Will Facebook address the censorship of Palestine content?

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5 min read
West Bank
21 October, 2021
In-depth: Facebook has announced that it will investigate how it moderates Palestinian content following accusations of censorship. But activists insist the real issue is the Israeli government's influence on the tech giant's guidelines.

Palestinian digital rights advocates have welcomed Facebook's decision to investigate the moderation of Arabic and Hebrew posts following accusations that the social media giant was censoring Palestinian content.

"We have partnered with a non-profit organisation expert in business and human rights, BSR, to conduct human rights due diligence of Facebook's impacts during May-June's intensified violence in Israel and Palestine," Facebook said in a statement on 14 October.

The decision comes after Facebook's Oversight Board recommended in September that an independent investigation be conducted into content moderation regarding Israel and Palestine, above all in relation to enforcement and discrimination in its policies.

"Palestinian and international rights groups have long accused Facebook of suppressing and removing pro-Palestinian content on its platforms"

Facebook will “engage an independent entity not associated with either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conduct a thorough examination to determine whether Facebook’s content moderation in Arabic and Hebrew, including its use of automation, have been applied without bias,” the statement added. 

Palestinian and international rights groups have long accused Facebook of suppressing and removing pro-Palestinian content on its platforms. 

In May, during Israel's war on Gaza, dozens of WhatsApp accounts of Palestinian journalists were reportedly blocked.

The vice president of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Tahseen al-Astall, told AFP at the time that "around 100 journalists" in Gaza had seen their accounts blocked by the Facebook-owned platform.

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7amleh - The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media said it had documented 500 cases in which Palestinian "digital rights" had been violated between 6-19 May.

“Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine,” Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in early October.

HRW also said that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, had removed posts related to Palestine, even reposts from news organisations.

One example included a photograph of a building with a caption reading: “This is a photo of my family’s building before it was struck by Israeli missiles on Saturday May 15, 2021. We have three apartments in this building.”

Palestinians return to the rubble of their homes destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on 24 May 2021 in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. [Photo by Fatima Shbair/Getty Images]
Over 260 Palestinians, including more than 60 children, were killed during Israel's war on Gaza in May. [Getty]

'Blacklist'

The social media giant's recent acknowledgement came just days after leaks published by The Intercept revealed a Facebook blacklist of 'dangerous individuals and organisations' containing more than 4,000 names.

The list also included names of Palestinian civil organisations, banks, charities, political parties as well as historical figures.

Despite Facebook's response, some observers insist that the main issue revealed by the leaked information, in addition to a history of suppressing pro-Palestine content, is the extent of the Israeli government's influence on Facebook's policies.

Iyad Refai, director of the Sada Social Center for the Defence of Palestinian Digital Rights, told The New Arab that “the leaked information confirms Facebook’s anti-Palestinian policy of censorship, and to what extent Facebook has become a tool of Israeli policy”.

"7amleh - The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media said it had documented 500 cases in which Palestinian 'digital rights' had been violated between 6-19 May"

Refai said that “the list explains part of what Palestinians have been experiencing in recent years, including blocking accounts and censoring content”. According to Refai, this policy is the result of the Israeli government’s direct influence on Facebook’s policy, at least since 2016.

That year, a delegation from the then-Israeli government, including Ayelet Shaked and Gilad Erdan, met with representatives of Facebook’s administration and agreed to guidelines to control what Israel saw as ‘incitement’ content on the social media platform. 

One of the immediate results, activists say, was the blocking of 15 of the most influential Palestinian accounts on Facebook, including journalists.

That year, Shaked said that Israel's government had submitted 158 requests to Facebook, and 13 to YouTube, to remove "inciting" Palestinian content. Facebook granted around 95% of the requests and YouTube 80%, she said.

'Over-moderation'
 

One of the Palestinian accounts that were blocked was that of journalist and social media expert, Hussein Shujaiyah, who told The New Arab that, “I was working for the Palestinian Quds News Network at the time, and most of my Facebook content was related to Palestine news, from a Palestinian perspective”.

Shujaiyah eventually managed to get his account back, but it was blocked five more times in the following years. “It’s always the same," he said, "usually they block my account over a photo from the Israeli bombing of Gaza or other events in the West Bank. My account can be deactivated for 24 hours or for a whole month”.

Nadim Al Nashef, director of  7amleh - The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, told The New Arab that “Facebook has regularly used the excuse that it’s a US company to control content according to the US political agenda”.

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Al Nashef added that “Palestinian content, and Arab and Muslim content, in general, are over-moderated. First through Facebook's general community standards, and then by secret black listing, as the one revealed”.

This ‘over-moderation’ has led to cases of “illogical censorship” as described by Hussein Shujaiyah. “In one case, a friend of mine published a personal photo with his son, who has the same name as a historical figure of the Palestinian resistance, mentioning his son’s name in the comment of the photo. The photo was taken down by Facebook”.

Self-censorship
 

But the worst form of censorship imposed on Palestinians, according to Shujaiyah, is that of self-censorship. “I now have to be careful not to use very politicised words, even if I’m writing on politics. Some words that are impossible to avoid, like names, I have to cut them to separate fragments, and in general, I can’t say what I want to say freely”.

Part of Facebook’s Oversight Board recommendations, published last Thursday, included the introduction of illustrated examples to Facebook's standards, after studying the case of censored content related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iyad Refai from the Sada Social centre commented that “although the investigation is important, the real issue, which is Israeli influence in Facebook’s policy, doesn’t seem [likely] to be solved any time soon”.

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories