13 July 2011 — Electronic Intifada
The New York Times has told The Electronic Intifada it stands fully behind an article by its Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner despite compelling evidence that the article contains fabrications, misleading statements, and gross exaggerations.
In a series of emails between The Electronic Intifada and The New York Times foreign editor Susan Chira, the newspaper defended the article and denied that any corrections or clarifications were required. This is despite the fact that additional data presented by The Electronic Intifada shows that the central premise of the article is false.
In a 9 July article, Bronner profiled a Facebook page called YaLa – Young Leaders. The article suggested that an “enthusiastic” response to the page from thousands of people all over the Arab world indicated an upsurge of interest in coexistence with Israelis that brought to mind the “Facebook-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Not only is there no evidence of a groundswell of interest in online dialogue between Israelis and Arabs, there is substantial evidence to contradict Bronner’s narrative. Additional data collected by The Electronic Intifada and presented to The New York Times found that only a handful of Facebook users had anything more than a cursory relationship with the page before Bronner’s article appeared.
Moreover, The New York Times did not respond to a direct question as to whether it believed a key anecdote in Bronner’s story, after The Electronic Intifada published evidence suggesting it is false.
This post lays out the key issues we asked The New York Times about, analyzes its responses and presents new evidence contradicting Bronner’s central narrative.
How many “active users” does the YaLa – Young Leaders Facebook page have and what does that mean?
In his article, Bronner claimed that the YaLa – Young Leaders Facebook page:
has had 91,000 views in its first month. Of its 22,500 active users, 60 percent are Arabs – mostly Palestinians, followed by Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Lebanese and Saudis.
The Electronic Intifada asked The New York Times for the source of this information and to define what constituted an “active user.”
We also presented The New York Times with a study we did of every post and comment on the YaLa – Young Leaders page’s Wall from 4 May through 9 July (the full study is included at the end of this post).
The study found that in total there were 146 Facebook users who made a total of 519 posts/comments on the Wall. Eighty-six of these users (58%) made only a single post/comment and another 25 (17%) made 2 comments/posts. So 75% of active users made only 1 or 2 comments or posts.
The top ten most active commenters/posters accounted for 51% of the posts/comments (265 out of 519). The most active poster/commenter was the Yala – Young Leaders page owner, while Hamze Awawde and Moad Arqoub were the third and fourth most prolific. They, along with two other top ten users were quoted in Bronner’s article.
In contrast to the claims of broad participation from across the Arab world, we found only two Facebook users who identified themselves as coming from an Arab country other than Palestine – both from Egypt. One made a single comment, and the other a small handful. Neither were among the top ten users.
In response to these data, foreign editor Susan Chira wrote:
Despite your own study, we believe the article remains factually correct. You assert that the only way to participate in a Facebook page is to “like” it. However, Facebook users can engage with a page in multiple ways, including commenting on a status update, liking a post, and other ways without “liking” the page, according to Facebook and to my colleagues who have been administrators of Facebook pages. That activity is described in the article as monthly active users. Mr. Savir shared the Facebook data with us so we could verify it, and the data does in fact substantiate our description of the monthly active users. Your own research is predicated on the “like” metric, so it does not obviate the statistic we use.
Chira did not share with The Electronic Intifada the data she says was shown to The New York Times by Uri Savir, the former Israeli diplomat and director of the Peres Center for Peace who founded the page.
Chira’s claim that Facebook users can “engage with a page” without first “liking” it (becoming a fan) was simply incorrect.
This is important because on 9 July, the YaLa – Younger Leaders page had only about 3,000 fans. It has more than doubled since then as a result of publicity from Bronner’s article.
In a follow-up, Chira acknowledged that in fact a Facebook user must “like” a page before she can post/comment on the Wall. However, Chira insisted:
it is incorrect to say Facebook users cannot see a Wall without LIKING a page or other parts of the page, including applications. It is also incorrect to say users cannot comment or share posts from a Facebook page that they do not LIKE. Users can comment and share a status update/post from a Facebook page – onto their own Facebook page – without LIKING the page.
Can’t see the forest for the trees
At this point The New York Times has completely lost sight of the forest for the trees. Let’s remind ourselves of the main thrust of Bronner’s narrative:
over the past month, the Facebook page has surprised those involved by the enthusiasm it has generated, suggesting that the Facebook-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may offer guidance for coexistence efforts as well.
Called Facebook.com/yalaYL, the site, created by a former Israeli diplomat and unambiguous about its links to Israel, has had 91,000 views in its first month. Of its 22,500 active users, 60 percent are Arabs – mostly Palestinians, followed by Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Lebanese and Saudis.
What any reasonable person would understand from this is that the “enthusiasm” for the page is comparable in scope and significance to “the Facebook-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.”
But the only evidence cited for this is the “active user” number of 22,500 which any reasonable reader would understand to mean that thousands of people had flocked to the page to take part in the kind of discussions snippets of which Bronner quoted.
But that’s just not a true picture. An actual examination of the human interactions on the YaLa – Young Leaders Facebook page indicates that only a tiny handful of people have had anything more than a cursory interaction with the page.
Yet The New York Times insists that the fact that some Facebook users could have shared YouTube videos, photos or other innocuous posts of the kind that dominate the YaLa page to their own personal pages is sufficient to support the claim that there is a groundswell of Arab interest and participation in a project “unambiguous about its links to Israel” worthy of a full write-up on its august pages.
At the same time the newspaper ignores the actually observable human interactions that completely contradict this narrative.
Are Bronner’s lead paragraphs true?
In its original critique of Bronner’s article, this blog cast doubt on the story Bronner told in his lead:
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Moad Arqoub, a Palestinian graduate student, was bouncing around the Internet the other day and came across a site that surprised and attracted him. It was a Facebook page where Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs were talking about everything at once: the prospects of peace, of course, but also soccer, photography and music.”
“I joined immediately because right now, without a peace process and with Israelis and Palestinians physically separated, it is really important for us to be interacting without barriers,” Mr. Arqoub said as he sat at an outdoor cafe in this Palestinian city.
The story is not credible because Arqoub was one of the earliest posters/commenters on the page soon after its official launch, and Arqoub already personally knew the other Palestinian closely involved in the site, Hamze Awawde. Both Arqoub and Awawde, as The Electronic Intifada reported, had met through their involvement an in Israeli organization called MEPEACE.
The Electronic Intifada asked The New York Times if Arqoub or Awawde were administrators or closely involved with the project, and this question:
Do you believe the story in Bronner’s lede that Arqoub was simply “bouncing around on the Internet the other day” and serendipitously happened upon this page?
Chira did not give a direct response to the latter question. However, she wrote:
On your … point about the origins and affiliations of the people Mr. Bronner quoted, I asked him to go back both to Mr. Savir and to each of the people he interviewed and check whether any of them were officially affiliated with the site or had any role in setting it up. The answer from all of them is no. The people interviewed are indeed active in interacting with the site, but they have no official role, according to Mr. Savir, Mr. Awade and Mr. Arqoub. Nor did the article state that Mr. Awade and Mr. Arqoub “were brought together by the page.” It said they are both Palestinians who have had an interest in coexistance efforts before.
Chira did not say if The New York Times examined the strong evidence that both Awawde and Arqoub were de facto administrators and representatives of the YaLa initiative in an “unofficial” capacity, nor what their relationship was with the page’s founders prior to its launch.
Nor do we know who actually administers the page if it is not Awawde or Arqoub. Savir, while the figurehead for the project, has no postings under his name.
Given the fact that the story about how Arqoub came across the site “the other day” is almost certainly false – and Chira would not stand by it – it seems extraordinary that The New York Times would rely on the word of the same sources and decline to carry out any fact-checking of its own.
Another important question Chira should ask Bronner – assuming she hasn’t: how did Bronner come upon this story? Who fed it to him?
Ignoring the grassroots, watering the astroturf
The Electronic Intifada asked in its initial posting on Bronner’s story and in the correspondence with Chira why Bronner would promote this marginal Facebook page with a small handful of active participants and ignore the real groundswell of Palestinians and Arabs who oppose “dialogue” initiatives aimed at normalizing Israel’s relations with the Arab world.
Just last week, for example, the Egyptian Independent Union Federation issued a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people that pledged to “reject any form of normal relations” with Israel, including gas supply agreements, and confirmed the trade union federation’s support for the Palestinian-led campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
in response to your objection that we failed to note the context that there are Palestinians who object to this kind of contact, the article does state, “At a time when Arabs generally shun contact with Israelis, those on the site speak openly about their desire to learn more about one another.”
Does Chira really think that noting in passing that “there are Palestinians” who object, while hyping and exaggerating a trivial dialogue initiative, substitutes for real reporting on why Palestinians overwhelmingly oppose such initiatives, and allowing them to explain their critiques and analyses?
Why does this matter?
The highly misleading narrative and dubious factual claims in Bronner’s article on the YaLa-Young Leaders Facebook page constitute serious journalistic malpractice. But instead of acknowledging this, The New York Times has dug in to defend this bogus story come what may.
Perhaps this is because acknowledging any error on the part of Bronner – or his editors – would force the newspaper to reckon with Bronner’s blatant and even more significant biases.
In January 2010, The Electronic Intifada revealed that Bronner had a serious conflict of interest: his son had enlisted in the Israeli army.
Clark Hoyt, the Public Editor of The New York Times at the time agreed with us and urged that Bronner be reassigned. The newspaper did not take their colleague’s advice.
Since then, Hoyt has sadly been proven right that the question of Palestine is simply “too close to home” for Bronner.
Last May, as Palestinians marked the 63rd anniversary of their expulsion from Palestine – the Nakba – Bronner presented a highly skewed version of history, a common Israeli propaganda refrain:
After Israel declared independence on May 15, 1948, armies from neighboring Arab states attacked the new nation; during the war that followed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces.
As The Electronic Intifada reported, Bronner omitted the crucial fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes by Zionist militias in the months before 15 May 1948 and the intervention of Arab armies – a fact that completely changes many people’s understanding of what occurred.
In an important analysis, Youssef Munayyer, executive director of The Palestine Center, showed that Bronner’s skewed reporting about the Nakba contradicted even the Times’ own contemporaneous reports from 1948.
When the Jerusalem bureau chief was confronted about this by the current public editor, Arthur Brisbane, “Mr. Bronner responded that space was limited in a short story and he wasn’t trying to recite the full history.”
So Bronner’s idea of reporting is to make sure to fill up his word allotment with information that supports Israel’s official narrative while omitting facts that are central to Palestinian history and present-day claims.
Bronner’s latest piece of shoddy journalism not only reminds us of his own inability to see the situation from outside the cozy corner of West Jerusalem, ethnically-cleansed of Palestinians, that he inhabits, but indicates that he is aided and abetted by editors who will apparently put up with any absurd claim or outright falsehood.
Public Editor Arthur Brisbane revealed a truth when he wrote:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in short, is the third rail of New York Times journalism. Touch it and burn.
Reference material: The Electronic Intifada’s study of the YaLa – Young Leaders Facebook Wall as shared with The New York Times
We made a survey of active users of the YaLa – Young Leaders Facebook page from the time it was started on May 4 up to the evening of July 9 (several hours after Bronner’s article first appeared on The New York Times website).
This survey was made from an image of the entire YaLa-Young Leaders Facebook wall taken on July 9 at 10:21pm Central Time. You can download this image from:
The exact methodology is described so that it can be replicated. Note this is a fairly tedious process and took about four hours to complete.
At that time the page had 3,087 fans (people who “liked” the page), as can be seen in the image.
When you became fan of or “like” a Facebook page, you then have permission to post on its wall. Page owners have some discretion over settings. Becoming a fan is a condition for permission to post on YaLa-Young Leaders wall.
When you have permission to post on a wall, you can usually do three things:
- Post an item on the wall (eg. words, a link to a Youtube, photos);
- Comment on an item someone else has posted on the wall;
- “Like” an item or comment by clicking the “like” icon next to it.
For the purpose of this survey we defined an “active user” as any person who posted an item on the Facebook page wall of YaLa-Young Leaders or who commented on an item that someone else had posted (1 & 2).
Working from a hard copy printout of the entire wall, we made a table showing for each active user the number of comments/posts they made, and the date of the their first comment/post. You can see this table at:
And it is also attached as an Excel file.
Summary of Findings
In total there were 146 active users who made 519 comments/posts on the wall.
Eighty-six active users (58%) made only a single comment/post and another 25 (17%) made two comments/posts. So 75% of active users made only one or two comments or posts.
The top ten most active users were as follows:
|YaLa – Young Leaders (page owner)||91|
|Nadine Firas Yaghi||17|
By far the most active user was the page owner (YaLa – Young Leaders). Hamze Awawde and Moad Arqoub are the third and fourth most active users. (Note: they are by far the most active “likers” but as noted we did not count “likes” in this census.)
Four of the top ten most active users were quoted in Ethan Bronner’s article.
Two users identified themselves in their comments as being from an Arab country other than Palestine, and both said they were from Egypt. Neither was among the most active users.
The YaLa Young Leaders Facebook page also has a “Discussion Rooms” section. https://www.facebook.com/yalaYL?sk=app_2373072738
In that section fans can open a discussion thread on a particular topic. We did not complete a detailed survey of this section as we did with the wall. However some things are clear:
Only seven discussion threads were opened on or before July 9 (date of Bronner’s article) and the levels of activity are not very high.
The most active discussion up to that date by far, is titled “When will Ethnic Cleansing End?”
(https://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=219107868102388&topic=369) and contains 189 comments/posts.
This discussion thread appears to have been opened after Bronner’s article appeared and virtually all the comments left after that time.
Conclusion: there is nothing in the Discussion Rooms section of the website that will substantially alter The Electronic Intifada’s analysis.
We can conclude from this analysis that YaLa-Young Leaders was not a remarkably active or popular Facebook page.
The Electronic Intifada’s Facebook page (which has more than 13,000 fans), for example, has been as or much more active even without any celebrity endorsements of the kind this page received even prior to Bronner’s article. Moreover, interactions of the kind on the YaLa page show no remarkable level of dialogue or anything that deviates from the typical comments sections found on thousands of websites and Facebook pages (I would argue that the Wall of my personal Facebook account was probably a more active a forum for discussion including between Arabs and Israelis!).
Many of the posts on the page are messages of support/congratulations that appear to have been solicited from organizations and minor celebrities. All, except perhaps the one from Mahmoud Abbas, are Israeli. There’s no evidence of any Arab organizational buy-in.
There is nothing here that suggests thousands of “active users” nor anything that can be matched in reality to Bronner’s description which invokes the spirit of mass action of the Arab uprisings. Nor is there any evidence of participation or buy-in from beyond a small handful of Israelis and Palestinians.
Here’s what Bronner wrote:
“But over the past month, the Facebook page has surprised those involved by the enthusiasm it has generated, suggesting that the Facebook-driven revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt may offer guidance for coexistence efforts as well.”
“Called Facebook.com/yalaYL, the site, created by a former Israeli diplomat and unambiguous about its links to Israel, has had 91,000 views in its first month. Of its 22,500 active users, 60 percent are Arabs — mostly Palestinians, followed by Egyptians, Jordanians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Lebanese and Saudis.”
This is a completely misleading description, which has generated an entirely false public perception of this page.