Twitter Agrees To Remove Tweet At Israel’s Request

The Israeli government has for months been engaged in a campaign to censor popular social media platforms, citing security concerns. But critics say Arab citizens are disproportionately targeted.

Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 11, 2016 at 1:22 PM ET

Twitter recently blocked a tweet posted in the United States from being viewed in Israel, at the request of that country’s government. The incident highlighted an ongoing state crackdown on social media in the Middle Eastern state.

Earlier this week, the digital magazine +972 reported that Seattle-based blogger Richard Silverstein was informed by Twitter that Israeli users would be unable to view a tweet he had posted in May this year.

Silverstein previously broke stories blocked in Israel under gag orders; the blogger describes himself as “a thorn in the side” of Israeli censors.

In this case, his tweet—concerning an alleged sexual assault by a senior justice ministry employee on his daughter—may have violated Israeli law on identifying minors. The justice ministry did not respond to requests for clarification.

A Twitter spokesperson told Vocativ that they could not comment on individual accounts but that “…if we receive a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to reactively withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time.”

As far as Silverstein was concerned, however, the move came against a backdrop of rising state pressure to control the free flow of information.

“This is part of a larger orchestrated campaign to bring all media in Israel to heel,” he told Vocativ. Silverstein noted in particular “attacks on Palestinians using social media to oppose occupation.”

This is not the first time Israeli authorities have reached out to U.S.-based media outlets with censorship requests. Indeed, some ostensibly benign platforms have become a chief irritant for the Israeli government, as they struggle to combat a wave of political violence that has been ongoing since October 2015.

Hundreds of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel have been detained by security services as a consequence of their social media posts, bolstering the claims of government critics that the country’s Arab minority has been disproportionately targeted. Palestinian Arabs comprise 20 percent of Israel’s population. In theory, they have the same rights as Jewish citizens. Palestinians in the West Bank are governed by Israeli military law, which has its own wide-ranging definitions.

Dareen Tatour, a 35-year-old poet and Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel, was arrested on charges of inciting violence via her poetry, which she posted on Facebook. And so was 19-year-old Anas Khateeb, whose Facebook statuses included “Jerusalem is Arab,” and “Long live the Intifada.”

Israel’s Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, made the link between social media and government security concerns explicit in July—after a teenage Palestinian boy stabbed a 13-year old Jewish girl to death in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.

“Facebook has turned into a monster,” Erdan told Israel Channel 2 television. “The younger generation in the Palestinian Authority runs its entire discourse of incitement and lies and finally goes out to commit murderous acts on Facebook’s platform.”

Israeli lawmakers leaped into legislative action to produce a so-called Facebook bill, aimed at forcing social media platforms to remove material an Israeli court deemed dangerous to Israel’s security.

Another bill has called for large fines to be levied on platforms that refused to remove alleged incitement content within 48 hours.

But legal experts say that such laws would be impossible to enforce.

“They ask that social media sites block access to content which may be published by foreign nationals, addressed to foreign nationals and posted on foreign websites,” said Israeli cyberlaw attorney Jonathan Klingberg, in an interview with Vocativ. “In this case, there is no way for Israel to seize jurisdiction here.”

“The more pressing issue though is the request to actively monitor social media sites for content,” he continued. “This will not only make the websites liable for the content posted, but also interfere with free speech.”

Nonetheless, he said that the bills had won significant public support in Israel.

The only other countries Klingberg could name trying to push forward similar legislation were Iran and China.

There’s no doubt that such proposed legislation—together with controversial laws marking out foreign-funded NGOs and moves to block activists from the Boycott Divestment, Sanctions movement from entering the country—sends a chilling message to critics of Israeli government policy.

“I don’t fear the legal consequences as much as the atmosphere this creates,” said Roy Peled, a board member of the Movement for Freedom of Information. “This is a political use of the whole notion of incitement.”

Israel already has legislation governing material deemed likely to incite violence, and social media networks have been open to cooperation.

Indeed, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, acknowledged in June that social media platforms acceded to about 70 per cent of Israeli government requests to remove offensive material.

Facebook alone, according to its most recent figures, restricted 236 pieces of content in Israel between July and December 2015 in response to 294 requests from the Israeli government.

“There is no room for content that promotes violence, direct threats, terrorist or hate speeches on our platform,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We have regular dialogue with the [Israeli] government on these issues.”

Peled agreed that there were legitimate concerns about the free flow of information on social media. The atmosphere in Israel, however, reflects a shrinking space for open, public debate.

“The problem is that this is happening in the context of a government trying to increase its control of the free flow of information,” Peled said.

“This is creating a tool that can be used not necessarily against dangerous people on Facebook, but against people the government wants to target.”