As hostilities escalate between Israel and Hamas, some Israelis have turned to chat apps to organize violent attacks against Palestinians. The New York Times and FakeReporter, an organization that tracks misinformation in the country, found that at least 100 WhatsApp groups and some 20 Telegram channels dedicated to advocating for violence against Palestinians have sprung up over the past week. They feature names like "Death to the Arabs," "The Jewish Guard" and "The Revenge Troops," and local authorities have linked them to dozens of violent incidents against Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.
While extremists the world over have used social media and chat apps to organize and incite violence in the past, researchers the NYT interviewed say these groups and channels have gone further in their use of WhatsApp and Telegram than movements like Stop the Steal. Many of them have seen people not only planning specific action against Palestinians, but also executing on those plans. In one WhatsApp group, the paper found evidence of people sharing instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails and improvised explosives. In a Telegram channel with 400 or so members, the NYT saw admins asking for the addresses of Arab-owned businesses.
Facebook and WhatsApp have historically struggled to crack down on policy violations that have occurred in private chats. In this instance, WhatsApp has banned some of the people involved in the groups on its platform. With conversations between individuals encrypted and groups limited to 256 participants, the company's enforcement efforts have relied on individuals reporting those involved in the groups for terms of service violations. In turn, many of them have taken to vetting new members. Private WhatsApp groups require an invite from an admin to join, and it's not possible to search for them on the platform.
“As a private messaging service, we do not have access to the contents of people's personal chats though when information is reported to us, we take action to ban accounts we believe may be involved in causing imminent harm," a spokesperson for WhatsApp told Engadget. "We also quickly respond to valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us." We've also reached out to Telegram for comment, and we'll update this article when we hear back from the company.
At first, Israeli police didn't act on information on the groups and channels from FakeReporter, but they say they're now "tracking social media and monitoring movements on the ground." A source with the authorities told The New York Times police hadn't seen similar use of WhatsApp and Telegram among Palestinians.