Haaretz and Hate Speech: The Price of Leniency

“There’s freedom of speech, and then there are some things you can’t say.”

That was a comment made to me by a staffer at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation after I reported an individual who made a disturbing threat of violence against Jews on Facebook. The remark is telling, because it suggests that even in the Land of the Free, where one is allowed to say almost anything in public, some talk can go beyond the inalienable right to self-expression—and provide authorities with a reason to take action. It suggests that there are standards people must adhere to in civilized society, limits to their liberty, and if they don’t follow these rules, they could find themselves dealing with punitive repercussions.

I thought about these concepts recently after reading a comment sent to me by Simon Spungin, managing editor of the English-language version of Israeli newspaper Haaretz—a response to my inquiry as to why there is so much anti-Semitic hate speech on Haaretz‘s Facebook page and why most of the main offenders haven’t been banned from commenting on it … despite numerous reports to the publication citing specific examples. Here is his reply in full:

Haaretz condemns all forms of hate speech and racism, including the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments from readers which – unfortunately – occasionally appear on our Facebook page and the Facebook pages of many other news outlets. However, the principle of free speech prohibits us from deleting comments – however distasteful – which do not violate our guidelines. Our social media editors act to the best of their ability to delete any comment which does violate these guidelines and to ban those responsible from commenting on our Facebook page.”

That’s all well and good, but the preponderance of virulently anti-Semitic hate speech on Haaretz’s Facebook page—which dwarfs that on the pages of the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post and Ynetnews, where such content is much less prevalent—begs the question: How does the publication’s editorial team actually determine what should be removed and what is merely “distasteful,” and what benchmark of morality is used to determine such criteria? Spungin did not respond to my request for clarification on what Haaretz‘s guidelines on hate speech are … as well as why people who have had content removed and, oftentimes, banned for periods of time by Facebook for violating its guidelines via the posting of hate speech are still allowed to comment on Haaretz‘s page on the site, despite reports to the publication notifying it of these situations? He also did not respond to a request for comment on why some individuals operating multiple Facebook profiles only have certain ones banned from commenting on Haaretz’s Facebook page after posting anti-Semitic hate speech, while they’re able to use other accounts to continue their offensive remarks with impunity.

The ambiguity of Spungin’s statement suggests either one of two conceivable things: There are no established guidelines dictating what is and isn’t hate speech at Haaretz, or such guidelines are arbitrarily generated and subject to the whims and vicissitudes of the editorial team. I suspect it’s the latter, and the content appearing on the newspaper’s English-language Facebook page points to that. How else can one explain the presence of a comment by one “Daniel Lane” recommending to a Jewish individual posting a response to an article on notorious Nazi Josef Mengele that he should be turned into a “lampshade,” as well as another noting that Jews have a “stranglehold on all of the Western World”? Or the existence of comments from “Leki Don” opining that Israel “is a colonized country of some white European religious extremists” who “claim” to be Jewish while actually being of “Khazarian” ancestry … the fundament of a long-disproved theory espousing the non-Middle Eastern origins of Jews? Or, for that matter, the myriad other posts demonizing people who share my religion and culture, who blame the Jews for getting expelled from countries in Europe throughout their history, who espouse Holocaust denial, who label Zionism as “filthy,” and who even call for the destruction of Israel and violence against Jews? The fact is, anti-Semitic hate speech is pervasive on Haaretz‘s Facebook page, and someone isn’t doing his or her job in mitigating it. One look at any random sampling of the responses to any article on the site will tell an observer that. Anti-Semitic hate speech doesn’t “occasionally” appear on the page, as Spungin claims. It’s constant, and the site is overrun with bigots expressing their prejudice clearly and coherently. Haaretz obviously is not addressing this problem as much as it should.

This brings me to another issue reflecting Spungin’s assertion that its “social media editors act to the best of their ability to delete any comment which does violate these guidelines and to ban those responsible from commenting on our Facebook page.” I’ve reported plenty of anti-Semitic comments via the message system incorporated into the page’s fabric, and on one such occasion, where I suggested that the bigots disseminating hateful comment should be banned owing in part to the fact that they don’t contribute to any civil conversation, I was met with the following response from an unidentified Haaretz social media staffer: “If we banned everyone who doesn’t contribute, we’d be banning 80 percent of the people on our FB page.” Such a reply smacks of specious reasoning; it indicates that the publication would rather have a significant amount of commentary on its page rife with hate speech than a paltry amount containing minimal bigotry. The staffer who provided me with this explanation, by the way, may be the same person who, under the Haaretz name, recently posted a response mocking a long-winded, incoherent comment on the page … an unprofessional bit of behavior that could have been better spent deleting more offensive content and banning the perpetrators. A quick look at Haaretz’s editorial staff reveals that “Allison Kaplan Sommer” is listed as the English-language version’s social media editor; an email inquiry sent to her, as well as a request made via the Facebook message system on Haaretz‘s page on the site as to who was the individual who made the “80 percent” comment, elicited no response at press time, so it could not be determined whether it was one and same person. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the social media editor at the newspaper is not thoroughly checking and mitigating the hate speech on its Facebook page, given the infestation of such commentary there. Again: Someone is not doing his or her job.

Or perhaps he or she is doing it a little too well. In light of Spungin’s vague statement about Haaretz‘s guidelines, it’s possible that the social media team is abiding by these parameters—which are so lenient as to allow the horrifically offensive remarks frequently posted on the page. Maybe these guidelines are more rigid than they need be; hate speech on Facebook is extremely creative, and bigots rarely post things such as “I hate Jews” online. Instead, they may say, as “Daniel Lane” did, that someone should be turned into a “lampshade” … a reference to the Nazi’s villainous practices directed at Jews during the Holocaust. Anti-Semites also frequently disguise their hatred of Jewish culture and proponents of it with attacks on “Zionism,” a sophistic differentiation given the fact that Zionism is the idea that Jews should have a state of their own; if one rejects Zionism, one rejects the idea that Jews should have a country, and that’s a root principle of traditional anti-Semitism. Clearly, however, guidelines on hate speech may vary from publication to publication, and it’s obvious that Haaretz‘s, if they exist, don’t reflect reasonable standards. The social media editor of the Jerusalem Post once informed me that anti-Israeli content also may be construed as hate speech, and this is often deleted from the newspaper’s Facebook page; as a moderator for the Times of Israel’s Facebook page, I’m attuned to the capriciousness of bigots and delete and ban accordingly. The standards I adhere to: Comments expressing any sort of prejudice, ranging from racism to misogyny to homophobia to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, are deleted, while the offenders may be banned from commenting further on the page if their comments are particularly virulent. Are there guidelines here? Sure. Do they match Haaretz‘s guidelines? Obviously not, and that’s disturbing—especially when one considers the fact that many of the individuals I and the JPost’s social media editor have banned from commenting on our respective pages have migrated to Haaretz‘s in an effort to continue propagating their hate speech. It’s apparent that Haaretz marches to a lax drumbeat. Unfortunately, this tactic only hurts its readers.

What can be done about this? If I were in Haaretz‘s shoes, I’d seriously reconsider its social media strategy. The publication should employ more specific, transparent guidelines against hate speech on its Facebook page that also address the “creativity” of individual expressions of bigotry. The social media team should be more proactive in mitigating such content on the site—with thorough, daily scrutiny of great importance. Because protecting a newspaper’s readers and keeping a social media site safe for posters to comment without being harassed or subject to abusive, offensive behavior shows that the publication cares about and respects its clientele, and that it won’t tolerate attacks on it. Right now, the quality of Haaretz‘s Facebook page doesn’t suggest as much. It has a long way to go. There’s still time, however, to correct it.

The principle of freedom of speech is a valuable one, and I’m fortunate to live in a country, the United States, where this policy is a fundamental part of the nation’s heritage. Still, as the FBI staffer once told me, there are some things you can’t say, and if those things threaten or cause harm in any way to people, they may be countered by the authorities. Haaretz is such an authority when it comes to the content on its Facebook page, and no amount of spin-doctoring will cover up the fact that it hasn’t taken action against most of the threatening, harmful comments on that site. Will it do so in the future? I’m certainly hopeful. There’s no reason why it should keep the status quo in the interest of hazy, ill-conceived ideals. And it’s for the benefit of its readers that it address anti-Semitic hate speech more dynamically. After all, such intolerance causes harm to others. It’s more than just not contributing to the dialogue among disparate parties—it’s hurting people, verbally and psychologically, and fomenting an unsafe environment. A good social media team will address that.

Methinks the potential end result—a Facebook page where anti-Semitism and all other forms of hate speech are minimized to the point of insignificance—is worth it.

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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