June 13, 2021

Silencing Palestinian Voices in the Digital Age

Social media has given visibility to oppressed communities who previously had to bear the brunt of mainstream media outlets outlining a narrative, often the sole one, for them. Not only has it provided a voice to the voiceless, it allows for international outrage, mobilisation and visibility. This is why a new generation of Palestinian people, including activists and journalists, are taking to various online platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and others, to display the human rights violations being committed against them by Israeli authorities. But these platforms that are supposed to be open for all, have subjected Palestinians and those supporting them to arbitrary censorship and shadow banning.

Background

In the wake of a series of evictions in East Jerusalem’s neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah by Israeli settlers, a long-standing battle which saw these settlers attempting to take over property of the locals in the neighborhood, social media flooded with messages of outrage not only by Palestinians but by the international community. The hashtags #SheikhJarrah and #SaveSheikhJarrah spread on social media after a video displaying a confrontation between a Palestinian woman and an Israeli settler went viral on May 4.

As the week continued, further developments included the May 8 attack on Muslim worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, which left over 200 people injured. This led to further attacks on Palestinian territories within Sheikh Jarrah and in Gaza by the Israeli military through both land and air routes. The attacks intensified over the week with residential and commercial buildings being targeted in the airstrikes leaving hundreds dead. 

On May 15, an 11-storey building in the Gaza Strip that housed international media offices including Al Jazeera and Associated Press was hit in an Israeli air raid that demolished the structure. The occupants of the building were given an hour’s notice to evacuate before the attack. This was the third attack on media houses covering the genocide in Palestine. “Fighter jets attacked a high-rise building which hosted military assets belonging to the military intelligence of the Hamas terror organization,” the Israeli authorities alleged, but did not provide evidence to back up this claim.

Various local voices claim that these attacks on media houses are strategic, in order to silence the news from reaching the world. 

“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement about the attack.

It is important to note that these attacks are not new or isolated incidents, but are instead the latest in a long-standing brutal occupation thriving on structural oppression and control of Palestinian people and territories. Where the Israeli military is silencing on-ground media, social media companies have been busy censoring local voices of Palestinians on the internet.

Social Media Platforms Intervene

Amidst the escalating tension and violence, international outrage rightfully became louder, until people began noticing that social media platforms were censoring pro-Palestinian content. The instances of removal of content were first noticed on Instagram which is owned by Facebook.. Notably, the platform hid hashtags related to the attacks carried out by Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Instagram users said that their videos tagged with the hashtag #AlAqsa, or its Arabic counterparts #الاقصى or #الأقصى, had been taken down or hidden from search results. Some notifications showed that Instagram removed the posts because they were associated with “violence or dangerous organisations.” 

Buzzfeed News obtained an internal post which said that the content was taken down because Al-Aqsa “is also the name of an organisation sanctioned by the United States Government.” This explanation points to a larger issue surrounding content moderation on social media, which often does not take into account larger contexts and lingual and political nuances surrounding issues in the Middle East and the Global South. 

Instagram at one point also removed the account of the woman, Muna Al-Kurd, in the aforementioned viral video of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions whose house was among the six that were set to be evicted in May. The account was later restored. Palestinian activists and supporters also accused Instagram of removing content against Israeli violence in Sheikh Jarrah and forced evictions of residents by the Israeli settlers.

Following multiple reports, Instagram on May 8 said in a tweet that similar reports of content removal had been reported in Colombia, where protests erupted over an exorbitant tax policy. The platform cited a technical issue and said all content had been restored.

Adam Mosseri, who heads Instagram and is an American-Israeli businessman, acknowledged that the technical bug had impacted millions of people’s stories, highlights and archives globally.

“Many people thought we were removing their content because of what they posted or what hashtag they used, but this bug wasn’t related to the content itself, but rather a widespread issue that has now been fixed,” Mosseri said in a tweet.

However, Mona Shtaya, local advocacy manager at Palestinian digital rights organisation 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, said Mosseri’s statement is not credible. “The excuses that have been used by the companies, such as ‘global technical bug’ are neither logical nor convincing,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We are still receiving reports on content takedowns and account suspensions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” she noted.

It is important to note that this was not a one-off incident. 7amleh released its annual report called Hashtag Palestine 2020, which detailed digital rights violations committed against Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied territories by government authorities and technology companies. According to the report, Facebook received seven requests from Palestinian authorities to provide data about users in 2020, of which none were accepted. On the other hand, the company received 913 requests from Israel, supported by the Israeli authority’s Cyber Unit, which requested the deletion or blocking of certain content from January 2020 to June 2020. Of these requests, 81 percent were accepted.

The censorship of Palestinians happens mainly through two channels, according to Nadim Nashif, the director of 7amleh.

“One factor is what the Israelis are doing, they are basically trying to push the social media platforms to adopt their own standards of what should be there and what shouldn’t be there. There’s strong cooperation between them and Facebook mainly,” he told Arab News.

Nashif said this leads to “voluntary takedowns,” where Israeli cyber units send requests to social media platforms to take down specific content without a court order.

The second way Palestinian content was sidelined, he said, was through online trolling, particularly through an app called Act.IL. The app, which launched in June 2017, was commissioned by an Israeli university called The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in conjunction with two US-based pro-Israel groups, the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Maccabee Task Force. The app can be used by Israel supporters to “remove inciting content from social media, fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism, influence the online narrative regarding Israel, and take part in special pro-Israel campaigns and efforts.” 

Nashif also cited the use of artificial intelligence to censor pro-Palestine sentiment. “Social media platforms are (using) artificial intelligence for takedowns and there is lots of use of keywords, mainly around what the US government consider(s) as terrorist organisations,” he said.

“We (haven’t) managed to get a transparent, clear system of content moderation. The keyword here is transparency and equality, because this is not happening [on] the Israeli side.”

One example of what Nashif is talking about is Facebook’s independent Oversight Board, which is meant to review content moderation decisions taken by Facebook and currently has 20 board members. One of the members is Emi Palmor, the former general manager of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, responsible for the establishment of the Israeli Cyber Unit. The decision to include her on the board implies a continued strong relationship between the Israeli authorities and Facebook. Since then, her inclusion has sparked backlash and concerns over the supposed neutrality of Facebook’s content moderation decisions.

In fact, an Instagram user who was allegedly a policy regulator and enforcer for Instagram and Facebook called out the censure on social media in an Instagram post. “I would constantly call out the bias and favoritism when it came to voicing public opinion. Anyone who voiced opinions criticising Israel or pointing out their crimes would have their reach limited, their posts censored or deleted for being ‘offensive’ even if only stating facts objectively.”

Outrage against Censorship

Although Instagram and its head Adam Mosseri maintained that the company had not deliberately taken down any content related to Palestine, many people across the world continue to face low reach and engagement on their posts on Instagram. This is a phenomenon called shadow banning, where the person does not know that their content is demoted on the platform and is not being shown to their followers. Meanwhile, others reported that their posts were deleted altogether. Some users also maintained that they are unable to promote their posts and stories through paid ads on Instagram.

However, these instances were not restricted to Instagram, but other platforms also exhibit similar instances of censorship. As more people began posting in favor of Palestine and against Israel’s violent attacks, the steady removal of Palestinian voices from social media platforms became more apparent, sparking outrage against big tech companies for their complicity in the Israeli occupation in Palestine. One such account was that of Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer, whose Twitter account was temporarily removed for allegedly violating the platform’s media policy after tweeting about the recent escalation of violence in Palestine. Her account was reinstated after garnering public backlash, with Twitter calling the incident an “accident.” However, given the targeted and repeated nature of such censures, activists continue to express doubts about such explanations from social media companies.

Mariam later said that censure of Palestinian voices in news agencies was commonplace and a large part of why she and other Palestinian journalists stepped away from journalism altogether.

Another instance where Twitter suspended an account for posting about Israeli violence in Palestinian regions was that of the suspension of Refaat Alaleer, a Palestinian storyteller.

A similar incident occurred with Azza Slimene, an America-based Tunisian model with 1.4 million Instagram followers, who said she was unable to post on her Instagram account the morning after she had invited a Palestinian man to speak about the recent events in Gaza. “I can’t post anything since the morning,” she wrote in a direct message about the incident to a friend.

“Insta story or post! I can’t open an account on Twitter. I can’t post on TIKTOK. All the social media is blocked!”

She was able to post again a day later.

This incident was reminiscent of an incident when Zoom, Facebook and Youtube blocked the online academic event “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?” that was supposed to be held in April 2021. The event was supposed to feature anti-apartheid activists, including Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled. 

Zoom and other social media platforms said they decided to block the event due to the planned participation of Khaled, as she is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a US-designated terrorist organisation. The social media companies said that allowing the event to commence would be in violation of US laws prohibiting material support for terrorism. However, various legal experts pointed out that the argument is without merit as it ignores relevant legal precedents and falsely alleges violations of US law, and also indicates an attack on academic freedoms.

Meanwhile, Mohammed El-Kurd, a writer from Jerusalem, who is also the twin brother of Muna Al-Kurd, also faced account deletion on Instagram. He raised his voice about the forced eviction of his family from their house, and actively speaks about police brutality and the displacement of Palestinians on both social and mainstream media, but said Insagram deleted his videos on invasions by Israeli authorities.

Threatening Text Messages

Several Palestinians in Jerusalem have reported receiving threatening text messages from Israeli authorities following the violent backlash to protests held at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“Hello! You have been identified to have taken part in violent acts at Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable. – Israeli intelligence,” the text message said.

Lama Al-Arian, an international producer for Vice, said she had tried calling the number through which the message was sent but received no response.

The messages are believed to be an intimidation tactic meant to keep activists and residents of the surrounding areas from engaging in protests or other political action. 

There are also allegations that Israeli authorities are monitoring stories posted on Instagram by users posting pro-Palestine content. Hina Cheema, an obstetrician-gynecologist in the US, posted on her story about her friend who was posting pro-Palestine content on her private account, but later noticed that it was seen by the Israeli embassy in Norway, an account that was not following her. “Soon after she got a message that threatened to delete her account,” Cheema added.

Does Social Media Help the Cause?

In the 21st century, when information can immediately reach one person from another, it is unsurprising that intimidation and suppression tactics have evolved to this point. From threatening text messages to censorship from social media platforms, new ways to repress Palestinian voices have come about.

However, despite the biases, limitations and unclear policies of social media companies, their platforms have allowed for international outrage at the brutality and trauma Palestinians have been decrying for decades. In Pakistan, protests for the freedom of Palestine from Israeli rule and violence are currently happening, while protests in other countries around the world are also erupting, due in large part to mobilisation and activism through social media.

The mainstream media has especially been accused of either outright siding with the oppressors or presenting the ongoing violence in a neutral way meant to diffuse anger at the oppressors. Popular media outlets in the US, Canada and the UK have been accused of propagating orientalist tropes, providing justifications for Israel’s occupation and rationalising human rights violations while obscuring context, causes and consequences. One popular way of diffusing the situation is by using words like “clash,” “conflict” or “complex heightened tension” to describe the dynamics between a well-funded, technologically advanced military regime and the people suffering through said regime. 

Increased attention and exposure to these linguistic biases has allowed people to reject the narrative presented by Western media outlets. This is in large part due to the visibility of Palestinian voices, which are finally telling their own stories and narrating their own experiences, in spite of the limitations of social media.

Despite this, the censure we’ve seen big tech companies exercise paints a disconcerting picture of how easy it is to rob a person of their voice, particularly if that person belongs to a marginalised group. This is exactly why tweeting, posting, sharing and liking posts that support and amplify Palestinian voices, and indeed voices of all oppressed groups, is now more important than ever. 

Written by

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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