A popular feature of news-oriented web sites are the talkback threads that accompany news articles and opinion columns. CAMERA's monitoring of talkback threads on some popular news sites reveals an alarming proliferation of conspiracy theories and slurs directed against Israel and its supporters. While it is important to allow the free expression of opinions, responsible web sites need to diligently filter out slanderous accusations and misinformation. The absence of fact-checking on talkback threads encourages both deliberate and unintentional spreading of misinformation about Israel and the Middle East conflict. CAMERA's review of Huffington Post articles on Israel during brief periods in March and May, 2009 provided examples of both unchecked slander and misinformation. A particularly pernicious problem was the use of the talkback threads by some commenters to direct readers to web sites that promote both anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda.
The Huffington Post was chosen for review due to its large audience and because of the steady volume of hostile sentiment directed towards the Jewish state and its supporters that accompanies articles dealing with Israel. Several themes and tactics used by anti-Israel commenters stand out in the talkback threads:
1) There is a steady repetition of conspiracy theories claiming excessive Jewish influence in America. American Jews who support Israel are derided as disloyal citizens or agents of Israel. Unsubstantiated accusations that Jews control the media, American foreign policy and the Congress abound. AIPAC, a lobbying group promoting strong ties between Israel and America, receives particular attention.
A comment appearing on a thread discussing the recent meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu (May 20, 2009) is typical:
The only reason Israel has been able to get by with this is because American Jews have bought off Congress in a number of ways - all real.
The talkback to a March 10, 2009 piece describing opposition to the appointment of Chas Freeman, a vocal critic of American support for Israel, to a sensitive intelligence post shows how conspiracy theories can take over the public forum. The thread is rife with calls for "taking back America" and criminalizing AIPAC, an organization funded by voluntary contributions of American citizens. Meanwhile, the lobbying activity by groups with an anti-Israel agenda, some of which receive substantial foreign backing, are largely ignored.
The conspiracy theorists manufacture many "facts" to prove their arguments, but the underlying assumption is that there can be no legitimate reason to support Israel. The argument that American support for Israel is based on a shared ethical and cultural heritage has no resonance with conspiracy theorists. They are also blind towards existing political realities. Poll after poll for the past 50 years indicate the American public sympathizes with Israel over the Arabs by ratios of as much as 5 to 1. But attempts to introduce such objective information are met with ridicule and condescension by conspiracy theory proponents.
2) The comment threads reveal widespread ignorance about basic facts of the conflict and about Israeli society.
American financial support for Israel is routinely exaggerated, often to the point of absurdity. An article discussing tensions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on May 20, 2009 generated a series of comments reciting false figures:
30 billion a year goes to that country [Israel]...
Israel stole 2.3 trillion dollars from the Pentagon when Dov Zackheim was controller of the Pentagon under Rumsfeld.
Another piece critical of Israeli settlers on June 1, 2009 elicited the comment:
money given to Israel by the U.S. comes out to approximately $55,000 annually per person in that country.
The actual figure is less than three billion dollars,amounting to about $400 per Israeli citizen. Nearly all of it is in the form of military aid.
Alongside complaints about American aid with Israel are the denials that Israel has ever provided anything to America in return. Israeli software expertise, medical innovations, water conservation methods and shared intelligence are not acknowledged by these detractors. Nor is there any attempt to inject a balanced perspective. Aid to Israel is only a minor component of American foreign commitments to the defense of its allies, yet the far more costly commitments to the defense of Europe, Japan and South Korea receive no consideration.
Israeli society, laws and polices are misrepresented in order to tar Israel as a racist and exclusionary state. The following statements from the talkback thread associated with the previously mentioned piece on tensions between Netanyahu and Obama are instructive. The correct facts have been added after each falsehood:
You have to be Jewish to hold office in Israel.
Fact: There are Arab and Druse members of Parliament, judges, government ministers and military commanders.
Most Israelis are of European origin.
Today there are six million Europeans and Americans who happen to be Jewish occupying land that was peacefully occupied by Palestinians before 1948...
Fact: Over half of all Israelis are of Middle Eastern and African origin.
Fact: Jewish settlement prior to 1948 drew in Arabs from surrounding regions into what had previously been mostly depopulated areas.
The Palestinians are fighting for survival against Israeli extermination.
Fact: The population of Gaza and the West Bank is ten times what it was in 1948. Since Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the average Palestinian lifespan has increased from 48 to 72 years. All measures of health and well-being improved steadily from 1967 to 2001. Despite intensified conflict since 2001, this has not been reversed. (Refer to data collected by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Palestinian Authority's Central Bureau of Statistics.)
The United States ALREADY paid the price for Israel's abuse of the Palestinians - it was called 9/11.
Fact: Osama Bin Laden's own statements leading up to 9-11 indicate that the main focus of his and al-Quaeda's anger was American involvement in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
3) Lax editorial oversight creates an accomodating environment for inflammatory statements that were once deemed unacceptable by respectable publications. In the May 20 article cited above, one commenter proposed forcibly removing Jews from their homes. Another agreed, adding:
Good suggestion. I would give them Texas so they can bring in all the jews from all over the world. Then, the world will take a deep breath of relief.
These comments are not limited just to articles criticizing Israel, a piece discussing the recent test of a new Iranian missile on May 21, 2009 prompted one commenter to suggest that the "commotion over the missile launch" was an Israeli ploy to incite the world against Iran. Nine of the first ten comments expressed sympathy for the Iranian regime whose leader has openly vowed to erase the Jewish state.
Another article about a leaked Israeli report revealing Venezuela and Bolivia were supplying Iran with Uranium for its nuclear program garnered mostly sympathetic comments for Iran while portraying Israel as a greater threat.
Even articles only tangentially related to Israel, like a May 19 piece on the attempted bombing of a Bronx synagogue by several Muslim converts was met by a string of six negative comments about Jews. A frequent refrain on articles highlighting growing anti-Semitism is that Jews are always complaining about anti-Semitism.
An open letter by several eminent Jewish scholars and humanitarians protesting the appointment of a senior Egyptian official to the post of Director General of UNESCO (the UN organization tasked to promote education and scientific cooperation) because he urged the burning of books by Israeli authors and made other denigrating statements about Israel and Jews, inspired a commenter to respond:
When people start openly questioning the fitness of Zionists to lead important institutions, I'll listen. I point the finger at the Israel as the problem . Go to the root of the problem. But you cant see past your religious identity. Israel means constant war.
Freed from the space limitations and editorial vetting of traditional hardcopy newspapers, web commenters can post as often as they choose. One frequently noticed commenter had posted 5000 comments in less than 5 months. CAMERA reviewed several hundred posts belonging to this commenter and found that all dealt with Israel. A brief survey of several other frequent commenters suggests such prolific and focused commenting is not unusual. The anonymity guaranteed to posters who use fictitious screen names reduces any self-imposed restraint that might otherwise exist due to being openly associated with one's ignorant and hateful comments. Interestingly, another blog, Power Line has now instituted a policy of requiring commenters to reveal their real names. The Huffington Post through neglect or quiet support, accomodates the zealotry of some commenters.
The Huffington Post is by no means unique in this regard. The electronic comment boards of internet news sites like London's Guardian and the Independent newspapers, are rife with unsubstantiated charges against Israel. The sentiments expressed on their comment boards naturally flow from the steady diet of op-ed diatribes and slanted reporting they provide their readership.
While the Huffington Post contains its share of negative portrayals of Israel and its leaders, favorable perspectives on Israel also regularly appear in its news coverage and commentary. Yet, regardless of whether the articles are antagonistic or supportive of Israel, the comment threads almost invariably become littered with hostile sentiments.
CAMERA does not suggest that these sites restrict opinions. Clearly, the Huffington Post and other sites cater to an audience with a range of opinions on Israel and the Middle East conflict. But if the Huffington Post and other news sites seek to gain acceptance as credible, mainstream news providers, it is hoped that they will find a way to moderate comment threads so that they don't become a forum for bigots to sound off and a source for misinforming the public.