Haaretz and Hate Speech, Part III: Repeat Offenders

Upon even the most cursory examination, it becomes clear that the English-language Facebook page of Israeli news media outlet Haaretz has disintegrated into the literary equivalent of the National Hockey League—a haven for belligerent boors and brawlers who regularly engage in pointless altercations while the authorities stand idly by, unwilling to intervene for fear of alienating the publication’s audience.

Recent developments relating to the site reveal the scope of its problems in a nutshell. About a month ago, I wrote a blog post for the Times of Israel responding to a message from an individual who presumably handles Haaretz’s social media concerns that pointed to an example of Islamophobic hate speech on its Facebook page with the question, “Nothing to say about this hate speech, Simon?” … a loaded remark meant to deflect my previous criticism of the moderator’s efforts (or lack thereof) to mitigate the rampant anti-Semitism disseminated by users of the site. The individual who posted the bigoted text was a frequent commenter who spent quite a bit of time arguing with others on the page; I asked the staffer who sent me the message whether this person had been banned from commenting—and soon afterward, posts under this individual’s name stopped appearing there.

The problem is, you can’t keep a persistent “troll” down … and guess what? She’s resumed commenting—via a different Facebook moniker. Strangely enough, despite the fact that she maintains a continual presence on the page, this alternate account of hers hasn’t been banned, despite the fact that at least one of her other profiles has been, and operating multiple ones in such a manner is a clear violation of Facebook’s Community Standards.

She’s still there … and is still posting hate speech. Why isn’t Haaretz doing anything about it?

Well, it’s probably for the same reason why the publication doesn’t do anything about the plethora of anti-Semitic hate speech appearing on its Facebook page: there’s a combination of laziness and a reluctance to turn away readers from the “spectacle” of it all that comes into play here. A request for comment, submitted yesterday via the newspaper’s English-language Facebook page message tool, on why the same person who made the Islamophobic remarks pointed out to me is still allowed to post on Haaretz’s Facebook page under a different profile went unanswered at press time. But a good social media editor will weed out fake accounts whose operators have already been banned for offensive commentary under previous profiles … and this obviously isn’t being done. A number of individuals continue to post anti-Semitic comments on the page—including one highly bigoted, abusive troll who often uses the name of a well-known, now-deceased New Zealand personality, among others, to spew his venom. The presence of these individuals isn’t subtle; they’re right out in the open, engaging in verbal fights with other commenters, making all sorts of disturbing generalizations about Jews while perpetuating vile old canards. Indeed, the environment that has been fostered through these interactions is indisputably unsafe, a whirlpool of insults and vitriol that seems to offer no relief.

NHL? Maybe it’s more like Fight Club … without the entertainment value, and with an unhealthy dose of prejudice.

Trolls often come back after being banned in a different guise because a) they have nothing better to do and b) they don’t like being dismissed. In the case of the individual who has used the same moniker as that famous New Zealand personality, there’s likely a serious psychological issue involved as well; this person recently posted angry, pugnacious comments via two different profiles after a third was “blocked” by another individual. So these folks are obviously not the kind of people who create a constructive environment given to civil discourse. The question is: What can be done to mitigate this problem? Is there any hope for Haaretz’s English-language Facebook page yet?

I think there is, but the publication will have to do an awful lot of work to cultivate a more productive forum. The bigoted repeat offenders will need to be banned; the commenters who do participate in polite discussion will need to be encouraged. That the problem of hate speech is pervasive on the site is a potential deterrent; with a little effort, however, it can be made into a much less harmful arena. There’s very little in this world that’s impossible, and crafting an able social media strategy that effectively minimizes prejudice is within reach. Still, this will require a thorough scrutiny of the page’s comments, and that’s not only time-consuming, but it’s also rather grueling … and I’m not sure Haaretz’s Facebook-page moderator, given the precedent set by this individual, is up for the challenge. Add to that the ambiguity of the newspaper’s guidelines on hate speech, which I wrote about in a blog post a short while ago, and you have a recipe for mediocrity. Not a good sign, and certainly not something that inspires a great deal of positive feeling.

Too bad. The mitigation of hate speech on Facebook—and, for that matter, the Internet as a whole—is an admirable goal. Perhaps one day, the folks at Haaretz will see that and take action toward that end. In the meantime, the whirlpool continues to churn, and the invective doth runneth over. Multiple profiles? It’s all part of the game.

And there’s nothing about their presence that suggests they’ll cease being players anytime soon.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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