As an uneasy ceasefire takes hold in Israel–Palestine, digital terror is not slowing down. Online hate, harassment, and coordination of physical violence have sprouted across social media channels. One Israeli group that combats disinformation and hate cannot work fast enough.
From its offices in Israel, FakeReporter has been sending reports of online threats to Israeli authorities, hoping to prevent them from becoming a reality. The watchdog group of about 10 researchers, activists, and online investigators who are largely volunteers dig into false information and fake accounts online. They had previously focused on state-sponsored disinformation and were caught off guard by the growth of digital hate within Israel.
“We're a disinformation watchdog group so in a way, we weren't ready for this situation,” Executive Director Achiya Schatz told BuzzFeed News.
The online hate captures only part of the ongoing violence. In the course of the fighting, Israel’s rockets killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children. Thirteen people in Israel, including two children, were killed by Hamas-fired rockets. A cease-fire was agreed to on May 21.
But for FakeReporter, the conflict made it clear that the divisions within Israeli society have led to online hate and physical violence. Their team has been working full days and long nights to catalog the violent messages, many of which are crowdsourced through its website. Another organization, Democratic Bloc, helps with the research.
“Right now we're on a mission to save lives.”
“Right now we're on a mission to save lives,” Schatz said.
For the past two weeks, they have watched as hate speech has translated into violence on the streets. They’re monitoring nearly 100 WhatsApp and Telegram channels, most of them in Hebrew. There has been violence across Israel, Schatz said, including against Jewish residents, but the far-right Israeli extremists have been more organized.
“The ground was ready for such violence, because I think that the trend of racism in Israel has been going up for years,” Schatz said.
On May 12 in Bat Yam, a seaside town south of Tel Aviv, a vicious mob attacked a man. FakeReporter watched it happen in the Telegram channels they were monitoring and live on television as the state broadcaster narrated what it called a lynching. The victim was on his way to spend his evening at the beach when a man looked into his car window while it was stuck in traffic and asked him if he was Arab. When he said yes, he was dragged from his car and beaten, as people shouted and filmed the incident on their phones.
The father of four survived but ended up hospitalized and badly hurt. “I was going to the beach [for] time off. I didn’t know I was going to come back like this to my kids,” the victim told Channel 12 News, a top news station in Israel. “Why am I to blame? What did I do to deserve this? Is it my fault I was born Arab?”
Ori Kol, cofounder of FakeReporter, watched the scene unfold on both television and Telegram. “We were trying to see what they were doing, because they were uploading pictures of what they saw, uploading pictures of the violence to the Telegram groups.”
Schatz said FakeReporter filed reports with the Israeli police before the attack, the day of, and the day after, showing extremists threatening to beat up people in Bat Yam. The messages the watchdog group saw were explicit: “I hereby invite you to join a mass brawl on Arabs that will occur today at 6pm in the Bat Yam promenade. Bring the appropriate gear, knives, swords, guns, rocks, wooden boards, cars with bull bars,” one said.
Despite their warning, FakeReporter researchers could only watch as the violence took place. “No one was sent to the ground,” Schatz said. “And a horrible thing happened.”
In the days following the Israeli expulsion of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the storming of the al-Aqsa mosque, extremists gloated about weapons and gave advice on where to get them across Telegram and WhatsApp channels. They posted photos of knives, guns, and batons, according to screenshots seen by BuzzFeed News, as well as posting racist slurs, incitement, false information, and coordination on when and where to meet.
“It's been really a deadly atmosphere in the streets.”
Kol, who monitors some of the groups, said, “It's been really a deadly atmosphere in the streets.”
Enflaming the tensions have been right-wing influencers like 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 last two weeks, and a podcast, he has taken on a role in Israel similar to the one that Donald Trump Jr. plays in the United States: rallying his father's online supporters and spreading hate 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 US officials requesting proof), destroying AP and Al Jazeera offices and residences, Yair Netanyahu increased his attacks on the media. (In a statement after the incident, AP said there was "no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building.")
On May 19, he tweeted a cartoon that showed a crowd of people gathered around a water cooler, with a man holding a rocket launcher standing between them. “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 been retweeting coverage from popular American right-wing influencers, including Ben Shapiro, Dinesh D’Souza, and Andy Ngo, and news outlets like Breitbart and the Federalist.
“Yair Netanyahu uses his social media platform to provide an independent voice for millions of conservatives in Israel who are sidelined by the Israeli establishment media, which is highly biased against the right-wing,” a spokesperson for the family told BuzzFeed News. “Your article labeling his followers as ‘far right’ is a perfect example of such media distortions in a county that is majority right-wing. 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 building bombing, Yair Netanyahu tweeted a call for a protest in front of the house of media executive Avi Weiss. The prime minister’s son then posted flyers calling for protests outside media offices that said, “We say no more to the anti-zionist brainwashing of the media.”
The protest was canceled because of the subsequent outcry it received, but FakeReporter has noticed people sharing screenshots of Yair Netanyahu's tweets. In at least one instance, two people discuss on video whether it would be better to go to the executive’s home or media offices. On Sunday, Yair Netanyahu again called for protests against members of the media.
In recent days, members of the Israeli media have been the victims of violence. Four journalists have been attacked, according to the Jerusalem Post, including one from the public broadcaster that aired the Bat Yam mobbing.
“When we are done fucking Arabs we will go fuck the media,” said one message in a Telegram chat. Others called for a destruction of studios and called Channel 12 “Al Jazeera in Hebrew,” a term popularized by Yair Netanyahu implying sympathy for Hamas.
Yair’s messages are often fodder for the Israeli far-right groups, 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.
“I’m concerned, I’m very scared,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Because I think to myself it’s a very delicate dog whistle and the right-wing extremists and the right-wing activists, they understand exactly the messages that appear on Twitter. They take them to WhatsApp or to Telegram and then all of a sudden they become a call for action.”
“His main contribution that we have seen to these Telegram groups has been in the past few days where right-wingers in these groups have really begun to point at the media for what they see as unpatriotic, treacherous [behavior],” Kol said.
The personal phone number of one prominent reporter and anchor for Channel 12, Dana Weiss, was posted on the groups alongside messages like “congratulate her on a job well done,” according to Kol. Other texts call her “a spokesperson for Jihad” and circulate badly photoshopped images of her wearing a hijab. As a result, she received scores of violent threats, including death threats.
Kol has seen online hate lead to offline violence over and over again.
“The violence starts online and moves into the streets.”
“The violence starts online and moves into the streets,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve seen in our work at FakeReporter as the main lesson we’ve been trying to pass on. And business is booming for online-inspired lynchings, unfortunately, all over the world.”