The Rise and Fall of a Facebook Hate Group
By Andre Oboler
Abstract: One Facebook group has repeatedly caught the media’s attention. The group was called "Israel" is not a country! ... Delist it from Facebook as a country! Despite the opinions of experts who highlighted the racist nature of the group, Facebook refused to take action. After unsuccessfully lobbying Facebook for intervention, an organization known as the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) took control of the Facebook group in late July 2008 and began to manually dismantle it from the inside. The rise and fall of this group, and its ultimate shutdown by Facebook, highlights open questions on the right response to online hate in user generated content.
With over 115 million users, Facebook is the largest social
networking site on the internet.
It was initially limited to colleges in the United States, though later expanded
to educational institutions in other countries and then to the general public.
Facebook allows users to share personal information, join
groups, send private messages and leave public notes on either a group or an
individual’s “wall” (a section of screen real estate designated for this
purpose). Members can also share photographs and multimedia and install and use
third party applications based on the Facebook platform.
Facebook’s founder & chief executive officer is Mark
Zuckerberg, a Jewish self made billionaire aged 24. The valuation is based
largely on Microsoft’s investment of $240 million to buy a 1.6 percent stake in
Facebook in 2007.
Rather than going public or selling out, Zuckerberg has expressed a desire to
develop the technology and push the boundaries. He believes in an “intense focus
on openness, sharing information, as both an ideal and a practical strategy to
get things done.”
Without appropriate safeguards including a culture of positive engagement, the
things that get done might, in this author’s opinion, be for better or for
worse. Asked if Facebook would take proactive measures to fight against
antisemitism, Zuckerberg stated that Facebook does not need to be proactive
about it and that Facebook users should use the platform to generate more
Zuckerberg seems to have missed that most of his Western
audience take it for granted that this worldly perspective would include the
championing of civil rights and mutual respect. The values of democracy, freedom
of speech, and grass roots activism are things Facebook is assumed to stand for,
but perhaps only in the West. Facebook could as easily be seen as the ultimate
form of dictatorial control. Imagine the impact Facebook could have had for the
Soviet Union if respect for communist values meant Facebook handing over the
keys to the community party for all members residing in the Soviet Union.
Imagine the power Facebook could have had for indoctrination and the search for
Jews if it had been available to Nazi Germany and in a show of respect, access
to data on those people living under Nazi control were handed over to the Third
Reich. Not all values are equal, and Facebook’s founder is in a uniquely
powerful position in modern society. Companies the world over are only slowly
waking up to corporate responsibility. Facebook’s push for openness is to be
commended as a value, but it is a value from the technical world and, while
Facebook’s roots lie in the technical world, it is now such a part of modern
society that a wider review on impact and opportunity is needed and this
inevitably must include an approach against online hate.
Left to their own devices in a Wild West like atmosphere,
those using Facebook have been pushing the boundaries, including the boundary of
acceptable content. Facebook is a private company, so even in the United States,
First Amendment rights do not apply. The rules governing what is permitted are
made by Facebook itself, and published in the company’s Terms. The rules include a prohibition on
“content that, in the sole judgment of Company, is objectionable or which
restricts or inhibits any other person from using or enjoying the Site.”
Facebook also has a code of conduct, which states that “certain kinds of speech
simply do not belong in a community like Facebook” and enumerated examples
including material that is “derogatory, demeaning, malicious, defamatory,
abusive, offensive or hateful.”
Despite these conditions of use, Facebook has in many cases failed to act or has
taken the approach of only acting on topics receiving sufficient external
negative publicity – even in the Facebook world the press retains its power.
The Facebook Hate Group
The group "Israel" is not a country!... ... Delist it from
Facebook as a country!
was a Facebook group established around January 2007. A group with an almost identical name and description was created in the Hi5 social
networking site on January 9, 2007.
That group today has only 1,076 members, while the Facebook group at its height
had over 48,000 members, over 120,850 posts, over 150 videos and over 100
photographs. While some of this content was in disagreement with the nature of
the group, the majority was decidedly anti-Israel and often antisemitic.
The long running controversy was mostly likely started by Facebook itself when, in October
2006, it removed Palestine from the list of countries people could join. It had
been included in the original list but was now replaced by an entity known as
“Gaza and the West Bank.” Some Palestinians objected to this, claiming it
advocated a position that denied Palestinians ownership of the old city of
Jerusalem as well as East Jerusalem. Facebook quietly restored Palestine to the
country listing in early 2007. Shortly thereafter a group
was established in protest at the re-inclusion, and another group, the now
infamous “Israel is not a country” group was created in response. The growth of the group
from October 2007 until it was closed by Facebook around September 1st
2008 is shown
1. Growth of the Facebook Hate Group
While they may have started off in a similar manner, there was something very different in
the nature of the “Israel is not a country” and “Palestine is not a country”
groups. The difference is not about international law or the legitimacy of
countries. In the electronic world there is no requirement to mirror facts on
the ground, comply with international standards, or even include all countries
in any given list. To give one example, Israel and about four other countries
are missing from the list of countries in the ‘causes’ application (in this case
it is not included in the donations section and the missing listing means people
in Israel can’t donate money via Israeli credit cards). These things happen,
people complain, and usually they get fixed.
The “Israel is not a country” and “Palestine is not a country” groups differed in size, but
this too was not the fundamental difference, though it had an effect on the
impact the groups could have. The most popular “Palestine is not a country”
group has 3,353 members at the time of writing. This is less than 7% of the size
of the “Israel is not a country” group – prior to it being taken over and
members being booted out by the new administrators. Size matters, but it is not
what made this group so different.
What Makes This Group Different?
What makes “Israel is not a country” different from other groups in Facebook is the way it
is used. The “Israel is not a country” group was not designed to seriously
protest the listing of Israel in Facebook, it was simply part of Facebook
politics. That however changed as more radical elements joined the group –
something Facebook itself seems to have missed. The nature of a group can
The earliest press report on the group appeared in the Toronto
Star on May 3, 2007.
The author, Antonia Zerbisias, notes a proliferation of groups and counter
groups noting that “not unlike college campuses in the real world, when it comes
to Israel, it's an all-out war ... of words.” Zerbisias also, it says in the
article, contacted Matt Hicks, senior manager of corporate communications at
Facebook who had until then been unaware of the problem. This article
establishes that Facebook knew of the group for over a year before the takeover,
and for over a year Facebook decided to do nothing. If Zerbisias’ analysis of
this as a college campus style war of words remained accurate the group would
not have grown as large as it did, nor would it have attracted the attention it
The change that occurred is that this protest group became decidedly anti-Israel and
antisemitic, attracting more like minded Facebook members and changing
administrators a number of times. Once Palestine was re-instated, the group’s
goal was met, and the collective membership began forming new goals. The group’s
logo, a map with Israel entirely replaced by “Palestine” promoted replacement
geography in a similar manner to the anti-Israel campaign in Google Earth. The group became highly
linked with anti-Israel and antisemitic websites and campaigns. It was used as a
base to promote general anti-Israel sentiment and to promote an ideology that
advocated the destruction of the Jewish state. The group with its large
membership base was used as a recruitment ground where new campaigns against
Israel could prosper.
The role of this group was promoting online hate, and specifically online antisemitism. As
a result it drew significant attention in early 2008. Addressing the Global
Forum to Combat Antisemitism in February, I presented the group and highlighted
its use of apartheid rhetoric and clever use of denial. Half the statements in
the group’s introduction were antisemitic, the other half were designed to fend
off charges of antisemitism. The New York Jewish Week carried a front
page story on “Antisemitism 2.0” on February 20th 2008, noting the
growth of the “Israel is not a country” group. That report was partly
based on a draft of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ “Online
Antisemitism 2.0” report which provided the first
extensive coverage of antisemitism on the Social Web and coined the phrase
‘Antisemitism 2.0’. The”Israel is not a country” group was one of two detailed
case studies examined in the report. Particular attention was paid to the
group’s clever introduction of itself as a group against racism, while
simultaneously attacking both Israel and the Jewish people. Israel, it claimed,
has no right to exist.
The introduction was reused in 75 different groups which
anti-Israel elements took over in a very similar manner to that used five months
later by the JIDF. The antisemitic takeovers were originally reported in the
press in February. Many of the
groups taken over had names completely unrelated to the conflict. They included
local sports groups, or film appreciation groups. The common thread is simply
that the groups had their location set to Israel or otherwise gave themselves
away as Israeli or Jewish interests. Some of these groups are still up with the
original message still visible. The message is a diatribe familiar to any who
deal with antisemitism; Israel is “an apartheid regime,” Israel “has no right to
exist,” “Israelis accuse people of anti-Semitism every time someone criticizes
Israel,” “Arabs are Semites…unlike most Jews,” “80-90% of Jews today are
Ashkenazi (which is the term for European Jews that are descendants of
converts),” they “use the holocaust to silence critics of their own crime,”
“Israel never met the conditions for its entry into the UN,” the lies go on in
some of the remaining clones despite the ongoing efforts of the JIDF.
Not all the attention showed the group in a negative light.
Ala'a Ghosha, the hostess of a TV show aimed at teenagers, discussed the “Israel is not a
country group” on official Palestinian TV in March 2008. She praised the group,
describing Facebook as “a new battleground between the
Arabs and Israel” and encouraged viewers to join it.
The JIDF Response
On July 27, 2008, the Arutz Sheva Israel television channel published a short report titled
“Jewish Activists Hack Anti-Semitic Facebook Group.” The report notes how the
Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) had taken control of the “Israel is not a
country” group. The JIDF has confirmed for us that the takeover occurred earlier
Following the takeover, the JIDF worked around the clock to empty the group of members.
Once a group is empty, it can be deleted. As a first step the problematic
description, multimedia and the wall were removed – already significantly
mitigating the hate this group was promoting.
The Jerusalem Post followed up with a story on July
This corrected the misrepresentation of the JIDF as hackers. It was certainly a
takeover, but nothing illegal or indeed outside the rules of Facebook had
occurred. Next, in the UK, the
Telegraph picked up the story “Facebook: 'Anti-Semitic' group hijacked by
Jewish force” the story headline declared on July 31.
Hate groups picked up the story too. The Neo-Nazi site Stormfront had the story almost from
the startas did the forums at Al-Jazeera. On Facebook itself two groups were
immediately set up against the JIDF.
On August first, only a few days after taking over the group, the JIDF lost control of the
group. The group’s size had been drastically reduced, the multimedia was gone,
as was the wall, but the group’s problematic description was immediately put
back. Even if the JIDF had maintained control of the group, setting up a new
group takes only a few clicks. The JIDF action did, however, have an impact.
During the few days when the JIDF controlled the group, it
expelled 59% of the group’s membership. Based on the membership increase since
JIDF lost control, we estimated that it would take the group between 12 and 18
months to recover back to its former levels. This was based on the assumption,
later proved incorrect, that neither the JIDF nor Facebook would intervene
during that period.
Following the press coverage about the JIDF, a Wikipedia
article on the JIDF was created. The article soon attracted the attention of
known anti-Israel Wikipedia editors. Even the user who previously deleted all
references in Wikipedia to this author’s website countering online hate (www.ZionismOnTheWeb.org)
participated. In the resulting discussion the antisemitic nature of the Facebook
group was challenged. This challenge was successfully met with references to
articles and reports about the group. Shortly after, it became the consensus
opinion that there was enough evidence that calling the group antisemitic in
Wikipedia was legitimate, Facebook itself then intervened and the group was shut
down entirely. The timing may have been coincidental, but this seems unlikely
given the length of time Facebook has left the group up and defended it as no
more than another opinion.
While Facebook ultimately got it right, this would not have
happened without the JIDF’s intervention both in Facebook itself and later in
Wikipedia. Nor would it have happened without the attention in the press and the
research that led to this attention. Is this really the way society at large
should handle instances of online hate?
Responding to Hate in User Generated Content
Facebook is not the only place where user generated content includes the promotion of hate.
Google Earth has come under fire for allowing replacement geography, Ebay came under fire for its role
in selling Nazi memorabilia and other goods that promote hate, and Craigslist has had issues
with racist accommodation postings. In all these cases the
companies responsible have acknowledged the existence of the material and sought
ways to resolve the issue. In this case, after a year of inaction by Facebook
itself, the users themselves stepped in. Well, some of them at any rate. This
seems in keeping with Zuckerberg’s hands off approach on the topic of
antisemitism and his desire for users to resolve these matters within the
Facebook platform. Facebook’s ultimate intervention was perhaps a result not of
enlightenment, but of risk management. Had the group continued to operate once
the user community at Wikipedia agreed it was racist, Facebook would be clearly
The actions of the JIDF do, however, raise interesting questions. If they acted within the
law, and within the Facebook terms of service… did they do anything wrong?
Should similar attempts be encouraged, or avoided? The shutting down of groups
is censorship, but is censorship always the wrong approach? The most common
approach to antisemitic websites (the main focus prior to the advent of Web 2.0)
was to push for the groups to be shut down by their internet service providers.
Even in this case many were, all along, urging Facebook to step in and remove
the group. There are really only two differences between what almost occurred
(had the JIDF been completely successful) and what occurred when Facebook
The first difference is that Facebook can shut down groups far more easily than users can.
As the owner of the platform, Facebook also has the legal and moral authority to
determine when a breach of the rules has occurred and to take whatever action it
sees as appropriate. The result of direct intervention is usually new protest
groups, added publicity and accusations of “political” positions being taken by
the platform provider. This occurred in October 2006, and again in March 2008 with other controversies.
Facebook, however, as a multi-billion dollar company with enormous power
(absolute power, in fact, inside the Facebook world) needs to realize it cannot
avoid these issues. By simply stepping back and trying to give everyone whatever
they ask for, Facebook becomes a platform open to misuse and abuse. Despite its
terms and conditions of use, Facebook is ill prepared to deal with Antisemitism
2.0. This new generation of online hate is designed to appear socially
acceptable. As such, it aims to have itself classed as legitimate political
discourse. Allowing such hate speech to be published is indeed taking a
position, whether Facebook will admit it or not.
Facebook itself is falling victim to those pressures that help spread Antisemitism 2.0, the
social acceptability of anti-Jewish racism online. Given its responsibility to
Facebook users, not to mention to society at large, Facebook’s hands off
approach, with intervention as the last resort, is legitimizing online hate and
allowing it to spread. One hopes that, at Facebook headquarters, the senior
management team will see the need to take
another look at the implementation of the company’s terms of service and the
need to consider more carefully what counts as legitimate discussion and what
counts as the promotion of hate. Relying on Wikipedia is not the solution.
The wider problem can only be solved by Facebook, either voluntarily or, through external
pressure and legislation at some distant point in the future, taking a more
active role against online hate. The Facebook platform is too powerful a tool to
let fall into the hands of those promoting hate. The only question is who will
realize this first: Facebook, the public or the legislature.
As for the JIDF, it’s a Wild West out
there and until something changes. I’m sure they will be proactively present.
Some will agree, some will disagree, and Facebook will continue to hope, in
vain, that the problem will sort itself out without Facebook’s own intervention
Dr. Andre Oboler is a social media expert. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science from
Lancaster University, UK and is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at
Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is a former Legacy Heritage Fellow at NGO
Monitor in Jerusalem and edits
www.ZionismOnTheWeb.org, a website countering on-line hate.
Megan Jacobs, “Facebook Sparks 'Palestine' Debate,” Jerusalem Post,
October 10, 2007.
 Ziv Hellman, “http :// Web of
Hatred,” Jerusalem Report, June 18, 2008.
Oboler, “Google Earth.”