No Com­ment

You think com­ments sec­tions are harsh here in Amer­ica? Check out what’s hap­pen­ing in Is­rael.

Forward Magazine - - News - ISTOCKPHOTO Con­tact Naomi Zevel­off at zevel­off@ for­ward.com or on Twit­ter, @naomizevel­off

By Naomi Zevel­off Tel Aviv In the United States, “Don’t read the com­ments” is such a com­mon re­frain that it’s be­come short­hand for a gen­er­a­tion’s anx­i­ety over abusive in­ter­net be­hav­ior.

In Is­rael, the com­ments sec­tions be­low news ar­ti­cles are no less abusive, but peo­ple do read them, which is why they play a prom­i­nent role in Is­raeli pub­lic dis­course.

Is­raelis even have a spe­cific term for in­ter­net com­ments: “talk­backs,” or “talk­backim” in He­brew.

Like in the United States, news sites in Is­rael be­gan fea­tur­ing com­ments sec­tions in the 1990s as a way to of­fer a pub­lic fo­rum for read­ers to re­spond to news ar­ti­cles. Be­cause the day-to­day news in Is­rael of­ten cov­ers highly ide­o­log­i­cal is­sues — from the fight over Is­rael’s border to the role of re­li­gion in the state — the com­ments sec­tions quickly be­came no­to­ri­ous for their flame wars.

Re­searchers posit a few rea­sons for why Is­raeli “talk­backs” are so ag­gres­sive, chief among them is the ag­gres­sive­ness of Is­raelis them­selves. Ac­cord­ing to Ayelet Kohn, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at The David Yellin Aca­demic Col­lege of Ed­u­ca­tion, in Jerusalem, Is­raelis bring two par­tic­u­larly Is­raeli traits to the “talk­backs” sec­tion. One is the no­tion of talk­ing du­gri, an Ara­bic term that in He­brew means “telling it like it is.” The other is the idea that Is­raelis are al­ways up for a kasach, a con­fronta­tion (also from Ara­bic). So in the com­ments sec­tion, Is­raelis are of­ten both straight­for­ward and bul­ly­ing at once.

For Is­raelis, Kohn con­tin­ued, there is an ad­dic­tive qual­ity to the com­ments sec­tion. Tak­ing part in a real-time con­ver­sa­tion with a large group of peo­ple is “like a big con­fer­ence call,” she said. “You don’t talk po­litely with one per­son, you are shout­ing at every­one else.”

Talk­backs in Is­rael are so ag­gres­sive that the Is­raeli par­lia­ment — it­self no­to­ri­ously frac­tious — once con­sid­ered leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late them. Pro­posed in 2008, the so- called “Talk­back Law” would have made news­pa­pers with over 50,000 vis­i­tors legally re­spon­si­ble for any li­belous com­ments posted by their read­ers. The bill passed a pre­lim­i­nary read­ing but was then frozen so that law­mak­ers and web­sites could ne­go­ti­ate over ad­just­ments to in­ter­net com­ments sec­tions.

Is­rael’s in­tense “talk­back” cul­ture was the sub­ject of a 2007 film by Tzvi- ka Bin­der, “The Talk­back­ers”, which deals par­tially with the story of his fa­ther, Dov Bin­der, a re­tired truck driver who at the time had writ­ten more than 20,000 com­ments on Is­raeli news sites.

Kohn said that left-wing and rightwing Is­raelis are equal of­fend­ers in the com­ments sec­tions. But other an­a­lysts see a preva­lence of vi­cious right-wing re­marks on most news sites.

“There’s a very strong feel­ing in the Is­raeli pub­lic that the me­dia is sort of a left-wing car­tel that doesn’t give full free­dom of speech to right-wingers in Is­rael,” said Oren Per­sico, an ed­i­tor at the Is­raeli me­dia com­men­tary site The Seventh Eye. “I think that feel­ing re­ally got a lot of peo­ple to re­al­ize that they can fi­nally speak out against the left- wing bi­ased me­dia” by leav­ing com­ments be­neath news ar­ti­cles.

Be­cause Is­raelis ac­tu­ally read the com­ments be­neath ar­ti­cles, “talk­backs” are seen as a pow­er­ful way to sway pub­lic opin­ion. If there are too many neg­a­tive com­ments about a cer­tain ar­ti­cle, that ar­ti­cle gets dis­cred­ited in the pub­lic view, Per­sico said. Be­cause of the power of “talk­backs,” it is widely be­lieved that politi­cians and cor­po­ra­tions pay peo­ple to com­ment on Is­raeli web­sites. (This of course hap­pens in the United States, too.) In the most in­fa­mous Is­raeli exam- ple of this phe­nom­e­non, the Is­rael Elec­tric Cor­po­ra­tion, a pub­lic- and gov­ern­ment-owned com­pany, paid com­menters thou­sands of shekels to plant talk­backs un­derneath neg­a­tive ar­ti­cles on Globes, an Is­raeli fi­nan­cial site, in 2009.

Pub­li­ca­tions lack in­cen­tive to curb the on­line con­ver­sa­tion be­cause “talk­backs” bring traf­fic. Ac­cord­ing to Ido Ke­nan, whose blog Room 404 deals with dig­i­tal cul­ture in Is­rael, Is­raeli news sites do lit­tle to screen neg­a­tive com­ments, even when their terms of ser­vice claim that they won’t tol­er­ate on­line abuse.

“They have to have the rules as lip ser­vice, just to say we won’t tol­er­ate ev­ery­thing,” he said. “But the fact is. they do.”

In re­cent years, the “talk­backs” have ac­tu­ally qui­eted down a bit as pub­lic in­ter­net dis­course has moved onto Face­book and Twit­ter. At one time, Is­raeli an­a­lysts be­lieved that Is­raeli com­menters were so ag­gres­sive be­cause they were post­ing anony­mously in the “talk­back” sec­tions. But even with Face­book, where users have real names and pho­tos, the vi­cious­ness con­tin­ues un­abated.

“Now in the last few years you can see that the same dis­course is con­tin­u­ing, and be­hind this dis­course you can see real peo­ple,” said Motti Neiger, dean of the School of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ne­tanya Col­lege. “This is a bit wor­ry­ing.”

Per­haps the most ex­treme ex­am­ple of Is­raeli Face­book dis­course is on a page man­aged by Yoav Eliasi, a rightwing rap­per known as “The Shadow.” His page has a quar­ter of a mil­lion fol­low­ers, who spout big­oted views against Pales­tini­ans and left­ists.

“The Shadow’s Face­book page is, con­sis­tently, one of the places where we find the high­est in­ci­dents of hate speech,” Anat Rosilio, who runs the “hate speech in­dex” cre­ated by the Berl Katznel­son Foun­da­tion, a democ­racy ed­u­ca­tion group, said in an ar­ti­cle in Haaretz.

Rosilio called the amount of in­cite­ment on The Shadow’s Face­book page “crazy.” “The num­bers we find there com­pete with num­bers we see on far, far larger plat­forms — like on Ynet,” she added, re­fer­ring to Is­rael’s most pop­u­lar news site.

De­spite the on­line in­cite­ment, Kohn said that she be­lieves there’s a silver lin­ing to Is­rael’s vig­or­ous in­ter­net dis­course.

“I think in re­al­ity it makes peo­ple very in­volved,” she said. “Every­one has an opin­ion, and every­one wants his or her opin­ion to be heard. It is a nice civil­ian ac­tion.”

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