(The National Post, 7 November 2015)
Riding on a Jerusalem bus one day in mid-October, Richard Lakin, a 76-year-old Americanborn Israeli, was attacked by Palestinian terrorists. They shot him and stabbed him many times. He was a victim of the scattered, almost random violence that now afflicts Israel. His death was also one of the first fatalities that could be clearly connected to social media, which has become a 21st-century tool used for fomenting anarchy and insurrection.
News stories during the last seven weeks have referred to events in Israel as a "Facebook Intifada." Lakin's son, Micah Lakin Avni, learned that one of his father's killers used Facebook often and posted a will referring to martyrdom. Elsewhere on Facebook, Avni found exhortations to kill Jews and a chart showing where to stab someone to inflict maximum damage. The freelance murderers of 2015 don't need the backup of quasi-professionals like the Palestinian bomb-makers who guided the Second Intifada. The new terrorists work in small groups or alone. They may have guns, but they also use kitchen knives.
All they need is motivation and a willingness to die as martyrs. Najah al-Khatib, a Palestinian psychologist, says that social media is often used to recruit young people to commit acts of violence: "They don't have the concept of danger or the sense of caution that an adult has."
This phenomenon is so decentralized that it is beyond the reach of governments or police. An Israeli security expert describes it as an "octopus with tentacles but no head." With a little imagination, we can see how exciting it might be for adolescents.
A Facebook page can both fire their emotions and suggest how to turn vicious passion into action. Facebook is often praised as a way to bring people together and promote useful activities that might not otherwise get publicity. But it can just as easily be used to promote bigotry and haphazard killing. The current unrest has been inspired partly by a rumour that Israel plans to take over, for its exclusive use, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a site considered holy by both Jews and Muslims. There's no evidence that the story is true, but when repeated endlessly online, it could feel authentic.
It's often remarked in North America that the partial anonymity of social media encourages a level of insulting meanness. Otherwise decent people can work themselves up into raging idiots. The same thoughtless egotism appears among young Palestinians, intensified by real-life violence. Hours after Lakin was shot and stabbed, as doctors tried to save him, someone triumphantly posted a video re-enactment of the attack and suggested that other young Palestinians go out and do likewise. Lakin's death was marked by a bitter irony. Before retirement, he was a school principal in Connecticut with a strong interest in human rights. In the 1960s, he marched with Martin Luther King and led students to the south as Freedom Riders.
After moving to Israel in 1984, he taught English to mixed classes of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. He advocated a two-state solution as a way to provide Palestinian rights. His own Facebook page carried a picture of Israeli and Arab kids hugging each other and one word, "co-exist."
His family has signed on among the 20,000 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit organized by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israeli lawyer known for her suits against backers of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Her class-action suit, brought in New York with the help of American sympathizers, asked that Facebook be compelled to eliminate posts calling for attacks on Israelis.
"The pages calling for killing Jews have millions of members," she says. "In the past month, we've seen tens of thousands of posts, mainly on Facebook, calling for stabbing Jews and calling on Palestinians to become martyrs." She argues that Facebook has the tools to do what's necessary. Facebook does not allow pornography on its pages and has algorithms that could be adapted to identify the incitement to kill Jews.
Jay Michaelson, in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, wrote this week that a class-action lawsuit "is a 20th-century solution to a 21st-century problem, and will not work." It might do harm.
A multinational corporation censoring anti-Israeli speech will surely have to censor anti-Palestinian speech as well. And do we want Facebook censoring speech?
There's a better way, Michaelson claims. He argues for armies of anti-terrorist, Arabic-literate users tracking Facebook and denouncing the hate propaganda they find. In other words, a crowdsourced anti-terrorism campaign. That sounds like a 21st-century solution. But the chances of a spontaneous, counter-incitement movement seem slim.