More than 20,000 Israelis are suing Facebook for "facilitating and encouraging" violence against Jews by allowing Palestinian users to post and share how-to videos on stabbing attacks, as well as violent memes and videos glorifying killers as martyrs.
Filed in New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Monday, the lawsuit follows a month of deadly violence in which 11 Israelis have been killed and more than 70 injured in a series of stabbing, shooting and vehicular attacks by Palestinians.
The social media giant founded by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg — a Jewish entrepreneur born in White Plains, NY — has some 1.44 billion active users and has become one of the most popular ways for young Palestinians, many disillusioned by their own news outlets, to access and share information.
'One of the men who shot my father put up his philosophy and will on his Facebook page'
Increasingly, however, the platform has also become a means for Palestinian users to connect with one another and share their anger against Israel, including with gruesome memes and infographics; acts which the lawsuit claims are tantamount to incitement by Facebook.
According to Israel's Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) around one-third of Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem are Facebook users. Among the most popular Palestinian Facebook news sites are the Quds News Network, with 3.7 million followers and believed to be affiliated with the Islamic Jihad militant group, and Shehab News Network, which is believed to be affiliated with Hamas and has 4.2 million followers.
Both are accused by Israel of whipping up the current spate of violence with fiery cartoons praising knife attacks and videos with misleading commentaries. This includes one that showed a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who was run over after carrying out a knife attack — the caption said he was shot by settlers and made no mention of him stabbing someone.
"We are seeing a situation in which Osama Bin Laden meets [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg," Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed last week, prior to the lawsuit being filed. "The incitement on the social networks is what is causing the wave of terror."
But the case filed on Monday by Shurat HaDin, a Jewish legal rights institution, is not just about what is being posted by individuals or news sites but connections that are being made via the platform.
According to the complaint, Facebook not only doesn't remove the material but also, via algorithms, links up like-minded people who share common groups or hashtags such as "Stab" and "Knife Intifada," effectively acting as a "broker or match-maker" between inciters and potential attackers by recommending groups, events or friends.
By facilitating such connections the lawsuit alleges that Facebook can no longer been seen as a "neutral platform" but rather "is introducing the people who scream 'fire' in a crowded theater to arsonists."
'These are things that are not acceptable anywhere in the world. If they were printed on the front page of the "New York Times" or "Washington Post" those papers would immediately be closed down'
"You can find tens of thousands of videos and images on Facebook encouraging people to carry out terror attacks against Jews. You can find the terrorists themselves before they go out to stab posting on Facebook about their acts." Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of Shurat HaDin, told VICE News.
"Then you'll find thousands of posts endorsing their acts, glorifying it, and encouraging others to follow them. This cycle of incitement has inflamed the situation and the only way to stop it is for Facebook to get people and shut it down."
Zooming in on specific examples of the kind of material being shared on Facebook, the 112-page dossier lodged with the Brooklyn court includes actual examples of material being posted by users. Among the screenshots included in the file is an anatomical diagram of the most deadly places to knife someone, a video showing how to most effectively stab a soldier and grab their weapon, and a meme with a Facebook "like" logo stabbing through a Star of David.
Other "status posts" noted in the complaint include one calling on would-be attackers to dip their knives in poison and another telling people to check vehicles passing by for Jews and attack them.
On Tuesday Micah Lakin Avni, a lead plaintiff in the case, told reporters that he wanted Facebook, and other social media outlets such as YouTube and Twitter, to take responsibility for the death of his father who was repeatedly stabbed then shot during an attack by Palestinian assailants on a Jerusalem bus earlier this month.
Richard Lakin, a 76 year-old retired elementary school principle who taught mixed Jewish-Arab classes, was one of three people killed in the assault by two Palestinians, one of whom posted on Facebook that he was about to become a "martyr" shortly before carrying out the attack.
"One of the men who shot my father put up his philosophy and will on his Facebook page… [there were] already hundreds of tweets [about it] before the event even happened," Avni told VICE News.
'You can take a video down from YouTube in seven minutes, but seven minutes is a lifetime on YouTube'
"Facebook and Twitter have become more powerful today, perhaps, than the [UN] secretary-general, the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States. There's a social responsibility to stop this rampant incitement… These are things that are not acceptable anywhere in the world. If they were printed on the front page of the New York Times or Washington Post those papers would immediately be closed down, but when they're drawn out on Facebook by children in East Jerusalem it becomes acceptable, and this has incited a terrible war here."
According to legal team behind the lawsuit, Facebook, and other social media platforms, have previously been granted "blanket immunity" in the US where the legal system treat it as a "bulletin board with no liability on it as a publisher of posts," but this cases seeks to establish a new precedent.
"Facebook has never been sued by 20,000 people before," said Darshan-Leitner. "We say that the posts that people are putting on Facebook today are outlawed and are not protected. It's speech that causes imminent danger and therefore do not enjoy the First Amendment protection. Facebook has a moral obligation and legal obligation — you can't let bloody attacks go on in the streets of Jerusalem and hide behind an immunity clause without taking action to reduce the violence."
But while the lawsuit — which Zuckerberg's Facebook have 20 to 30 days to answer — is entering unknown legal territory, the lawyers behind it say they have already seen "real results." Among them is discreet shift in the company's policy, with posts being reported by users for incitement now reportedly being taken down "within hours."
Social media experts, however, warn that pulling down pages is unlikely to tackle the real issues. "This isn't a problem unique to Palestinians, social media is borderless — you can post something in Damascus, Raqqa, Gaza, or the West Bank and it spreads in seconds, so we're in an age where you can't bury ideas," Orit Perlov a research fellow at INSS told VICE News.
"You can take down a page, 10 pages and find you have a hundred more. You can take a video down from YouTube in seven minutes, but seven minutes is a lifetime on YouTube."
A case in point is that Facebook has previously removed Shehab News after a campaign by an Israeli Students Union to have the page taken down for anti-Semitic content, only to have it later re-emerge on the platform under another guise.
The legal team at Shurat HaDin remain undeterred, however. "We won't stop here," Darshan-Leitner told VICE News. "After we're done with Facebook we'll go after Twitter and YouTube as well."
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem