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Anti-Israel Bias at Hacker News

Paul Graham created the social news website Hacker News, associated it with his well-known Silicon Valley startup Y Combinator (which is hosting President Obama in May), and ran it until recently. It works similarly to reddit, so you would expect democratic content determined by its users. What most people don't know is how much behind-the-scenes moderators are controlling the stories. They were recently caught penalizing a story on SpaceX merely because a space launch didn't seem like a "major story" to them, and they routinely edit the titles of front page stories.

Covert moderator slant on a user-run news site is a problem. But I want to talk about something more serious. Graham is a political ideologue, and Hacker News is used to present a slanted perspective on Israel and Jewish issues, while claiming neutrality. When it comes to Israel, rather than enforce the site rules, a disturbing double standard is applied.

Israel is a free, democratic country, and a key U.S. ally. It made the desert bloom, turning a wasteland into a modern civilization. Israel is a humane, tolerant country and has Arab members of its government. It has a free press, productive industry, and contributes to scientific progress. Israel provides a home to millions of Jews, who were persecuted in most other countries around the globe. Now some anti-Semites hide under the guise of only being anti-Israel.

Israeli culture values life, while many of its enemies don't. Despite – or perhaps because of – these virtues, Israel has been under attack for pretty much its entire history. It has been violently attacked by Arab states and terrorists, and it has come under political attack from many Western countries which have a history of persecuting Jews. Israel has repeatedly faced existential threats, and survived. In this context, bias against Israel is particularly unwarranted, dangerous, sad and important.

Paul Graham

Let's begin with some background on Graham. His personal website has a revealing 2004 essay. Graham shows us his political leanings by comparing Winston Churchill's speeches to a German "purge". And in the full context of the essay, he is actually setting up Churchill's political opponents as brave Galileos, with Churchill as the Inquisition.
The word "defeatist" ... in Germany in 1917 ... was a weapon, used by Ludendorff in a purge ... At the start of World War II it was used extensively by Churchill and his supporters to silence their opponents. In 1940, any argument against Churchill's aggressive policy was "defeatist". Was it right or wrong? Ideally, no one got far enough to ask that. (emphasis added)
In 1940, Germany was waging an aggressive war in which it conquered a large chunk of Europe and then started bombing Britain. In this context, Graham thinks Churchill was too aggressive, while London was under attack. Now that you have a sense of what kind of political ideologue Graham is, and what sort of essay he wrote, let's examine what it says about Israel:
I admit it seems cowardly to keep quiet. When I read ... that pro-Israel groups are "compiling dossiers" on those who speak out against Israeli human rights abuses ... part of me wants to say, "All right, you bastards, bring it on." The problem is, there are so many things you can't say. If you said them all you'd have no time left for your real work. You'd have to turn into Noam Chomsky.
Graham is misquoting from this article. It reads:
No school has announced plans to divest from Israel, but leaders of the [academic divestment-from-Israel] campaign are seeking to ratchet up the pressure, and plan to plot strategy at the University of Michigan in mid-October.

Supporters of Israel in academia have been organizing as well. The Middle East Forum, a non-profit organization led by several scholars and writers, this week began compiling "dossiers" on professors who criticize Israel and offer "biased" views about the Middle East, Islam, and foreign policy issues.
Graham, in a rejection of scholarship, removed the quotes around "dossiers". Worse, he misrepresented the article and cited it out of context. The article was saying how anti-Israel academics have an organized campaign going on, and some supporters of Israel are organizing as well. Their defense of Israel includes gathering information about biased professors, which isn't sinister. The article isn't, as Graham would have us believe, saying something bad about "pro-Israel groups".

What does Graham think of defenders of Israel? They are "bastards" who he implies are trying to silence their opponents with underhanded tactics that his own source doesn't back up. And in the full context of his essay, Graham has compared professors who oppose divesting from Israel to the Inquisition.

Now you know who Graham is. But what hidden role do his political views play on Hacker News?

Banning Dissent

While running Hacker News, Graham enforced the rules in a selective manner and banned dissent. The most stunning example occurred when the anti-Israel article Propaganda war: trusting what we see? by Paul Reynolds was posted. Reynolds himself received hundreds of emails regarding his inflammatory political article. The article is inappropriate for Hacker News, which has the following policy:
The focus of Hacker News is going to be anything that good hackers would find interesting ... anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

It may be easier to say what that doesn't include. It doesn't include most stories about politics ... Basically, if they'd cover it on TV news, it's off-topic.
Reynolds' political article is something that would be covered on TV news, not something to gratify intellectual curiosity. Recognizing that it was inappropriate for Hacker News, user qqq wrote, "No politics. No anti-semitism. Go away. Flagged." (Disclosure: qqq is Elliot Temple.) Graham replied, 'Following the sentence "no politics" with one equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is a bit hypocritical. It does show why stories that intersect with politics are dangerous though; the topic seems to bring out the most irrational in people.' After implying that qqq is irrational, later that day Paul Graham banned qqq from Hacker News without giving any further reason.

Graham was saying the article merely contains criticism of Israel, and was appropriate for Hacker News, even though it blatantly violated the site guidelines. This shows how Hacker News works: off-topic political articles are allowed when they have the right slant but (as we'll see below) are buried when they don't. The selective enforcement of rules creates a biased environment. Graham doesn't keep his political positions separate from Hacker News.

Anti-Israel or Anti-Semitic?

Does Reynolds' article contain anti-Semitism, as qqq said, or is it merely legitimate criticism of Israel as Graham claimed?

Reynolds calls Israeli public relations "propaganda". That is a strong term. You don't normally see it used when discussing the public relations of others countries like USA, France or Japan. When Israel is attacked in a way other countries aren't, that is a vicious double standard, not reasoned criticism. Now let's look over a condensed version of the article, quoting key parts:
Israel released video of an air attack on 28 December, which appeared to show rockets being loaded onto a lorry. The truck and those close to it were then destroyed by a missile.

a 55-year-old Gaza resident named Ahmed Sanur ... claimed that the truck was his and that he and members of his family and his workers were moving oxygen cylinders from his workshop.

Mr Sanur said that eight people, one of them his son, had been killed. He subsequently told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "These were not Hamas, they were our children... They were not Grad missiles.".

The Israeli response was that the "materiel" was being taken from a site that had stored weapons.

But the incident shows how an apparently definitive piece of video can turn into something much more doubtful.

It is reminiscent of an event in the Nato war against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. In that case, a video taken from the air seemed to show a military convoy which was then attacked.

On the ground however it was discovered that the "trucks" were in fact tractors towing cartloads of civilian refugees, many of whom were killed.

Whether Israel retains any propaganda initiative is not all certain. Pictures of dead and wounded children have undermined its claim to pinpoint accuracy...
Take note of the methods Reynolds uses.

Statements of the free, accountable and democratic Israeli government are held up against the claims of the unknown and unaccountable Ahmed Sanur. Is that a fair comparison? Should those be given equal credence? Would other governments have their statements treated as equally credible to the unsubstantiated story of a hostile foreigner? No, this is a double standard.

Notice how the unsubstantiated claim that Israel killed "children" is echoed later in the article. But has Reynolds determined that Israel killed the children in the unspecified pictures? Or has Reynolds analyzed whether Israeli military actions are justified due to necessary self-defense? No. He's taken events out of the context of ongoing terrorist actions against Israel in order to demonize Israel as child-killer.

Another tactic Reynolds uses is, rather than accusing Israel of murdering civilians, he reminisces about a different unsourced incident. Then he describes "cartloads of civilian refugees" being killed. How do you argue with someone who is just reminiscing? The point isn't to present critical arguments, it's to paint a picture which blows the incident out of proportion.

The thinker Natan Sharansky has published a 3D test for judging anti-Semitism. The three Ds are demonization, double standards, and delegitimization. It only takes one to qualify for anti-Semitism; Reynolds' article fits two. "[W]hen Israel's actions are blown out of all sensible proportion", that is demonization. "When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out", that is a double standard.

For more information about these issues, I recommend starting with The Israel Double Standard by Victor Davis Hanson. In it he argues: "The prejudice against Israel in diplomatic matters is as troubling as more crude bigotry against Jews."

So, Reynolds' argument meets criteria for anti-Semitism. But Graham sided with it, claiming it was merely legitimate "criticism of Israel". Despite it violating site guidelines, he kept it on the site. He even banned a user for dissenting. This demonstrates how Graham's anti-Israel views guide Hacker News moderation and create bias.

Continuing Legacy

Several weeks ago, Graham put Daniel Gackle in charge of Hacker News. Gackle is following in Graham's footsteps. He promptly buried a USA Today article reporting on anti-Semitism.

Gackle explained, "The story is (a) off-topic, (b) designed for outrage, (c) if it isn't propaganda, would require careful sourcing to show it—something that HN is the wrong place for." When an article has the wrong politics, it's promptly moderated as off-topic.

Two days later Gackle's integrity was tested. The political article, Did Israel steal bomb-grade uranium from the United States? from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was posted. Gackle refused to take any action against it, even though it met the same criteria he'd said justified "killing" the USA Today article.

The Bulletin's article was (a) an off-topic political article. It was (b) designed for outrage, as you can see from the title accusing Israel of stealing. And, (c) it would require better sourcing. As I explain below, The Bulletin isn't a reputable source. Unfortunately, Gackle moderates with the same double standard as Graham, selectively burying articles with political views he doesn't like, while keeping articles he agrees with.

Gackle ignored a prompt email explaining the problem in time to act. During the six hours the article was on the front page, he wrote in detail about some minor downvoting issues, proving he was available to moderate. When pressed about the issue, he admitted two days later that he had made an intentional decision as head moderator. Gackle then told the user who raised the issue to stop sending emails. He expressed his unwillingness to consider facts or arguments which contradict him about Israel.

Gackle also emailed, "I see no double standard or even any particular connection between the two stories", ignoring the explanation he'd received. He added that the USA Today story "was a sensational article about an ongoing political battle" and "obviously off-topic". But an article accusing Israel of stealing is also sensational, political, and off-topic. So why doesn't Gackle see any double standard?

In defense of The Bulletin's article, Gackle simply called it "a fairly substantive historical piece". That was after he had already been informed that The Bulletin publishes extreme anti-Semitic revisionist history:
First, Israel cannot be said to face an existential threat when, in the many Arab-Israeli conflicts that have occurred since World War II, Israel has almost always been the aggressor.
This kind of historical lie goes far beyond mere criticism of Israel or a factual error. (Israel has not been the aggressor in its wars. For the real history, read this or any reputable source.) It's so far away from substantive historical analysis that it boggles the mind. But Gackle closed his eyes to his role in spreading this kind of anti-Semitic material. Like Graham before him, Gackle lets his political views guide his moderator actions, and applies a vicious double standard when it comes to Israel.

I call on Hacker News to make immediate changes. Instead of working behind the scenes to promote political biases, take responsibility for creating a fair and neutral forum. Or at least admit how the site works, instead of trying to mislead readers. Israel deserves better treatment.

Update: (2015-10-16) The people behind the scenes at Hacker News now hand pick stories they want on the front page. It's not a user-generated voting-controlled news site. But it pretends to be one and tries to look like one. It's deeply dishonest.

Update 2:Here's another example of controlling the Hacker News front page stories. For some reason they have an ongoing anti-Apple bias too.

Elliot Temple on April 22, 2014

Comments (4)

Politics or Philosophy?

Other than Israel issues, including the identification of "anti-Semites", this blog seems to be mostly about philosophy.

Israel is a relatively small nation, in a world of many nations - over 190 separate nations, each with their own aspirations, conflicts, and (in most cases) skeletons in their closets.

If the blog is politics and philosophy why not discuss the Ukraine, North Korea, Turkey, the Netherlands, Somalia, or New Zealand?

Why are Israel's issues being showcased to this extent, and to the exclusion of other nation's, on a mostly philosophical blog?

T. Amber at 1:33 AM on April 26, 2014 | #2288
People's opinions of Israel and USA, more than any other countries, tests what their morality is like. Israel and USA have the most purity about what they are, so they get the strongest opinions for and against. That makes them particularly important and interesting.

Philosophy should be applied and lead to conclusions on important issues. Israel and USA raise particularly controversial issues, moreso than other top tier countries do.

I don't typically discuss current events. I will now and then, but it's not a focus. I usually talk about things I think have deeper important, such as widespread evil in the modern civilized Western world. Anti-semitism is one of the major widespread evils in the West.

I will reply further on the Fallible Ideas list.

Elliot Temple at 1:43 AM on April 26, 2014 | #2289

Windows Into Men's souls

People's opinions of Israel and USA, more than any other countries, tests what their morality is like.


How so?

Do you mean that you can reliably use their opinions on USA/Israel politics as a way to judge their moral fiber, as a window into their soul?


Israel and USA have the most purity about what they are,

How so? I can think of several nations that have stayed a clearer ideological course, at least for the past 50 years- Norway, Denmark, Japan...

On the other hand, I can think of many instances of double talk, and changed U.S. policy -- for example-- "we promote democracy"(Iraq) to "we don't promote democracy" (Hamas, Iran)

so they get the strongest opinions for and against. That makes them particularly important and interesting.

maybe they get the strongest opinions because they have, and use, the world's biggest military.

Philosophy should be applied and lead to conclusions on important issues.

What other important geo-political issue has the philosophy of this blog attempted a conclusion on? (I've read about vegetarianism, child raising practices, etc, but nothing else of a geo-political nature)


Anti-semitism is one of the major widespread evils in the West.

How so?

We were discussing why you single out Israel as the only nation to discuss on an otherwise mostly philosophy blog. How did you get to discussing antisemitism? (to my understanding, is a form of bias against the jews, (or jews and arabs)

What about anti-arabism? anti-irish bias? anti-black racism? anti-asian biases?

By omitting these, while simultaneously showcasing antisemtism, do you mean to imply that anti-semitism is more evil than any of these other brands of bigotry?

moosh at 2:47 AM on April 26, 2014 | #2291
> By omitting these, while simultaneously showcasing antisemtism, do you mean to imply that anti-semitism is more evil than any of these other brands of bigotry?

Yes.

History has had a lot of hatred-of-others type stuff, I think racism was like that (racism as a political issue today has become weird and complicated, never mind). Hatred-of-others is bad and important. Anti-semitism has historically had the hatred-of-others aspect *and* also a hatred-of-good aspect, which sets it apart.

Another difference is that everyone mainstream in the US is against anti-black racism, and no one is for it. But anti-semitism is popular, even trendy, in the US, mostly on the political left.

> What other important geo-political issue has the philosophy of this blog attempted a conclusion on? (I've read about vegetarianism, child raising practices, etc, but nothing else of a geo-political nature)

The Iraq war is another example I've posted about. I've written about the USA various times, e.g. I did a blog post about the US foodstamp program which sucks a lot.



What kind of perspective are you coming from? What are you hoping to get out of a conversation with me?

I'm also a little confused about why you care about my choice of topics. For a comparison: I am more interested in Apple than Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook or Oracle. So I write about Apple more. So what? I can pick whatever topics I want.



FYI If you write another comment with no quotation marks (preferably > like I used above), I don't plan to reply. I find it too hard to read when quotes and non-quotes look identical.

Elliot Temple at 3:22 AM on April 26, 2014 | #2292

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)