Big tech is trying to deplatform Palestinians

Big tech is trying to deplatform Palestinians. But we shall not be silenced
5 min read
11 May, 2021
Comment: Palestinians aren't just resisting expulsion, but an aggressive campaign to silence them online, and a longstanding media effort to distort the reality of the occupation, writes Laura Albast.
Palestinians protest seizure of their lands in East Jerusalem [Getty]
 
 
 
 
On May 6, Palestinian activists woke up to a warning from Instagram: they had violated the platform's community standards by sharing footage of Israeli soldiers and settlers assaulting residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem. 

Posts amplifying local voices were deleted, stories housed in their in-app archives were removed, and some accounts that had been actively sharing videos of Israel's assault on protesters in the neighbourhood were temporarily shut down.

Sheikh Jarrah is a historic neighbourhood located in the center of occupied East Jerusalem. It has been the target of decades-long attempts by American-backed settler organisations to forcibly displace Palestinian residents from their rightfully-owned homes. Nahalat Shimon, the organisation leading illegal lawsuits against the families, is registered in Delaware in the United States. 

What's happening in Sheikh Jarrah is a representation of the wider, ongoing Nakba. This battle against forced displacement is a microsom of the battle against Israeli settler colonialism. In 2002, 2008, and 2009, more than 50 residents of Sheikh Jarrah were forcibly removed from their homes. This year, more than 550 Palestinians in the neighbourhood are being targeted. 

Instagram's parent company, Facebook,has claimed that a "technical issue" caused restricted and blocked access to content on its platform. Despite some missing posts and accounts being reinstated, Facebook and Instagram have continued to censor footage and hide hashtags related to both Sheikh Jarrah and the al-Aqsa mosque. Grey warnings of "sensitive content" flooded online feeds. 

  Apparently the only role that Palestinians can play in print is a violent one  

Facebook has long been on board with a censorship campaign to silence the Palestinian narrative. The technology conglomerate appointed Emi Palmor, a former Israeli official, to its Oversight Board last year. Palmor has a record of suppressing, surveilling, and censoring Palestinians on social media. 

Earlier this year, a coalition of 25 organisations in Palestine and the US launched a campaign called "Facebook, we need to talk" drawing attention to the need for pro-Palestine voices to be heard. 

Live footage from Jerusalem has served as the sole source of comprehensive information that is documenting Israel's abuses against Palestinians real time. In the absence of unbiased English-language reporting, social media users sought unfiltered content on Instagram. 

On Monday, I joined tens of thousands of users who crowded live feeds of Palestinian influencers and activists on the ground in al-Aqsa. We saw worshippers call for help as they were besieged and shelled inside the mosque, and bodies collapse as Israeli forces fired bullets and stun grenades. 

Read more: Landmark HRW report challenges Biden to end Israeli apartheid

Despite attempts to block their entry into the city, Palestinians walked into Jerusalem from neighbouring towns and villages to protect the al-Aqsa mosque from far-right Israeli groups, who were planning to desecrate the site in celebration of what they call "Jerusalem Day," which marks Israel's 1967 occupation of the Old City. Israeli police re-routed the settlers' march away from the mosque, while turning a place of worship into a warzone. 

American and Canadian media have engaged in their own censorship campaign over the events unfolding in Jerusalem: concealing the gravity of the situation in Sheikh Jarrah, while equating occupier and occupied as equal enemies on a battlefield. 

Some outlets went as far as framing the illegal expulsion attempts made against families of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood as little more than a real estate dispute. The New York Times referred to Jewish settlers as "landlords".

  Failure to uphold journalistic integrity on Palestine is common practice in North America  

For decades, families in Sheikh Jarrah have appealed to major western media outlets, to no avail. Reports by mainstream media surrounding the events of Sheikh Jarrah began only three days ago. It seems that only violence - so often detached from historical context - is synonymous with news. Whereas Israel has received continuous coverage on its vaccination campaigns and gridlocked elections, apparently the only role that Palestinians can play in print is a violent one.

 

Failure to uphold journalistic integrity on Palestine is common practice in North America. Just last month, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israel of engaging in "crimes of apartheid". While HRW is frequently sourced by news outlets and politicians of all stripes when pointing out abuses taking place under various regimes across the world (Venezuela, Syria, etc.), on Israel, HRW has faced nothing but attempts to discredit it. 

Palestinians in the diaspora have succeeded in creating trending hashtags, mobilising grassroots organisations, and calling on the leadership of their respective host countries to intervene. Defenders of human rights are advocating to #SaveSheikhJarrah on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and ClubHouse. Dozens of protests are also underway across North America and Europe. 

A petition calling on the US State Department to stop illegal expulsions in the Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan neighbourhoods of Jerusalem has garnered over 200,000 signatures. It was delivered Tuesday in conjunction with a rally organised by 16 organisations, including the Palestinian Youth Movement, Jewish Voice for Peace, and American Muslims for Palestine. 

A handful of members of the US Congress will also be delivering a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Bliken this week, affirming that US policy opposes the demolition of homes in East Jerusalem, and demanding that Israel desist from carrying out its plan to "evict Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah."

Never before have Israel's crimes of apartheid been so easily visible to the average global citizen. Today, anyone with a phone and an internet connection is able to witness Israeli aggression. Trying to censor Palestinians online will not conceal this truth.

 

Laura Albast is Palestinian-American. She holds degrees from the American University of Beirut and Boston University, and works at an NGO in Washington, D.C.

Follow her on Twitter: @Lau_Bast

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.