Online hate speech in Israel has become a permanent fixture of the political discourse by now. However, the recent death threats against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest that social media battles may be spiraling out of control.
On Tuesday, police arrested a 55-year-old man on suspicion of threatening Netanyahu’s life. The suspect allegedly posted a message on Facebook urging police to prepare for the funeral of the prime minister and his family.
The man apparently used a pseudonym and on several occasions expressed deep hatred for Netanyahu. One post, on the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, reportedly said that Netanyahu deserved a “bullet in the head.”
While explicit threats against the prime minister are still rare, vicious verbal assaults and calls for violence are not. As many Israelis discovered by now, wishing for someone to die or be raped is not uncommon.
Researcher and scholar Karine Nahon has been closely following online hate speech in Israel for some years and gauging its explosive potential. Years ago already she warned that social media conversations include “terrible verbal violence.”
“It would be enough for one madman to be influenced by this to take action,” she told daily newspaper Ma’ariv. “One Yigal Amir was enough to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin.”
Calls for Violence, Rampant Racism
Nahon continued to monitor online exchanges, and to uncover other troubling developments. Last year, she wrote about the rampant online hatred faced by female politicians. Comments on their Facebook pages routinely include curses, blatant chauvinism, sexual abuse and calls for violence, she said.
The explosion of hatred has come under closer scrutiny in recent years, with some disturbing findings.
The Berl Katzenelson Foundation has been tracking hate speech on social media for several years. Its reports ahead of the April elections painted a grim picture, identifying many thousands of online messages featuring incitement and calls for violence.
The project includes a real-time monitor that currently tracks more than 400 racist conversations on social media every hour. The foundation’s annual report found that Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and leftists are the most hated groups.
Members of the media have also been a favorite target for online haters. A study by the Tel Aviv Journalists Association detected almost 15,000 hate-filled messages against journalists in August of this year.
Nahon’s warning about the possibility that words will lead to violence still resonates today. While the full gravity of the threats against Netanyahu is not yet clear, the escalation in online hate speech bodes badly for the future. In the absence of adequate mechanisms to curb the problem, and given Israel’s growing political polarization, things may soon get worse.