Social-networking websites may have started out as online cliques where friends could swap opinions on music, pop culture and other bits of innocuous personal trivia. But as the conflict in Gaza has unfolded, it's becoming evident that sites like Facebook are increasingly being used to express political views, adding an acrimonious, even menacing undertone to what were once lighthearted online forums.
While Hamas rockets pummel southern Israel and Israeli bombs decimate Gaza, a parallel war is being fought in virtual communities. On Dec. 27, two hours after Israel began its military operation, Joel Leyden created a Facebook group called "I Support the Israel Defense Forces in Preventing Terror Attacks from Gaza." Leyden, an American who served with the Israeli military, says he has since received dozens of death threats via his Facebook inbox. "People were not just saying 'I hope you die!' but also asking, 'How do you want to die?' " says Leyden, who uses Facebook to alert people about potential attacks on synagogues. Meanwhile, Hamzeh Abu-Abed, who created a Facebook group titled "Let's Collect 500,000 Signatures to Support the Palestinians in Gaza," says he has received similar hate mail. "They said I am a terrorist who should die," says Abu-Abed, an accountant from Jordan. "We have been harassed by Zionists who hacked our group and called themselves the Jewish Internet Defense Force." (See pictures of chaos in the Middle East.)
Of course, Internet users have complained for years that the anonymity of electronic communication breeds incivility. But some say the Gaza conflict is a lightning rod for particularly vitriolic exchanges. For example, one contributor to a forum on Facebook wrote, "Israel = killers," which drew this response from another user: "Maybe I'll wrap a towel around my head and beat my wife for peace in the name of Allah." Rahel Aima, an undergraduate student at Columbia University who frequents several social-networking sites, says she has been "shocked by some of the hyper-distilled hatred and racism that I've seen in the past few days. I've only really seen such a flurry of polarizing sentiments with this current Gaza situation."
The online debate reflects real-world hostilities and passions. The Gaza conflict has sparked heated and sometimes violent demonstrations around the world. But for website operators, the war of words is raising fresh questions about free speech and censorship online. Facebook, which has 150 million active users, does not remove members or groups that speak out against countries, political entities or ideas. "Our goal is to strike a very delicate balance between giving Facebook users the freedom to express their opinions and beliefs, while also ensuring that individuals and groups of people do not feel threatened or endangered," says Facebook spokeswoman Elizabeth Linder. "We've taken action on groups promoting both sides of the current conflict, but do not typically provide details on such instances." (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
Rita King, who studies online communities as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, says the heightened level of hostility since Israel began its military operation is troubling. "Learning how to navigate this potentially dangerous new twist in human interaction is complicated, particularly with regard to issues of security," King says. According to Lea Bishop Shaver, a lecturer at Yale Law School, threatening to kill someone through an online forum "can land you in jail for assault, even if you never touch the person." But she added that making empty threats over the Internet rarely results in prosecution. "To trigger criminal prosecution, the threat has to be a serious one," Shaver says.
In fact, because online forum participants rarely know one another and often live on different continents, threats are rarely serious. Partly for that reason, King maintains that online exchanges even ugly ones facilitate communication and understanding. "The Internet removes the threat of physical harm and thus offers an unprecedented opportunity for the development of new ideas for conflict mediation," she says.
Certainly governments see value in talking directly to the public through online communities. On Dec. 30, the Israeli consulate in New York hosted a press conference on Twitter, a social-messaging service, to respond to questions from the public about Gaza. For Facebook and other social networks, "the struggle ... is to find ways to create an environment that encourages truly meaningful dialogue," says Amy Bruckman, an associate professor at the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Until that happens, a cease-fire is not likely in the virtual world.