Digital rights of Palestinians ‘violated’ by censorship on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, new report says
There has been a “dramatic increase” in censorship of Palestinian political speech on social media over the past two weeks, during the period of intense fighting between Israel and militants in Gaza.
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have all been used by Palestinians to share information from, among a variety of areas, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where families are at risk of being evicted.
However, the report from 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, shared exclusively with The independent, argues that attempts at moderation and codes of conduct by social media companies have resulted in the deletion of many citizen accounts.
This comes against the backdrop of huge criticism surrounding the Israeli government’s military decisions, including the displacement of 52,000 Palestinians by airstrikes, causing the deaths of many children, the bombing of the Associated Press and the Al building. Jazeera and, on social media, the oddly casual tone of her Twitter account.
Overnight, Israel and Hamas entered a “mutual and simultaneous” truce after the Israeli security cabinet agreed to end the massive bombing that killed more than 230 Palestinians.
Twelve people were killed in Israel, including two children and a soldier. The IDF said 4,340 rockets were fired at Israel by militants during the 11 days of fighting.
It’s unlikely, however, that this will be the last time the conflict has lifted its head, or that the moderation decisions of social media companies will not exacerbate future battles in the region – as their long-standing approaches show. and worrying about Palestinian content. in the past.
7amleh documented 500 cases of what it calls violations of Palestinian digital rights between May 6 and May 18 of this year via a form shared through its social media channels with the support of partners such as MPower Change, Adalah Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace and Eyewitness. Palestine. These violations include removed content and deleted accounts or their visibility restricted.
Half of the 500 instances were on Instagram, the report says, with 179 instances on its parent company’s Facebook platform; Facebook has also apparently increased geo-blocking, where social media companies target the geographic location of content to help their moderation efforts, with “a number of these [documented] for activists in the occupied Palestinian territory ”.
The organization says 45% of all violations reported on Instagram were due to deleted stories, with users not receiving any warning or notification in advance. Although Instagram did not respond to 7amleh about 143 of the submitted cases, it did confirm that “only one case violated community standards.” Instagram admitted deletion issues on May 7, but 7amleh says the majority of reports (68 percent) occurred after the issue had apparently been resolved.
In addition to these holistic content moderation issues, there have been specific and dramatic cases of damaging loopholes in corporate content moderation, such as deleting Instagram or blocking posts with hashtags for social media. Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. faith, because its system of moderation wrongly considered the religious edifice as a terrorist organization.
“We know there have been several issues that have affected people’s ability to share on our apps, including a technical bug that affected Stories around the world, and an error that temporarily prevented content from being posted on the Al Aqsa hashtag page. Although these have been fixed, they should never have happened in the first place, ”Facebook told The Independent in a statement.
“Our policies are designed to give everyone a voice while ensuring their safety, and we enforce these policies the same regardless of who posts or their personal beliefs,” the company added. “Our dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, is closely monitoring the situation on the ground.” He added that he was continuing to review the reports of 7 amleh.
There have also been instances where Facebook has blocked the accounts of Palestinian journalists, a criticism that was also posted on Twitter – on which there were 55 cases of violations of Palestinian content, 91% of which were account suspensions, according to 7amleh.
“Our automated systems took enforcement action on a number of accounts in error using an automated spam filter. We are promptly reversing this action to restore access to affected accounts, many of which have already been restored, ”Twitter said in a statement, adding that it had a appeal process for such accounts.
Twitter also temporarily restricted the account of US-Palestinian writer Mariam Barghouti, which reported on Sheikh Jarrah’s expulsion of Palestinians. “We took enforcement action on the account you mistakenly referred to. It has since been canceled,” Twitter said in a statement, changing Barghouti’s account to say it was “temporarily unavailable because it violates the Twitter media policy “.
Twitter has stated that “if an account’s profile or media content does not comply with our policies, we may make it temporarily unavailable and require the violator to modify media or profile information to comply with our policies. rules. We also explain what policy their profile or media content has violated. “Twitter did not explain to The independent which policy was violated.
Problems with moderating social media content, especially about Israel’s war on Palestine, have been around for a long time. In 2016, the Israeli government announced a formal collaboration with Facebook’s Tel Aviv office, which “aimed to force social media to curb content that Israel says incites violence.”
Internally, Facebook has listed globally protected ‘vulnerable’ groups, including the homeless, foreigners and Zionists – a person who supports the reestablishment and support of a Jewish state in the Holy Land, currently located in Palestine – in documents revealed by The Guardian in 2017.
In January 2021, Facebook apparently proposed a revision of the term ‘Zionist’ that would make it a proxy for ‘Jew’ or ‘Jew’, although the company said no decision had been made. . An anonymous Facebook moderator who spoke to The Intercept said that the policy, in practice, “leaves very little room for criticism of Zionism.”
The move was criticized by Rabbi Alissa Wise, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, who said restricting the word “prevent[s] its users to hold the Israeli government responsible for the harm done to the Palestinian people. ”
Facebook said it “understand[s] that the word “Zionist” is frequently used in important political debate. … this is why we allow a critical discussion of Zionists, but remove attacks against them in specific cases where the context suggests that the word is used as a substitute for Jews or Israelis, both of whom are features protected by our hate speech policies.
He added: “We always work to apply our community standards as accurately and consistently as possible, and do not remove content that does not violate our rules. We have a clear process for dealing with requests from governments and regulators, which is the same all over the world. We’re public about how much content we locally restrict for violating local laws, and publish those numbers in our transparency report twice a year. “
However, just like the way Western media headlines have shifted to pro-Israel language, mirroring the foreign policies of their national governments, many of the policies put forth by American companies are culturally informed. and American standards, Jillian York, director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says The independent.
She added that “the United States has always been a staunch supporter of Israel and has long dehumanized the Palestinians, so it’s no surprise that corporate policies align with this worldview.”
For Facebook, “censoring terrorism is more important than ensuring Palestinians can speak freely,” York continued. “In the midst of the pandemic, it has only gotten worse as content moderators in some countries are still stranded in their homes. As such, we’re seeing more “bugs”, more keyword filtering, more shadowbanning, and other subtle enforcement tactics that aren’t just “deletes.” “
It is for this reason that social media is so important in reframing the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, allowing messages that may not go through mainstream media to reach the general public.
Snapchat’s Snap Maps feature, for example, was used to demonstrate in real time the difference in the effects of the Tel Aviv-Gaza conflict, just like TikTok memes.
Snapchat Maps video compares situation in Gaza and Israel
The two companies present a challenge to Facebook and Twitter, but, says York, the network effect of these companies is still difficult to disrupt and when it comes to “bold” decisions, such as the ban on President Trump. , many follow one another.
“Facebook’s Israeli-Palestinian rules have always been opaque and one-sided. Marwa Fatafta, Policy Manager at Access Now, said The independent.
“It’s no secret that Facebook often gives in to government pressure and converts those demands into rules governing online speech. But that’s only half the story [as] Social media platforms rely on algorithms to moderate speech on a large scale and being blind to the context as it is, a lot of legitimate content is flagged and removed. These issues underscore the need for algorithmic transparency, which Fatafta says is “clearly biased.”
In some large tech companies, employees are very aware of this power. This week, Jewish Google employees and Apple staff called on their respective executives to recognize that “millions of Palestinians are currently suffering from an illegal occupation.”
In Affecting Change, 7amleh recommends a number of practices to improve moderation in social media businesses at the end of its report.
These include hiring fact-checkers specifically for Israeli and Palestinian content, enabling people to access geospatial information needed to respond to humanitarian crises, ensuring transparency on voluntary withdrawal requests, and conducting rights assessments. of the man “who understands the impact of Israel on the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
However, censorship and prejudice have been problems for years and the escalation of violence over the past two weeks “only makes it worse and more pronounced”, says Fatafta.
“Social media has been a lifeline for Palestinian activists denied access to traditional media, and despite the ceasefire, the reality of occupation and oppression continues. Palestinians will therefore continue to use social media to organize and oppose. The main question here is: Would social media companies learn their lessons this time around? “