Let’s Remove Slander from Our Online Speech

A month ago a tragedy struck our society. Ariel Ronis, an Interior Ministry official, committed suicide after a post on Facebook accusing him of racism went viral. Ronis’s death shocked many of us. It resurfaced the issue of public shaming on the Internet and put the problematic use of social media into the spotlight.

There are many advantages of social media. I can say from my personal experience as a public representative that I am thankful for the accessibility these platforms permit. Today, thanks to the Internet, I am closer to my constituency. It is easier for me to communicate with the public, to understand their goals, and to recognize what troubles them.

Now it is our job to find the right balance between the benefits and dangers of the Internet. It is our responsibility to make sure that we protect our loved ones from slander, while still allowing ourselves, as a community, to be criticized and monitored.

In the book of Vayikra, the Jewish people are told not to go up and down in the streets telling tales. From here, we learn the prohibition of speaking Lashon HaRa, or improper speech about others. This prohibition, as well as the principle of judging others favorably, is central to our Jewish values. It is with this mindset that we must approach the Internet as well. While each person should have the opportunity to voice frustration and call for change in our society through social media, we must find ways to enhance our democracy without endangering lives.

Last Knesset session, former Knesset member Yifat Kariv and I worked to successfully pass an amendment to the law on sexual assault prevention that defines sexual photos posted online without consent of the subject not only as a privacy issue, but as sexual harassment as well. This change in definition allows the perpetrator to be labeled a sex offender, and the victim to be recognized as a victim of sexual assault. Israel is the first country in the world to pass such legislation that addresses the issue of sexual assault in the technological world. This is one step that we have taken to improve the safety and dignity of those slandered on the Internet.

On the one hand, these legislative initiatives are important in working towards a safer online space. On the other hand, we must also be cautious of introducing restrictive laws that may limit our freedom of speech. In the realm of the Internet, legislation is not always the answer. Technology always precedes legislation. New media and methods of connection are created faster than we can figure out how to regulate them. But this does not absolve our community of responsibility to find other practical solutions to keep our friends and our families safe.

We must think outside of the box and work together to raise awareness and prevent future incidents. First, each and every one of us must understand our individual responsibilities and the care with which we must go about our activity on the Internet. Second, we must address our communal responsibility by building awareness and education, rather than focusing solely on legislative solutions that are often difficult to implement.

I am therefore calling upon the major social network corporations to work together and build a safe space for everyone involved. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter can use existing methods of sophisticated advertising and search features and apply them to security and privacy issues as well. We can be leaders for our community in building a mutual understanding and respect. We can show others how to be active in social and political spheres without speaking ill of individuals involved. Our leadership and awareness will be the most important factors for change in this issue through education and empathy.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.