Global Politics

Facebook caught in Israeli-Palestinian divide

By Daniel Estrin

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The technology wizards behind the social networking site Facebook are finding themselves flung from their cozy offices in Silicon Valley into the thicket of political drama halfway across the world.

The Third Palestinian Intifada is a Facebook page calling for just that — a third Palestinian uprising against Israel's military occupation of the West Bank. The anonymous founders of the page have called for neighboring countries on May 15 to "march towards Palestine."

Israelis have taken notice.

"Are social media paving way to potential Palestinian revolutions — not directed to their own leaders, but against Israel?" said an Israeli anchorwoman in a recent TV news report on the booming popularity of the Facebook page which attracted more than 340,000 followers.

Some users wrote anti-Israel epithets on the page. Others posted video clips, including one of a little boy reciting world capitals by heart.

"What's the capital of Israel?" the boy's father asks from behind the camera.

"There is no Israel," the boy says. "It's all Palestine."

The page caught the attention of Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister of public diplomacy.

"When we looked at the page, there were direct calls for violence, incitement against Israel, death to Israel, death to Israelis, things that are unbearable and far beyond the lines of free speech," Edelstein said.

The Israeli minister sent a letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to immediately remove the page from the site.

"Facebook is a wonderful and very positive invention," Edelstein said. "It's very important for us to see that Facebook is a place where people argue about things, discuss things. But it shouldn't be violent."
Navigating global politics

Facebook's stance has typically been not to take a stance. But certain photos and comments started disappearing from the Intifada site yesterday, and Tuesday, the Facebook page was gone without a trace.

It's the latest example of Facebook's tech geeks trying to figure out how to navigate a completely different terrain: Global politics.

Jillian York, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, said when it comes to defining inappropriate content, Facebook's judgment can seem spotty.

The site allows pages promoting Holocaust denial, as a matter of free speech, "but on the other hand, Facebook has taken down content that I would consider far less offensive, such as photographs of mothers breastfeeding children. It's a strange line that Facebook tries to walk on this," York said.

Facebook has been reticent to publically address its vital role in the recent revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Others, like Twitter and Google, have taken a different approach: When Egyptian authorities shut down the internet, the online behemoths launched phone lines so Egyptians could leave voice messages that were translated into text on Twitter.

Facebook is different for a reason, because if it were "to come out and identify as political tool or advocacy tool, there's a strong chance that more countries block them," said York.

China and Vietnam are the only countries left to block Facebook, after Syria unblocked the site about a month ago, York said.

Just because Facebook is staying tight lipped on Middle Eastern events doesn't mean the site's not getting involved. At the height of protests, the Tunisian government set up a fake Facebook page. Tunisian users unknowingly revealed their passwords to the government. Soon after, Facebook rolled out an option to ensure Tunisian users safe login — before the service was offered worldwide.

There is, however, one cause Facebook has embraced publically: peace.facebook.com, a site that tracks Facebook friendships divided by conflict. According to the site, in the past 24 hours, there have been 15,604 new friendships between Israelis and Palestinians on Facebook.

If there's something the social networking giant is willing to take a stand on in the Middle East, it's getting Israelis and Palestinians to be friends or, at least, Facebook friends.