Saturday, February 4th | 13 Shevat 5783

April 18, 2016 6:53 am

When It Comes to Israel, the Internet Is a Sewer

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avatar by Judith Bergman

The Guardian newspaper's London offices. Photo: Derek Harper.

The Guardian newspaper’s London offices. Photo: Derek Harper.

Having the fortune of being born in the internet age, we have the questionable privilege of being privy to a phenomenon that never could have existed in previous ages. The phenomenon has become known as online bullying or harassment. It occurs especially frequently on the sites of news outlets, and it coalesces in particular — as most regular followers of online news sites can attest to — around certain topics.

Yes, you guessed it right: Israel figures at the very top.

In what is probably one of the largest surveys of its kind, the British newspaper The Guardian has confirmed this, black on white. The newspaper analyzed the 70 million comments that have been left on its website since the newspaper opened up for comments. Turns out, unsurprisingly, that Israel-related articles take first prize when it comes to attracting the most abusive comments, followed by feminism and rape. In contrast, Guardian readers were most respectful on the topics of crosswords, cricket, horse-racing — and jazz.

It is hardly surprising that such incendiary topics as jazz and cricket did not get the Brits’ blood boiling. It hardly requires deep analysis to reach this conclusion. However, one thing is the topic. Another aspect, which The Guardian discreetly chooses to lose sight of, is the way that this topic is treated. In other words, there is a cause and an effect, related to the way that The Guardian journalists write about Israel. If you constantly heap abuse on Israel in your news reporting, which The Guardian does, your readers just might have their own bias confirmed and feel reassured in heaping abuse themselves.

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Another huge factor, obviously, is the nature of the internet itself and the consequent emergence of a brand new human species, known as the internet armchair warrior. From the safety of their armchairs, comfortably out of harm’s way and possibly even hiding behind anonymous usernames, millions of people who would otherwise find no audience have gained access to the World Wide Web. People who would never have the guts to confront anyone in real life, let alone shower them with verbal abuse, suddenly grow giant courage muscles from behind their computer screens, a courage that only too frequently morphs into abuse.

While The Guardian‘s analysis is very valid, being based on so many millions of comments, it is worth noting that this is patently not a British phenomenon. Anyone who follows the news on the internet on a regular basis will have long ago discovered that the topic of Israel generally provokes exceedingly heated comments, the intensity of which is frequently inversely proportional with the commenter’s level of knowledge about Israel.

In fairness, and for the sake of perspective, it should be pointed out that while Israel is usually at the top of the heap when it comes to online abuse, it is certainly not alone. The internet is hardly ever a place of truly civilized exchange.

That is the nature of the internet. Everyone gets to have his say and it is not always a pretty sight, unfiltered and straight from the gut. Whereas it is normally considered prudent to think before you speak, the internet clearly operates on a different wavelength: It is the only space in the world where people clearly can get away with doing very little thinking before posting their opinions.

That is why those responsible for the different news sites need to honor the “community standards” they set up for themselves. When it comes to Israel- and Jew-bashing, those standards are very often categorically not honored by the administrators — the vilest antisemitic tropes are allowed to stay in the comments section where they continue to fester. That, however, is not all they do. By allowing those comments, they implicitly legitimize them as part of normal, public discourse and what we are seeing today are the damaging long-term effects of that. For every vile, abusive comment left to fester, someone out there is learning the reprehensible lesson that Israel- and Jew-bashing is publicly acceptable. In this respect, rather than further debate, the comments sections of various news sites have contributed to transforming the internet into a sewer.

Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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