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Israeli Military Program Highlights Benefits and Pitfalls Of Monitoring Social Media


If you look at Palestinian attacks on Israel over the past year, a pattern emerges. The attackers tend to be young. They appear to be acting alone, and they're usually armed with just a knife or a vehicle. Now the Israeli military is analyzing social media to find people who might be the next Palestinian attackers. NPR's Nick Schifrin talked to a woman in the West Bank who believes she was targeted for what she wrote online.

NICK SCHIFRIN, BYLINE: Jorine Qadeh traces her arrest by Israeli security forces to a single Facebook post. She spoke to me through an interpreter.

JORINE QADEH: (Through interpreter) I wrote on my Facebook page a verse from an Arab poet. The meaning of the verse that I posted was, if I depart, bestow your prayers upon me.

SCHIFRIN: She is a 19-year-old Palestinian in the small village of Shuqba in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Slowly she details how she spent three months in Israeli detention. Her interrogators focused on that poetry verse.

QADEH: (Through interpreter) The whole time I arrested, it was an attempt on the Israeli interrogators part to reach a conclusion that I wrote that post on my Facebook because I was preparing for death.

SCHIFRIN: That conclusion might have been triggered by a new Israeli computer program that searches for would-be attackers by analyzing social media. Israel wouldn't confirm it was the program that flagged Qadeh, but the military invited NPR to speak to a senior official familiar with the program so long as we kept him anonymous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Many of the attackers had suicidal tendencies. That means that several of the messages or posts they're going to make are going to resemble a person who's about to take his own life.

SCHIFRIN: The program - he calls it an algorithm or a machine - was created in response to a new challenge - identify attackers who have no connections to extremist groups, aren't particularly religious and are inspired by things they found on Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere online.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The main characteristic of this wave of violence of the last wave we had last year was of terror by inspiration, and we need to change our tools in order to prevent such attacks.

SCHIFRIN: Israel says the algorithm is designed to find the small number of people online who might launch attacks among the huge number of people online who spout off but don't present a threat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have many, many data on the entire Palestinian society, on that person, whereabouts in his past, what he's done, which car he's renting, what did he do with his credit card, for example. This data will be another signal for you to decide.

SCHIFRIN: The military official says the algorithm helped Israel not only reduce the number of attacks but also positioned soldiers between attackers and civilians. He says it also helped them pinpoint their efforts.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If we do this work correctly, you're more able to prevent yourself from using the collective punishments.

SCHIFRIN: But when I described the program to Qadeh, she says she expects it'll do just the opposite, exacerbating the Palestinian perception that they're targeted collectively by Israelis.

QADEH: (Through interpreter) To them, whoever left his house - any youth that left the house to them meant carrying out an operation.

SCHIFRIN: The military told NPR the information it had gathered on Qadeh which it refused to divulge went, quote, "well beyond a Facebook post," and she, quote, "posed a specific and concrete threat." She denies that.

QADEH: I swear to God. I do nothing.

SCHIFRIN: Qadeh says because of her story, all of her friends are now scared to use Facebook. That might mean fewer examples of online incitement, but she also says they feel censored and frustrated and more angry at Israel. Nick Schifrin, NPR News, Shuqba, West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.