considering boycotting Israeli products abroad, we flood its page. The entire page is covered, and nothing can be seen except for that. We did this with the Glow Theater Group from England, when they were being pressured by pro-Arab organizations to boycott Israel. We did several things to their Facebook page, and each time they had to close the page because it was flooded.” Every time Shaked comes across “an important mission,” she prints instructions on the Facebook wall of the movement. Sometimes she adds a few sentences in English, for people to copy-paste to the designated wall. “When we bombard a page, our objective is to convince. We have no interest in crashing someone’s page, but only to show that we have thousands of voices on our side.”
In the words of Greek poet and writer, Aesop, “We often give our enemies the means of our own destruction.”