Facebook's Israel Problem

A dispute over Facebook's geography settings has riled Israeli settlers and spurred a Syrian boycott of the site. Benjamin Sarlin on the latest skirmish in an online Mideast proxy war.

Facebook's been on a roll this week, announcing that its revenues were finally exceeding costs and that it had passed the 300-million user mark—meaning it has about as many visitors as there are people in the United States. But the company's stunning international growth has a downside: the world's worst conflicts have become Facebook's problem as well. Now disputes over their handling of the Israeli-Arab conflict are prompting censorship in Syria and talk of a boycott campaign.

The latest international flame war originated in the Golan Heights, a region captured by Israel from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967. While Israel has annexed the territory, virtually the entire world—including the United States—considers it to be occupied Syrian land. Nevertheless, Israeli settlers living in the territory became annoyed recently when they discovered their Facebook pages automatically listed them as residents of Syria, despite the fact that they were Israeli citizens living under Israeli authority. Claiming that the company was taking sides in the conflict, a pro-Israel group called HonestReporting launched a campaign and a Facebook group to allow users in the Golan Heights to list either Syria or Israel as their home country. Within two weeks it had grown to over 2,000 members.

Alex Margolin, the social media editor for HonestReporting, told The Daily Beast he was shocked to see the Syrian government become so involved in such a seemingly minor dispute. “I can’t believe it,” he said. “I'm sitting in an apartment [in Jerasulem] setting up this little group and now there's a whole country after Facebook.”

Seeking a Solomonic solution to its problem in the Holy Land, Facebook agreed to let individual users choose whether to list their towns as being in Syria or Israel. That seemed to satisfy the Israeli protestors, but according to a report in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, Syria's government is enraged over the move by Facebook and is planning a boycott campaign in response.

A Syrian official in Washington, DC declined to address the Golan Heights dispute. He did tell The Daily Beast that the government, which is in a state of war with Israel, had already blocked Facebook in the past over concerns that Israeli citizens and Syrian citizens were communicating online, shutting off what might be a productive means of understanding each other. (Facebook conversations between Israelis and Gaza residents also drew notice during Israel's bombing campaign last year.) But human rights groups claim the Syrian government is using these communications as an excuse to block domestic critics of the government from posting on Facebook.

“It's kind of a sensitive issue here. It is true Facebook has been blocked in Syria and the primary reason is that unfortunately we do not have a peace agreement with Israel,” said the Syrian official, who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely. “Syria has called constantly for establishing normalization of relations based on land for peace and so on and so forth, so we are looking forward to signing a peace agreement based on that,” the official added. The two countries have reportedly discussed a potential deal at various points to end their decades-long conflict and return the Golan Heights to Syria, though negotiations appear to be stalled at the moment.

Alex Margolin, the social media editor for HonestReporting, told The Daily Beast he was shocked to see the Syrian government become so involved in such a seemingly minor dispute.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I'm sitting in an apartment setting up this little group and now there's a whole country after Facebook.”

Margolin, who lives in Jersualem, said his group considered Facebook such an important front because its massive reach and corporate image lends legitimacy to even its unintentional geographic stances.

“I have no suspicion that someone at Facebook was making decisions about who has the Golan and gives it to Syria,” he said. “The reason this was important is that Facebook is not viewed as an overtly political entity. When they make a statement about geography it's looked at as objective and correct as a result.”

Facebook, for its part, says it has not developed any standardized system for dealing with geographic disputes and appears to be doing its best to err on the side of expanding choices for its individual users in the Middle East. Although they have international offices, the final decisions on issues like the Golan Heights are decided in the main headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

“We deal with the listings for disputed territories on a case-by-case basis, and with Golan Heights we decided a dual listing made sense in this instance,” a spokesperson for the company told The Daily Beast.

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The company has already to deal with several disputes involving Israelis and Palestinians.

One point of contention has been whether to allow users to list “Palestine” as a country or to have Palestinian residents listed as occupants of the West Bank and Gaza instead. While no such state has ever existed, many Palestinians consider their land a country-in-waiting and themselves part of a unique national identity.

After Facebook briefly stopped allowing users to list their location as “Palestine” in 2006, activists quickly responded with an online campaign to protest the change. Ronald Habash, 25, a Palestinian-American then studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago, founded one group on Facebook called “The Official Petition to Get Palestine Listed as a Country” and picked up over 14,000 members.

“This was when Facebook was really blowing up and it was huge among college students at the University of Illinois,” Habash said. “I felt it was really important. Obviously there's a conflict and we disagree but can you at least call me by my name?”

Users posted responses from Facebook to their queries about the Palestinian issue and eventually were successful in prompting a change, which Facebook undertook quietly without a press release. But their victory prompted a counter-movement as well, led by pro-Israel activists who formed groups demanding that Palestine's Facebook status be removed given that it is not a recognized state. One group, "Palestine is not a country. Delist it from Facebook as one [sic]!", has over 3,500 members.

In addition, the Palestine change sparked protests from Jewish settlers in the West Bank who, like Israeli Golan Heights residents, were upset that their towns were listed as being in “Palestine.” Their grumblings prompted another change from Facebook, who announced to the press that they would allow users to decide whether settlements like Ariel were displayed as part of Israel or Palestine.

Syria is not the first country to censor the site. In recent months, Iran banned Facebook after the opposition movement used it to organize protests over this year's disputed election. And China blocked the site in an apparent effort to contain news on riots in its Xinjiang region. As the site expands worldwide, it’s likely to encounter more situations like the one now unfolding in the Middle East’s disputed territories. Already a number of small groups are debating Jammu and Kashmir's status, which Pakistan considers to be under Indian occupation, as well as that of Tibet, currently controlled by China.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.