Big Tech’s complicity in Palestinian censorship
The Palestinians’ struggle to secure their digital rights is crucial in the face of the rotation of mainstream media and the collaboration of social media platforms with Israel to stifle their voices.
Since attacks on residents and activists began by Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, countless Palestinians have criticized social media companies for shutting down their personal accounts and censoring the content they shared.
Social media users from the ground and around the world posted images and video content about the attacks, using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah in English and Arabic.
As the violence escalated over the past weekend, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have all been accused of removing content sharing information about the expulsions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. Many complained that their accounts had been censored, limited or closed completely.
When Israeli forces stormed Al Aqsa on Friday, hashtags for the mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – were hidden from Instagram, and content was blocked just as worshipers at inside the mosque were confronted with stun grenades and rubber bullets, which injured 220 people. .
Social media platform Instagram hides the hashtag # Al-Aqsa due to its widespread posting following events on the ground and the Israeli occupation assault on Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. pic.twitter.com/33CKTZoiLl
– مركز صدى سوشال (@SadaSocialPs) May 7, 2021
Palestinian digital rights group Sada Social condemned Twitter for shutting down the accounts of several activists.
“Sada Social sees the closure of these accounts as punishment for the activists and collusion between the Twitter administration and the Israeli security services, in order to reduce interaction with the Sheikh Jarrah cause,” he said in a statement.
Palestine’s censorship on social media platforms shows exactly why the post matters. A tweet or Instagram story from people who are not in the field is certainly not activism, but its impact clearly cannot be underestimated. Keep posting, sharing and retweeting #SaveSheikhJarrah
– Nooran A. (@nooranhamdan) May 6, 2021
Instagram director Adam Mosseri said it was a technical bug which has deleted millions of stories, highlights and archives around the world, including those related to East Jerusalem.
While he claimed the “problem” was corrected last Friday, as violence continued to escalate in Sheikh Jarrah, so were reports of content restrictions and account suspensions, which continued. to be suffered by users.
The mainstream media’s efforts to whitewash Israel’s punitive occupation make unhindered access to social media a lifeline for Palestinians, and the only tool available to them to amplify their voices and counter disinformation.
The latest wave of social media censorship is only part of a larger model of digital repression that Palestinians have endured for years, as Israel’s complicity and tech companies to silence Palestinians online has been documented for a long time.
“Now is the time for allies / friends and pro-Palestinian activists to amplify the voice of Palestinian activists and human rights defenders on social media to resist systematic efforts to silence them on social media platforms ” @Monashtayya at @AJEnglish #SavePalestine pic.twitter.com/JRv4QJ3cCD
– 7amleh حملة (@ 7amleh) May 13, 2021
Earlier this week, Palestinian digital rights organization 7amleh released its annual #Hashtag Palestine 2020 report, which offers an overview of digital rights violations committed against Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied territories by government authorities. and technology companies.
The report pointed out that the measures introduced under the guise of Covid-19 control in March 2020 gave Israeli authorities the freedom to implement a “biomonitoring” regime that tracks the movements of people as part of the response. the state to the pandemic.
In December 2020, evidence surfaced of the existence of a secret police system to monitor the online activity of any website and citizen or resident in Israel.
While the controversial surveillance program was ordered to shut down a year later by the Israeli Supreme Court for violating civil liberties, recent reports that Palestinians received threatening texts from Israeli intelligence have raised suspicions that tracking technology was reused to monitor their movements. .
Meanwhile, tech companies continued to violate the digital rights of Palestinians.
The report states that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have continued to collaborate with Israeli security units, and Palestinian online content is indiscriminately censored due to the policies of these platforms.
According to a survey of twenty civil society organizations that were asked about the extent of content takedown in 2020, 41% said they had experienced a moderate amount of content takedown, while 35% saw an amount. Student.
When asked which online platforms censor their content, Facebook was highest at 42%, while 25% were on Zoom and almost 17% were on WhatsApp.
Another 44 percent said they had been the victim of online defamation.
From January to June 2020, Facebook received 913 requests from the Israeli Authority’s Cyber Unit, which asks to remove or block sites and pages. The platform responded to 81% of these requests.
According to the Israeli attorney general’s office, the Cyber Unit made 19,606 requests to social media companies regarding content deletions in 2019.
In many cases, Palestinians’ freedom of expression has been violated even though they have never violated Facebook’s community standards.
Social media companies rely on moderation tools that use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, but these systems often struggle to decipher Arabic and are blind to subtleties and context.
Palestinian news agencies have also faced similar barriers to using social media platforms when reporting on the frontlines, with content being flagged or removed for being “too graphic”.
Last year, Facebook also created the Facebook Oversight Board, apparently to promote free expression. However, the selection of Emi Palmor, former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Justice and responsible for the creation of the Israeli Cyber Unit, “seems to indicate a continuing and strong relationship between the Israeli authority and Facebook”, indicates the report.
His selection led global digital and human rights activists to launch the #FacebookCensorsPalestine campaign.
Additionally, Twitter suspended dozens of Palestinian user accounts based on information from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, while YouTube and TikTok allowed videos celebrating Israeli military violence to remain on their platform. .
In September, Zoom refused to host an event hosted by Palestinian students and professors at San Francisco State University hosting Leila Khaled.
Even when it comes to accessing the digital economy, Palestinians find themselves with the small end of the stick.
Amazon, which entered Israel in 2020, allows Israeli settlers to access seller accounts but does not accept registrations from Palestinians in Gaza or the occupied territories.
The tourism industry has also flourished at the expense of the Palestinians.
In early 2020, Airbnb was listed in a UN database as one of more than 100 companies whose business operations linked them to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Source: TRT World