As has been documented here on countless occasions throughout the last year, the BBC’s coverage of the incitement and glorification of terrorism which fuelled the surge in Palestinian attacks that began in October 2015 – and of the role played by social media in particular – has done very little to meet the corporation’s public purpose remit of enhancing audience understanding of that issue.
Last month we noted that the BBC had refrained from reporting on the visit to Israel by Facebook executives for discussions on the incitement to violence frequently seen on its platform and so it was particularly interesting to see that visit employed in an item which appeared in the ‘BBC Trending’ programme on BBC World Service radio on October 2nd.
The item relates to the very brief closure of Facebook accounts associated with two Palestinian online news outlets last month. As the Times of Israel reported at the time:
“Facebook pages of a number of editors of Quds News Network were suspended for several hours last Friday, a campaigner said, in what the social media giant later called a “mistake.”
Pages linked to the Shehab News Agency were also disabled, an editor there said.
Quds has 5.2 million likes on Facebook, while Shehab has 6.35 million.
The Arabic versions of the online newspapers are supportive of the Hamas terror group and have been accused of incitement to violence against Israelis.
“The pages were removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate,” Facebook said in a statement.
“Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake.””
“Our next story looks at the hashtag ‘Facebook Censors Palestine’ [#FBCensorsPalestine – Ed.] which appeared last weekend. Kate Lamble is still with us. Kate – explain.”
Lamble: “Yes the hashtag has now been used over 120 thousand times on Twitter this week and it’s all part of a campaign run by Palestinian journalists to highlight recent decisions by the social media giant. You see, Facebook plays a key role in the long-running conflict between Israel and Palestine, with both sides using it as a way to get their point across and drum up international support.”
“But over the last year, Israel has become more and more concerned that some people have been using the network to incite violence and glorify stabbing attacks, which have become more common.”
Listeners are not told that the violence has in no way been confined to “stabbing attacks” or who has been perpetrating the violence.
Wendling: “And Kate; Facebook specifically prohibits inciting violence. It’s right there in its terms and conditions – right – so if a post is brought to their attention and they think it violates those terms – it incites violence – they’ll delete it.”
Lamble: “Yeah and it’s that spotlight on online activity that really sets the scene for why this #FBCensorsPalestine campaign was started. Raja Abdulhaq is one of the co-founders of the Quds News Network which is based in Ramallah and has over 5 million likes. Last week they woke up to realise that their Facebook page had a bit of a problem.”
Abdulhaq: “So basically the online editors – at least four of them – their accounts were suspended. So once we started looking around we realised that at least two more networks had the same issue. There’s no way it’s a coincidence, especially after there is a big push from the Israeli government to shut down Palestinian inciting for violence online.”
Failing to clarify that the whole episode lasted no more than a few hours, Lamble goes on:
Lamble: “Now it’s worth saying that Facebook have since apologised and called their actions a mistake but that’s not enough for Raja; he’s still on the campaign trail because he’s convinced that Facebook have somehow agreed to help Israel target content on the platform that they’re unhappy with – including news providers.”
Wendling: “How does the evidence stack up? Is there anything to support that view?”
Lamble: “Well we do know that earlier this year two Israeli ministers announced that they were trying to pass laws to make it illegal to incite violence online and at the beginning of September – less than two weeks before the #FBCensorsPalestine campaign was launched – those same ministers met with Facebook officials.”
Wendling: “Hmm…I wonder what they discussed.”
Lamble: “Yes – well we approached the Israeli government for comment but they didn’t respond. Facebook also haven’t commented on what happened in those meetings and simply say they regularly meet with leaders across the world. But afterwards Israeli newspapers ran headlines claiming that the company had agreed to run joint groups with the country to tackle the issue. Now that obviously worried Palestinians who were concerned that Facebook’s approach would become more biased.”
Wendling: “OK, so I guess there’s this context here and I suppose a little bit of circumstantial evidence for what the Palestinian campaigners believe.”
Lamble: “Yeah – context but not really solid evidence that Facebook might be working with Israel. But if the suggestion is that Palestinian journalists had their accounts unfairly closed because of an over-zealous Israeli campaign against violent content, we have to look at what they were actually publishing. Here’s Raja again.”
Abdulhaq: “The problem here is that Israel and Facebook looking at this without contextualising. When we go to a family and when they talk about their right to resist the occupation, we’re not in any way endorsing or not endorsing. We’re just reporting what the people on the ground are saying.”
Lamble: “I mean you say that you just report the facts but it’s not a neutral news service. At the very least it does use inflammatory language: it talks about martyrs, it puts Israel in quote marks, it published a cartoon of a woman in Arabic dress threatening a tank with a knife. Your cover photo is two people in Palestinian scarves throwing stones. Do you not understand at all that some of that content might contribute to this impression?”
Abdulhaq: “No, absolutely not. We are not in a position to do or to have call of action material. And when it comes to martyrdom, this is the terminology that is used in our culture. When you call a martyr it’s not a call to action that we’re telling people to go and kill yourself or kill somebody else. We’re just saying, based on our narrative.”
Interestingly, when one of Abdulhaq’s colleagues gave an interview to AP a year ago, he was very clear about the fact that his outlet aims to do far more than “just reporting”.
“The Quds News Network, which operates one of the most prominent Palestinian Facebook news sites, has about 3.7 million Facebook followers and says it relies on a network of some 300 stringers throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It breaks news so rapidly that it tends to beat out traditional Palestinian media outlets — even providing those outlets with video and photos.
The site says it is independent, but has a reputation for being affiliated with Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group. Another active Facebook site, run by the Shehab News Network, has about 4.2 million followers and is regarded by Palestinians as being linked with Hamas. Both militant groups oppose Israel’s right to exist, and have killed scores of Israelis in suicide bombings and shootings over the years.
“Our message is twofold. Number one is to support the resistance . second, expose the aggressive acts of the Israeli occupation,” said Ahmed Yousef, 25, an editor at Quds News Network. Sitting in a baklava shop on a recent afternoon, he coordinated coverage with other editors in a Facebook chat group on his cell phone.
Yousef said his site does not encourage violence, but only reflects the attitude of the streets. “During this uprising we have to match the mood of the people,” he said.”
Lamble goes on to give listeners her take-away messaging:
“And this is really the problem: narrative. With two completely opposing views on events, what Israelis see as inciting violence, the Palestinians see as telling the truth and vice versa.”
Wendling: “So Facebook weighing in on the issue. I mean, you know, even if they managed to do it in a completely impartial manner it could be seen as biased by people on either side.”
Lamble: “Yeah, but if we try and figure out if Facebook are being impartial or not, there’s one other issue to take into account. As well as any potential governmental pressure, Facebook is also currently being sued by Shurat HaDin – an Israeli law centre which represents victims of terrorism – for not doing enough to curb online incitement posted by Palestinians.”
Wendling: “‘For not doing enough’…so I mean that’s exactly the opposite of what the Palestinians are accusing Facebook.”
Lamble: “Yeah. I did warn you [giggles] it was slightly complicated. Here’s Nitsana Darshan-Leitner who’s involved in that case.”
Darshan-Leitner: “We basically have two lawsuits against Facebook. One is an injunction: asking the court to compel Facebook to delete all pages that call to kill Jews or incitement to acts of terrorism against Israelis and Jews. The other lawsuit is a monetary lawsuit for $1 bn against Facebook for aiding and abetting terrorism. Facebook is allowing Hamas and other terror organisations to use their platform to spread the ideology and to fundraise and the Anti-terrorism Act does not allow any American company to provide them any type of material support.”
Apparently uninterested in the fact that proscribed terror groups are using Facebook, Lamble changes the subject to introduce false equivalence:
“Do you accept that content which incites violence also comes from Israelis against Palestinians and a lot of that is currently present online?”
Darshan-Leitner: “I’m sure there are calls that call to kill Palestinians. We ourselves did an experiment where we created two identical pages: one page called to kill Palestinians and the other called to kill Israelis. And after two days we asked for Facebook to take both pages down. Facebook immediately took down the page that called to kill Palestinians but left the page that called to kill Israelis standing.”
Lamble: “But are you claiming that those calls against Palestinians and against Israelis are being treated differently?”
Darshan-Leitner: “Absolutely – hundred percent.”
Wendling: “So there we have an equally passionate claim that Facebook are discriminating – this time against Israelis.”
Lamble: “And for what it’s worth, Facebook say both of the pages Nitsana described were eventually taken down and I’ve read about almost an exact same experiment being repeated with the opposite result.”
Wendling: “OK. [laughs] So is Facebook just stuck in the middle of these two warring factions, being attacked from all sides? Or have they opened themselves up to claims that they might have been irresponsible in meeting Israeli ministers but not the Palestinian authorities who tackle online hate speech?”
That latter statement obviously exposes the dire level of Wendling’s understanding of the issue on which he is supposedly informing BBC audiences. There are of course no “Palestinian authorities who tackle online hate speech” and had the BBC done a better job of reporting on incitement and glorification of terrorism throughout the past year, he would perhaps know that official Palestinian bodies – including the PA and Fatah – have themselves regularly used Facebook and other social media platforms (as well as more traditional outlets) to incite violence and glorify acts of terrorism.
Lamble closes the item:
“Well at the moment it seems like Facebook are walking a very thin tightrope of neutrality but they’re trying to please everyone. They’re meeting with the Israeli government to show that they’re listening to their concerns and they’ve also told us they want Palestinians to know their voices will be as safe on Facebook as every other community. It obviously depends where you stand on the political spectrum when deciding whether that’s a successful balancing act.”
Clearly this item once again does little to help BBC audiences understand the gravity of the issue of Palestinian incitement and indeed actively hinders that aim by misleadingly presenting the subject as being about “narrative” and portraying efforts to combat the spread of incitement as “bias”. It does however provide amplification for a campaign run by some Palestinians (apparently with connections to terror groups and ideologies which BBC Trending was obviously not interested in investigating) which is clearly designed to hamper Facebook’s efforts to clamp down on the incitement that they and others have long spread unhindered.