Amir Levy / Getty Images
The car of the man who was attacked and injured in Bat Yam, Israel
While a troubled ceasefire begins in Israel – Palestine, digital terror is not slowing down. Online hatred, harassment and coordination of physical violence have increased across social media channels. An Israeli group fighting disinformation and hatred cannot work fast enough.
From its offices in Israel, FakeReporter has sent reports of online threats to the Israeli authorities in the hopes that they will not become a reality. The surveillance group of around 10 researchers, activists, and online investigators, most of whom are volunteers, look for fake information and fake accounts online. They had previously focused on state sponsored disinformation and were surprised by the growth in digital hatred in Israel.
“We’re a disinformation watchdog group, so in some ways we weren’t ready for this situation,” managing director Achiya Schatz told BuzzFeed News.
Online hatred only captures part of the ongoing violence. During the fighting, Israel’s rockets killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children. Thirteen people in Israel, including two children, were killed by Hamas rockets. A ceasefire was agreed on May 21.
For FakeReporter, however, the conflict made it clear that the divisions within Israeli society have led to online hatred and physical violence. Her team has worked days and long nights cataloging the violent messages, much of which is being delivered through the company’s website. Another organization, Democratic Bloc, is helping with the research.
“Right now we’re on a mission to save lives.”
“Right now we’re on a mission to save lives,” said Schatz.
For the past two weeks, they have watched hate speech lead to violence on the streets. They monitor nearly 100 WhatsApp and Telegram channels, most of them in Hebrew. There was violence all over Israel, Schatz said, including against Jewish residents, but the far-right Israeli extremists are better organized.
“The ground was ready for such violence because I think the trend of racism in Israel has been rising for years,” said Schatz.
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Palestinian children play next to buildings that were badly damaged by Israeli air strikes earlier this month in Gaza City on May 24, 2021.
On May 12, a vicious mob attacked a man in Bat Yam, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv. FakeReporter watched this on the Telegram channels they monitored and live on TV as the state broadcaster told what it called lynching. The victim was about to spend his evening on the beach when a man looked in his car window while it was stuck in traffic and asked him if he was an Arab. When he said yes, he was pulled out of his car and beaten while people shouted and filmed the incident on their cell phones.
The father of four survived but was hospitalized and seriously injured. “I went to the beach [for] Time out. I didn’t know I would go back to my children like this, ”the victim told Channel 12 News, a top news channel in Israel. “Why am I to blame? What did I do to deserve this? Is it my fault that I was born Arabic? “
Ori Kol, co-founder of FakeReporter, followed the scene on both TV and Telegram. “We tried to see what they were doing because they uploaded pictures of what they saw and uploaded pictures of the violence to the Telegram groups.”
Schatz said FakeReporter filed reports to Israeli police before, the day after, and the day after the attack showing extremists threatening to beat people in Bat Yam. The messages the surveillance group saw were explicit: “I hereby invite you to join a mass brawl against Arabs that will take place on Bat Yam promenade at 6pm today. Bring the appropriate equipment, knives, swords, weapons, stones, wooden boards and cars with bull bars, ”said one.
Despite their warning, FakeReporter researchers were only able to watch the violence take place. “Nobody was sent to the ground,” said Schatz. “And a terrible thing happened.”
In the days following Israel’s displacement of the Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem and the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque, extremists enjoyed guns and gave advice on where to contact them via telegram and WhatsApp. They posted photos of knives, guns and batons according to screenshots from BuzzFeed News, as well as racial slur, incitement, false information and coordination about when and where to meet.
“It was really a deadly atmosphere on the streets.”
Kol, who oversees some of the groups, said, “It was really a deadly atmosphere on the streets.”
Tensions inflamed right-wing influencers such as Yair Netanyahu, the son of the Israeli prime minister. With just over 130,000 followers on Twitter, a Telegram channel that added 1,500 followers in the past two weeks, and a podcast, he’s taken on a role similar to that of Donald Trump Jr. in the US: rallying his father’s online supporters and spreading hatred against their opponents.
After Israeli forces bombed a 12-story building in Gaza that the Israeli military claimed contained “Hamas military intelligence assets” (it did not respond to evidence from US officials), Yair Netanyahu destroyed his attacks on AP and Al Jazeera offices and residences the media. (In a statement following the incident, the AP said there was “no indication that Hamas is in the building or operating in the building”.)
On May 19, he tweeted a cartoon that showed a crowd gathered around a water cooler. A man held a rocket launcher between him. “Sheila works with Al Jazeera and I’m with the Associated Press,” the woman says to the man with the rocket launcher. “How about you?”
Yair Netanyahu has also retweeted coverage from well-known American right-wing influencers like Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza and Andy Ngo, as well as news outlets like Breitbart and the Federalist.
“Yair Netanyahu is using his social media platform to provide an independent voice to millions of conservatives in Israel who are excluded from the Israeli establishment media, which is heavily anti-right-wing,” a family spokesman told BuzzFeed News . “Your article, in which its supporters are referred to as ‘far right’, is a perfect example of such media distortions in a predominantly right-wing district. And your attempted smear job against Yair only shows why independent voices like his are necessary. “
On May 15, the same day as the AP and Al Jazeera bombings, Yair Netanyahu tweeted a protest outside the home of media manager Avi Weiss. The Prime Minister’s son then posted flyers calling for protests in front of the media offices saying, “We are not saying anything more about anti-Zionist brainwashing of the media.”
The protest was canceled because of the outcry that followed, but FakeReporter noticed people sharing screenshots of Yair Netanyahu’s tweets. In at least one case, two people discuss on video whether it would be better to go to the manager’s house or to the media offices. On Sunday, Yair Netanyahu again called for protests against media representatives.
In the past few days, members of the Israeli media have been victims of violence. According to the Jerusalem Post, four journalists were attacked, including one from the public broadcaster that broadcast the Bat Yam bullying.
“When we’re done fucking Arabs, we’ll fuck the media,” said a message on a Telegram chat. Others called for studios to be demolished, calling Channel 12 “Al Jazeera in Hebrew,” a term popularized by Yair Netanyahu that implies sympathy for Hamas.
According to Tehilla Schwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, who studies Israeli social media and consults with FakeReporter, Yair’s messages are often food for right-wing Israeli groups.
“I’m worried, I’m very scared,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Because I think it’s a very tricky dog whistle and right-wing extremists and right-wing activists understand exactly the messages that appear on Twitter. You take them to WhatsApp or Telegram and then suddenly become a call to action. “
And while the construction attack horrified international observers, it inspired extremists in Israel, aided by Yair Netanyahu’s tweets, which they screened and circulated.
“His main contribution that we have seen for these Telegram groups has been in the last few days when the right in these groups have really started to point out the media for what they consider to be unpatriotic and treacherous [behavior]”Said Kol.
The personal phone number of a prominent reporter and presenter for Channel 12, Dana Weiss, was posted in the groups along with messages like “Congratulations on a job well done,” according to Kol. Other texts call her “a spokeswoman for jihad” and distribute poorly photoshopped images of her wearing a hijab. As a result, she received numerous violent threats, including death threats.
Kol saw that online hatred led to offline violence time and time again.
“The violence starts online and takes to the streets.”
“The violence starts online and takes to the streets,” he said. “We saw that in our work at FakeReporter as the most important lesson that we wanted to pass on. And, unfortunately, the online-inspired lynching business is booming around the world. “