BDS, "Zio" & Social Media
I am pissed off. Not that anything unexpected has happened: warnings about the extent of
control and infiltration on social media platforms, particularly Facebook, abound. No, I am
pissed off at the apparent lack of awareness and strategy among those I perceive as
having a common goal in promoting critical dialogue and activism around issues like
Israel’s Human Rights record, BDS, racism and false accusations of Anti-Semitism, Brexit
and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as a herald of a new kind of left-wing politics. Instead of
learning our lessons, we have allowed personal differences and an unwillingness to
question ourselves or to let others speak freely to cloud our judgment and divide us. As a
consequence, we stand divided, with no clear strategy and not enough solidarity or
empathy to carry us through. The role and function of social media are an important issue
in all of the above, enabling debate and communication, coordination and dissemination of
ideas while at the same time rendering all these vulnerable to scrutiny and all kinds of
manipulation and potentially exposing serious ideas and critical questions to ridicule,
threats and violence.
In the past 48 hours, Facebook have blocked my access to my own account on the pretext
that my name is incorrect (there are lots of people using psuedonyms on FB) but
presumably due to complaints leveled at me by the UK “charity”, Campaign Against Antisemitism,a Zionist front that I have criticised, whose sole raison d’être is to undermine
Labour UK and Jeremy Corbyn by spreading lies about him and those on the left of the
party. The CAA avail themselves of a newly adopted definition of antisemitism (IHRA) that
defines criticism of Israel and Zionism, or of Jewish organisations and even Jews, as
antisemitic. While this definition has been criticised by scores of experts and is rejected by
many Jews, it has begun to be used to silence criticism of Israel and Facebook appear to
have no problem implementing this new definition, as long as they believe it is within their
rights or that Facebook members who fall foul of the new definition will not be able to take
them to court.
According to the European Digital Rights watchdog:
Facebook is currently under fire due, among other things, to the furore surrounding fake
news and the co-option of Facebook by terrorists. At a time when numerous critics have
concluded that Facebook divides us, Mark Zuckerberg now sees the platform’s future in its
“groups”. Therefore, the company is investing in a friendlier image.
One thing the company is doing, is trying to make its services safer for users, through the
expansion of its “Community Safety Team” and the launch of new functionalities, including
a designated area for groups’ rules of behaviour. On the face of it, a welcome development:
it is important to reflect on how platforms are designed. Which functions serve which
people? How can clever design at early stages of product development minimise the
amount of objectionable content being posted?
Of course, measures that make Facebook safer to use, are welcome. Still, this development leaves us feeling uneasy. By investing in “community leaders”, Facebook is meddling with society’s most essential category: its communities. It is an intervention we can do without. These are our prime objections:
Not a neutral conduit:
Facebook shapes interactions between you and your community, and between the
members of your community amongst one another. Sometimes, it does this explicitly, for
example by offering certain functions and not offering others. But it also does this invisibly,
by indirectly influencing your decisions, “nudging”. In both cases, the user has little or no
insight into how they are being ”guided”, not to mention that they have little or no control.
Facebook controls what may, and may not, be discussed: Do we really want to let our
freedom of expression be dependent on the terms and conditions of a multinational
corporation? Because it is Facebook that decides what is acceptable and what is not. The
company claims it wants to be a “friendly platform” that “brings people together”. That
automatically means the prohibition of certain types of statements. In the past Facebook
has, for example, considered it necessary to block cartoons of the Turkish president Recep
Tayyip Erdogan – they clearly didn’t bring people together enough! YouTube, in turn,
deemed it important to label LGBTQ-related content as not family-friendly. Platforms are
under increasing pressure to combat the spread of “undesirable content”, a term now being
applied to everything from copyrighted material to extremist propaganda and from
unpopular opinions to hate speech. If the current trend continues, we can expect to
encounter censorship on platforms with increasing frequency in the future.
Around the world, communities are doing important work and are taking a stand concerning
something they are passionate about. In doing so, they utilise the means available to them.
It pays to look critically at those means. Do they work equally well for all members of the
community? And where large platforms are involved, how can you prevent them from
becoming the gatekeeper between the members of the community?
Bits of Freedom struggles with this, too. They choose to use Facebook and Twitter, but with
some restrictions: They do not profile individuals through advertisements, nor do they
upload pictures of people or invite them to events. In addition, they invest in channels of
communication they control, such as their newsletter and email groups. Finally, they
organise gatherings offline. They realise their choice of communication channels work
better for some people than for others. For some, they might not work at all. If we want to
increase our ability to rally support for our issues, we need to find more diverse ways of
engagement. Where do we start?
(Contribution by Evelyn Austin, EDRi member Bits of Freedom, the Netherlands;
Translation by Nick Lakides)
Without naming names I would briefly like to refer to a conflict that arose between two
people who I have been following who should and could, in my opinion, join forces in the
face of a common cause. The first of these is a long-time Labour activist with strongly
critical views on the issue of Israel and Zionism who was recently expelled by the Labour
party’s watchdog accused of being an anti-semite or making anti-semitic statements or
criticising the new overly broad definition of anti-semitism.
It is difficult to know exactly what the accusations were and Labour UK have not offered any kind of opportunity for redress, leaving this individual to seek readmittance and possibly compensation or punitive damages through the courts. He has since made a strong stand against antisemitism and in the course of doing so, levelled accusations against other critics of Israel and Zionism, in an apparent effort to distance himself or regain his credibility. His efforts, through posts and threads on Facebook, led to heated discussion and recrimations and he has since shown himself unable to engage in intellectual or reasoned debate outside a narrowly defined range of topics. Thus, when engaging with others who pointed out that the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington is hardly a secret, he refused to engage with the argument that Capitalism and Neoliberalism are not the only forces represented in the political arena and that nationalism and narrow ethnic interests can become closely aligned within Capitalist agendas.
It is a fact that accusations of a conspiracy of Jewish bankers and politicians was part of the anti-semitic tropes exploited by the Nazi’s. This individual therefore defined any attempt to discuss this subject as anti-semitic and those pursuing the discussion as antisemites. The second person I call to account is a well-known writer whose first work offers not just an incisive critique of Israel and Zionism, but also offers an incisive examination of concepts of Judaism, victimhood and identity. This book was, in my opinion, well written and thought out. But its message was not welcomed by the Jewish community and many Jews from both left and right of the political spectrum have since criticised the author and called him an anti-semite and the work antisemitic.
This treatment, though hardly unexpected, seems to have had a profound impact on the author who now disowns his “Jewish” side. Because his arguments seem to expose something about Judaism that corresponds to claims of a Jewish/Israeli conspiracy, rejection by many Jews and accusations of anti-semitism appear to have driven this author further to the right, to adopt some of the language and ideas of the “alt-right” and to claim he is a philosopher rather than an activist (and hence, that his new work is “post-political”). Unfortunately this person, just as the aforementioned one, also has personal quirks like attention seeking and an uncanny ability to avoid criticism so that he is not easy to debate with. One either agrees with him or not.
At this point I would like to introduce a third person, who embodies, for me, a possibility for
reconciliation that the former two individuals appear to reject. Her approach to accusations
of antisemitism is remarkable in that she both invites reasoned criticism and allows her
critics to speak (while remaining admirably calm, something I am not sure I could do) and
also embracing a radical new possibility for herself by creating a new dialogue highlighting
both her personal histor(ies) and historical continuit(ies) between slavery, racism, genocide,
holocaust and Israel’s human rights record and the Palestinian struggle for selfdetermination.
Needless to say her work also embodies ideas about gender and Feminism.
This third person has adopted a creative and inquiring approach that allows her audience to
engage with both the highly personal and subjective aspects of her subject and with the
social, historical and political dimensions of movements and struggles that span centuries.
Her approach is also decidedly un-intellectual, though certainly not without cognizance of
theoretical and ideological discourses. Rather, her one-woman show provides an
opportunity for her audience to situate themselves, their own place and the place of current
events, within a much larger framework than that afforded by ethnocentric, gendercentric,
euorocentric, Western centric discourses emphasising current concerns such as “the war
on terror” ethnic conflict, ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’.
One possible benefit of this approach is that it neither necessitates distancing ourselves
from our ‘ancestry’ and inherited culture, or adopting a fundamentalist idealist stance that
requires us to reject a priori criticism that “sounds antisemitic” racist or any of the other
things the alt-right are currently attacking as being either motivated by personal interest or
by “identity politics”. In this approach, identity can be embraced while still acknowledged as
something of a narrative that we can avail ourselves of to understand the world, but which
we do not need to adhere to when it becomes an obstacle to such understanding, or where
it simply provides a limited worldview.
All of the people discussed above are admirable for their commitments to and contributions
to a BIG DEBATE that ultimately aims to expose the mechanisms of the current social and
cultural paradigms, the political and economic system and to propose possible solutions.
They SHOULD all be working together, complementing each others work, challenging each
other to refine ideas and work out effective strategies.
Unfortunately, chances of this happening seem slim. Facebook provides a ‘soundboard’
and echo chamber for ideas, but it does not provide a framework for reconciliation, for
resolving differences and learning how to get along better. This is hardly surprising
considering the extent to which social media are products of a Capitalist Neoliberal
idealism that views individuals as separate and competing. Even as we renew our
commitments to reasoned dialogue, peace, justice and so on, social media harshly expose
the extent to which we are separated from each other, if not diametrically opposed by
ideological commitments, self-righteousness and other psychological limitations — wanting
to belong, desiring connection, inability to form our own opinions based on research, etc
I am angry, for the reasons stated above, that people who each have so much to contribute
to each other and to all of us, seem unable to recognise the obvious ways in which social
media impose on us the separation that is, it seems, a fundamental mode of Capitalism.
We form allegiances with those who agree with us, but fail to work out our differences with
those we disagree with, opting instead for the easy solution provided by boundless ‘choice’.
Like being able to choose from 30 different brands of toothpaste, our political allegiances
become weak, unstable, empty of real meaning and the possibility of solidarity and
collective action. — Copyright: Daniel Waterman, Feb. 2018