How pro-Palestinian censorship has exposed Instagram's algorithmic bias

How pro-Palestinian censorship has exposed Instagram's bias
7 min read
09 June, 2022
There have been clear efforts to silence Palestinian activists in the virtual space. Many pro-Palestinian accounts have been shadow-banned or removed altogether. In light of other global conflicts, this policy has exposed social media's blatant bias.

Patience has been wearing thin among social media activists posting Palestine-related content on Instagram as the platform has proved it is willing to selectively censor certain content depending on the ideological beliefs and political orientations, particularly on the timely conflict in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“Your story goes against our community guidelines”, “Your account may be deleted”, “Your account may be temporarily suspended due to multiple violations of our community guidelines”, and “Sensitive content” are some of the repetitive phrases that thousands of accounts have been receiving from Instagram when publishing content on Palestine, proof of an escapable reality of censorship.

In implementing different forms of censorship on thousands of users, Instagram is increasingly being called into question as it is accused of being biased, selective and neglectful of the injustice Palestinians are facing.  

"Censorship or shadow banning on Ukraine-related content is extremely rare but for Palestine-related it's constant and repetitive"

“It seems that the word resistance or phrases like I’m against the occupation are forbidden by the platform as it’s all considered incitement but that’s only the case when you share content on Palestine,” said Aqsa Khan, a journalist who frequently shares Pro-Palestinian content and whose been a victim of Instagram’s censorship.

Palestinian activists and journalists feel that their right to exercise free speech on social media giants has been taken away as such platforms have selectively been filtering out and limiting opposition voices.

“There seems to be a double standard and the timely events of the conflict in Ukraine had proved the existence of this from social media giants, like Instagram," Aqsa told The New Arab.

“Censorship or shadow banning on Ukraine-related content is extremely rare but for Palestine-related it's constant and repetitive,” she added.

A Palestinian journalist shows the hashtag '#FBCensorsJerusalem' of a campaign, created to protest against what journalists and activists consider censorship by the social media outlet Facebook of Palestinian content [Getty Images]
A Palestinian journalist shows the hashtag '#FBCensorsJerusalem' of a campaign protesting against what activists claim is censorship by the social media outlet Facebook of Palestinian content [Getty Images]

Activists on social media have called out the app just last year in May 2021 for its extreme censoring, shadow banning and restrictions imposed on accounts.

For Palestinian social media experts like Nour Hamdan, the algorithms of Instagram are being used in an abusive manner, not to tackle online crimes like misinformation but it’s to restrict opposition and any accounts addressing points that are not in support of the Israeli government.

“They know that the power of social media is undoubtedly influential in bringing masses together to speak up against the injustice that’s happening in Palestine, so they’re using their tools to silence and restrict the voices of people,” added Nour.

In-depth
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Users posting about Palestine are experiencing a drop in engagement and a drop in their audience reach and this is occurring among a number of key Palestinian activists and influential figures that are actively speaking out against the injustices that Palestinians are facing.

Recently, Instagram has even gone as far as censoring model Bella Hadid’s pro-Palestinian content by disabling her from posting. In a statement on her Instagram story, she said: “When I post about Palestine, I get immediately shadow banned and almost 1 million less of you see my stories and posts.”

Digital rights towards Palestinians are being violated and restricted by Instagram’s different forms of censorship, whether when publishing a post or posting a story.

"They know that the power of social media is undoubtedly influential in bringing masses together to speak up against the injustice that’s happening in Palestine, so they’re using their tools to silence and restrict the voices of people"

The New Arab reached out to Palestinian activists using different social media platforms to raise awareness of what’s happening in Palestine. Sara Saleh, a legal fellow and writer said: “I noticed a drop in engagement and audience reach when I was posting and sharing Al-Aqsa related content during the intensification of the violence two weeks ago.”

Sarah added, “My numbers were dropping by 50%.”

A social media platform that promotes itself as having a “welcoming community for everyone” and as being responsible for fostering a “safe and supportive community for everyone”, seems to be practising the opposite policies towards the Palestinian community.

This has triggered a backlash from the victims of such censoring, including journalists, media analysts, and influencers in regarding such measures as “extremely dangerous and alarming”.

For Palestinian activists, people see scenes of the Israelis attacking Palestinian worshippers, executing Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and repeatedly bombing Gaza but minus the sympathy expressed for Ukrainian victims or a similar condemnation against their aggressors.  

“It does not take a keen observer to discern the double standards applied by social media platforms like Instagram towards coverage in Palestine compared to coverage in Ukraine as both scenarios are similar, timely and ongoing in terms of being occupied,” Aqsa told The New Arab.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, seems to be at the epicentre of Israel’s violence in Jerusalem as the images of the recent attacks are similar to what was seen last year.

If there is ever any reporting from Western media, it’s always placed in the context as if it is just communal religious violence but for experts, it is definitely more than that.

Tear gas, stun grenades, beating, handcuffing civilians and smashing of the ancient stained-glass windows of the Mosque to shooting tear gas at worshippers are the kind of attacks that have been carried out against Palestinians at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“Assaults towards Palestinians are already not getting the attention they deserve, so it’s unfair to be restricted access if we as activists are trying to raise awareness and grab people’s attention,” said Nour. 

Palestinians feel there is a blatant violation of the freedom of speech as accounts of the biggest publishers of Palestine-related content are being denied certain features. For instance, the inability to host guests on live streams or having their live streams stop out of nowhere where the “save live” feature would be disabled, meaning all footage on details of the attacks would disappear.

Digital rights organisations are calling for greater transparency into the social network’s decision making especially in many cases where the content was taken down without a warning or a valid explanation.

"It does not take a keen observer to discern the double standards applied by social media platforms like Instagram towards coverage in Palestine compared to coverage in Ukraine as both scenarios are similar, timely and ongoing in terms of being occupied"

For instance, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the advancement of social media launched the 7or website as an online platform in November to monitor, document and detect the digital rights violations of Palestinians and so far, they have detected over 1,180 cases where rights have been violated and censored.  

Among those victims of censorship is Palestinian activist Mohammed Adra, who recounts that when he posted pro-Palestine content, his Instagram account “suddenly got deleted” but for Mohammed, the fact that Instagram’s content control board is headed by an Israeli person, translates directly into Palestine censorship.

For Instagram, stories that show an innocent Palestinian child crying are regarded as “hate speech” content but according to Instagram’s website, “hate speech” is: Attacks on people based on their characteristics, including race or religion.

In Brief

Instagram’s bias and selectiveness are noticeable in allowing the publishing of content for certain accounts only.

For instance, Hananya Naftali, an Israeli content creator shared a post on his page of a Palestinian child, claiming in the caption that the kid lives in Gaza and was murdered by Hamas. However the picture of the child is found in a CNN article and other news publications that state he is a victim of Israeli bombardments – so in other words, this content creator can be accused of spreading lies.

The spreading of misinformation like this is not allowed on Instagram, so if a user is to report Naftali's account, it should be banned or deleted. However, the notification received from Instagram stated there is a “technical issue”. Yet, at the same time, all other MENA influencers have been threatened with their accounts being deleted or have already had their accounts deleted or suspended.

The intensifying use of censorship narrows the expressive spaces for Palestinians whilst discouraging their autonomy with the digital surveillance imposed on them.

“The restrictions and censorship have a wide-ranging impact on people’s ability to share information, expose the violence and communicate with one another,” Mohammed concluded.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462