The events of the last few weeks and the escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel have spotlighted the issue of media bias and censorship of Palestinian voices. Whereas mainstream media bias in reporting on Palestine and Israel is nothing new, the phenomenon of social media censorship represents a growing and significant concern with regard to human rights and freedom of expression. Over the last several years, all forms of Palestinian nonviolent resistance and expression have been increasingly shut down on many levels; examples include Israel’s attacks on Palestinian protesters and arrests of activists, criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, censorship in mainstream media coverage, intimidation and smear campaigns against public figures who speak out in support of Palestinian rights, and the blocking of legal international mechanisms that can hold Israel accountable for its crimes against Palestinians.
In the absence of outlets for Palestinians to resist and tell their narratives, social media are one of the few tools at their disposal to counter Israeli disinformation campaigns.
In the absence of outlets for oppressed Palestinians to resist and tell their narratives, social media represent the last avenue of expression and activism and one of the few tools at their disposal to counter Israeli disinformation campaigns. In the words1 of Sheikh Jarrah resident, journalist, and activist Muna El Kurd, “We feel social media is the only way left to get attention. Every post, tweet, video makes a difference. This is how we reach out to the masses of decent people and governments around the world.” But even social media platforms, once hailed as tools of free speech and liberation, have been involved in the censorship and silencing of Palestinian voices and Palestinian rights activism, to which some have referred as “digital apartheid.” While this phenomenon is not unique to Palestinian voices and is certainly not new, the recent events in Palestine and Israel elevated this issue to prominence. They underscored the need to address the monopolizing power of social media platforms and the shortcomings of big tech companies when it comes to the human rights of oppressed and marginalized populations.
The Backdrop of a Changing Mainstream Narrative?
The history of bias of the mainstream media in reporting on the situation in Palestine and Israel has been well documented. More recently, a study of major US newspapers over 50 years (1970-2019) showed that of the thousands of opinion pieces on Palestine-Israel, very few were written by Palestinians. The year 2021 is largely no different. During the recent series of events that led to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, the highest circulated and most viewed news outlets around the world relied almost exclusively on Israeli official sources and talking points, treating them as fact. At the same time, they decontextualized escalations in violence and covered events only when there was a Palestinian response to the daily and ongoing Israeli violence and oppression of Palestinians. Using terminology like “clashes” and “property dispute,” perpetuating the myth of “both sides,” portraying Palestinians as instigators, describing the situation as “complex,” and presenting a false equivalence between occupier and occupied all obscure the context of Israeli occupation and oppression. This meant that mainstream media channels became complicit in whitewashing Israeli crimes, even implicitly rationalizing and justifying Israeli violence and grave violations of human rights and international law. When hosting Palestinian voices, reporters at CNN and BBC insisted on disproportionately and unfairly focusing the discussion on Hamas rockets. Similarly, the Muslim Council of Britain’s Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) analyzed 62,400 online print articles and 7,997 television broadcasts reporting on the events in Israel-Palestine in the British media, between May 7 and May 20, 2021, and found that the coverage contained “skewed language, misleading headlines and problematic framing.”
Additionally, reports point to an alarming editorial collusion at some news agencies to control the narrative and erase Palestinian identity and accounts. For example, Executive Producer Laura Green from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto reminded her team not to use the word “Palestine”; better yet, she added that it is good practice to “avoid using Palestine colloquially in our own exchanges.” In other instances, journalists are being intimidated and fired for their support of Palestinian rights, such as the Associate Press’s firing of Emily Wilder and Australian broadcasting agencies forcing journalists to withdraw their signatures from a letter calling for better coverage of Israel-Palestine and threatening not to renew their contracts. Additional attempts were made to smear celebrities Bella and Gigi Hadid and Dua Lipa through a full-page ad in The New York Times, conflating their statements in support of Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism and terrorism.
Nevertheless, this year many observers and activists have noted a slight shift in coverage. Some pointed to notable exceptions to the mainstream coverage such as Mehdi Hasan and Ayman Mohyeldin, while others highlighted John Oliver’s episode on Last Week Tonight and Ali Velshi of MSNBC, both of whom used the A-word (apartheid), as well as the unprecedented publication by The New York Times of pictures of the 67 Palestinian children and the two Israeli children who were killed in the fighting. There seems to be a slight increase in hosting Palestinian speakers and analysts as well as a shift toward using new vocabulary, from the mild “security of Palestinians” to “settler colonialism” and “apartheid.” This small shift could be attributed to a number of factors including changes in public opinion and an increasingly outspoken segment of the American progressive communities, international solidarity, and intersectional social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, reports by human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch labeling Israel as an apartheid state, and a growing progressive presence in the US Congress. While these scenes on social media, on the streets, or in the US Capitol are significant and unprecedented, they were made possible largely by the documentation and amplification of Palestinian experiences through digital and social media tools. A growing and systematic effort aimed at silencing these voices online presents a dangerous continuation of bias and censorship and the further stifling of Palestinians’ freedoms of expression.
Big Tech Censoring Pro-Palestinian Content
In contrast to the documented history of mainstream media practices of excluding Palestinian narratives, Palestinian youth have taken to social media platforms including Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and WhatsApp to tell their stories and promote their alternative perspectives. As the ethnic cleansing campaign in Sheikh Jarrah and ensuing events were unfolding, the cellphone video of Muna El-Kurd’s confrontation with the now-famous Yakub Fauci, the Israeli settler from New York who was taking over her home, went viral on various social media platforms, transcending borders and territorial fragmentation and surpassing government and mainstream media gatekeeping. “You are stealing my house,” she said. “If I don’t steal it, someone else is gonna steal it,” he replied. The simplicity of this interaction summed up decades of Israeli policy; in this case, social media made the Palestinian reality accessible to users around the world, even those unfamiliar with the history.
Palestinians and civil society organizations have been capitalizing on the use of social media to show the reality of their experiences and amplify their voices.
Indeed, Palestinians and civil society organizations have been capitalizing on the use of social media to show the reality of their experiences and amplify their voices, posting images and videos from Sheikh Jarrah protests and the violent Israeli attacks on Palestinian worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque on one of the holiest nights for Muslims, using the hashtags #SaveSheikhJarrah and #AlAqsa. Dubbed the “TikTok generation,” young Palestinians mobilized in unity, employing social media tools to provide round-the-clock reporting, organize protests, and broadcast online on TikTok and other social media platforms across the world. The easily digestible video clips and livestreams afforded by TikTok, which could be considered a game changer, were used heavily by Palestinian youth to bypass mainstream media gatekeeping and the silence of international political establishments.
While activists and supporters used online tools to document human rights violations, seize control of the narrative, and correct (literally) mass media reporting, this online activism was immediately met with censorship by social media companies. Hundreds of posts were reported as taken down and accounts suspended. For example, Muna El-Kurd’s Instagram account was temporarily deactivated and stories posted by her twin brother, Mohammed El-Kurd, were blocked. Additionally, Instagram admitted to taking down and hiding posts with the hashtags #AlAqsa and its Arabic counterparts #الاقصى and #الأقصى mistaking the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound with the “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades” militant group. Some users reported that Instagram was flagging posts that contain the Palestinian flag as containing a hate symbol. Facebook also deleted the page “Save Sheikh Jarrah,” which had 60,000 members at the time. Similarly, 17 journalists in Gaza reported that their WhatsApp accounts, crucial for communicating with sources and editors and with the world outside the besieged Gaza Strip, were blocked.
Facebook Inc., the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, has been particularly prominent as an arena of political confrontation in the recent wave of censorship, as these three platforms are the most popular among Palestinians. This is evidenced by the establishment of the campaign “Facebook, we need to talk” which is organized by Palestinian rights activists. But other digital platforms have also been involved in bias and censorship against Palestinians and pro-Palestinian content, including Twitter, TikTok, Google, YouTube, Venmo, Wikipedia, and Zoom. A report by 7amleh-The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media documented 500 cases of violations of Palestinians’ digital rights between May 6 and May 19, 2021. These violations included taking down content, closing accounts, hiding hashtags, restricting access, and reducing the reachability of content. Of the 500 reported cases, 250 were on Instagram (50 percent), 179 on Facebook (35 percent), 55 on Twitter (11 percent), and 4 on TikTok (1 percent). The Palestinian digital rights organization Sada Social also documented2 1,200 violations of Palestinians’ digital rights on social media in 2020, and 770 in May of 2021 alone. Venmo also appeared to be blocking payments between Palestinian users, while YouTube took down the video produced by the State of Palestine Mission to the United Nations, which was produced to screen at the UN Human Rights Council meeting. Similarly, Zoom censored virtual academic events on Palestine.
Activists are devising creative methods to circumvent this censorship and protest the repressive policies, from using an archaic Arabic script without diacritics in order to trick the algorithms, to organizing campaigns aimed at giving the Facebook application a low 1-star rating in the App Store, which tanked its average rating from 4 to 2.2 (out of 5) and damaged its advertising sales in the Middle East (dropping 12 percent in 10 days). Company employees also used their positions to protest these companies’ actions. For example, a group of 250 concerned Google employees called the “Jewish Diaspora in Tech” signed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai calling on the company to heed the concerns of Palestinian employees, ensure freedom of expression on the platform, and terminate contracts with institutions that violate Palestinian rights such as the Israel Defense Forces. In the same vein, almost 200 Facebook employees have signed a letter calling on their employer to address concerns of Palestinian censorship. Even Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib penned a letter to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok urging them to cease censorship of Palestinian content. In response to the accusations of bias and suppression of Palestinian content, social media and digital platforms blamed these occurrences on widespread global technical glitches or errors and, in some cases, pointed to vague claims of posts violating community standards. Facebook claimed it has set up an Integrity Product Operations Center to deal with this issue, but specifics on this entity were scarce and many believed it to be a façade. The mounting evidence suggests an institutionalized policy of targeting content that reflects the Palestinian narrative.
A Systematic Policy of Bias and Censorship
The pretext of a technical glitch is not only inconsistent with the timing, rate, nature, and scale of the hundreds of cases of content removal and account suspension of Palestinian users, but it is also not matched in treatment of Israeli posts that constitute actual incitement and hate speech. During the same period in May 2021, when social media companies were over-moderating and censoring Palestinian speech, 7amleh documented more than 40 cases on WhatsApp and Telegram of racist and hate speech by Israelis; this included speech inciting against Arabs and Palestinians with the aim of killing, burning, or assaulting them. The group reported that similar content still exists on the networks and it is not met with the same heavy-handed regulation that Palestinian content faces. Another example is of an Israeli public figure inciting violence against Palestinians: in a video, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Arieh King, told a Palestinian activist “it’s a pity” he was not shot in the head. This video was not removed and no response or clear policy regarding such posts were announced.
The mounting evidence suggests an institutionalized policy of targeting content that reflects the Palestinian narrative.
YouTube and TikTok also continue to allow on their platforms videos that celebrate Israeli military violence. Similarly, in 2016, 7amleh found that Israelis posted more than 675,000 racist or inciting comments against Palestinians and Arabs, amounting to one comment every 46 seconds, but little action was taken against these posts or accounts. Indeed, social media companies have yet to publicly state their policies in addressing incitement to violence against Palestinians on their platforms. Further, the 7amleh report notes that the majority (68 percent) of the 500 violations cases after the technical errors were acknowledged. But Facebook has not provided any specifics on the alleged technical errors or its policies nor has it clarified any intentions or plans to uphold the rights of all its users. As such, these discriminatory and explicit practices of social media censorship, which have been denounced by Palestinians and human rights activists for years, constitute a systematic and deliberate policy. It is therefore evident that this phenomenon is not new; the latest upsurge in suppressing Palestinian content on social media is only part of a larger pattern of censorship and a systematic and consistent effort by Israel and tech companies to silence Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices.
The latest upsurge in suppressing Palestinian content on social media is only part of a larger pattern of censorship and a systematic and consistent effort by Israel and tech companies to silence Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices.
The complicity between social media companies and the Israeli government is well documented, and Israeli officials often even brag about it. A 2020 report by 7amleh found that Facebook received 913 requests from Israel between January and June and has complied with 81 percent of these requests to remove content. In 2016, following a meeting with a Facebook delegation, then-Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked confirmed that Facebook, Google, and YouTube were “complying with up to 95 percent of Israeli requests to delete content,” all of which is mostly Palestinian. This close cooperation between the Israeli government and the tech companies is due to Israel’s strategic efforts to control the narrative and silence Palestinian voices by establishing the Israel Cyber Unit at the Ministry of Justice and setting up efforts at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Developed in 2015 by the Israeli Ministry of Justice under Shaked, the Cyber Unit is tasked with submitting requests to tech companies based on alleged violations of domestic laws and the companies’ guidelines and is given “a blank check” to police online speech and silence Palestinians. Attached to the office of the prosecutor general, the Cyber Unit utilizes algorithms to detect content it deems “extremist” and discreetly sends requests for their removal to social media networks in a completely untransparent manner. For years now, the Cyber Unit has been reporting tens of thousands of posts and accounts annually with which these social media companies voluntarily comply, in full absence of any legal framework or human rights and freedom of expression protections for Palestinians.
Israel’s Cyber Unit has been reporting tens of thousands of posts and accounts annually with which these social media companies voluntarily comply, in full absence of any legal framework or human rights and freedom of expression protections for Palestinians.
Facebook’s complicity goes even further. The company appointed Emi Palmor, the former director-general of Israel’s Justice Ministry, as one of its 20-member global Oversight Board tasked with ruling on content ethics. Palmor was responsible for setting up the Cyber Unit responsible for electronic surveillance and censorship of Palestinians on social media under Shaked. According to the human rights organization Adalah, the number of takedowns by the Cyber Unit rose by 500 percent in 2017, one year after its founding, while 14,285 takedowns were reported in 2018. More recently, On May 13, 2021, current Israeli Justice Minister Benny Gantz held a virtual meeting with Facebook and TikTok executives, asking them to remove content that “incites to violence or spreads disinformation,” and asserted that it is important to respond quickly to requests from his government’s Cyber Unit. In return, the social media executives committed to acting quickly and effectively.
Social media companies’ overenforcement of Palestinian content and selective implementation of their moderation policies constitute systematic bias and censorship.
Additionally, former Facebook employee Ashraf Zeitoun notes that social media companies face enormous pressure and threats from the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups, and this led Facebook to sign a memorandum with the Israeli government in 2016. As a result, the content moderation algorithms and policies are biased against the Palestinian narrative. For example, Facebook’s secret rules moderate the word “Zionist” as a protected category under its hate-speech policies, thus blocking content that is anti-Zionist and critical of Israel on all of Facebook’s subsidiary apps on the basis of it being anti-Semitic. Facebook employees have also raised concerns with the network about its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias, arguing that “sizable portions of some populations are considered terrorists” under these rules. A former employee noted that some suggested removing posts that contain the term “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as part of the policy of removing terrorism-related content. Another former employee recalls attempts to remove “occupied territories” in describing the West Bank. According to a document by Facebook’s growth team, Israel was the top country to report content under terrorism rules with 155,000 complaints in one week, and third in the world to flag content for violence and hate speech, with 550,000 reports—surpassing the most populous countries in the world. Social media companies’ overenforcement of Palestinian content and selective implementation of their moderation policies constitute systematic bias and censorship.
These instances should be viewed as part of a larger and ongoing campaign to repress and silence Palestinian views, experiences, and histories. The Israeli government’s deliberate efforts to silence Palestinian content are well-funded and diversified and are part of a coordinated strategy.
These instances should be viewed as part of a larger and ongoing campaign to repress and silence Palestinian views, experiences, and histories. The Israeli government’s deliberate efforts to silence Palestinian content are well-funded and diversified and are part of a coordinated strategy. Oppressive governments often use their resources to recruit online armies that abuse social media reporting systems to serve their political agendas. For example, the Israeli prime minister’s office invests millions of Israeli shekels in a program that pays students to post and report content on social media as part of its online public diplomacy. A similar program is the ACT.IL app, which was funded by the late American billionaire Sheldon Adelson and developed by former Israeli intelligence. Promoted by the Israeli government, ACT.IL is essentially a digital astroturfing tool that allows volunteers to mass-report certain content and elevate other content at the touch of a button; it employs the social media companies’ algorithms, effectively deploying an online army to silence Palestinian and pro-Palestinian speech. A similar application, 4IL.org.il, was developed by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs in June 2017. In sum, Israel’s multifaceted approach involves spending millions on digital tools to monitor social media content, flooding tech companies with reports and takedown requests and intimidation techniques to comply, and enlisting volunteers and students on specially designed apps.
It is abundantly clear that Israel is involved in systematically targeting and disproportionately erasing Palestinian identity and narratives from the cyber sphere.
It is abundantly clear that Israel is involved in systematically targeting and disproportionately erasing Palestinian identity and narratives from the cyber sphere. Additional Israeli tactics of silencing Palestinians include attacking and arresting journalists, destroying internet and communication infrastructure, bombing buildings that house local and international media agencies in Gaza, weaponizing military laws to charge activists, orchestrating smear campaigns by Israeli government and affiliated organizations against activists and Palestinian human rights defenders, employing military grade surveillance and espionage technologies against Palestinians, and spreading defamation and misinformation about Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even attempted to black out TikTok to prevent Palestinians from sharing videos during the events in May 2021. Just recently, the Israeli military attacked, beat, and arrested Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Givara Budeiri as she reported from Jerusalem; soldiers also destroyed the team’s camera. Budeiri was released on the condition that she does not go to Sheikh Jarrah for 15 days. Israeli police also arrested the Sheikh Jarrah siblings Muna and Mohammed El-Kurd for their social media posts.
In today’s information age, Israeli digital repression and surveillance is a central component of its colonialist program against Palestinians as it dedicates large amounts of government resources and establishes new institutions to carry out these policies.
In today’s information age, Israeli digital repression and surveillance is a central component of its colonialist program against Palestinians as it dedicates large amounts of government resources and establishes new institutions to carry out these policies. Collaboration between the Israeli government and tech companies further represents a widespread silencing of Palestinians as part of a coordinated effort of digital repression and deliberate suppression and erasure of Palestinian narratives. The recent round of censorship illustrates a dangerous and exponential increase in the discriminatory targeting of Palestinian content. This unchecked and unique political power wielded by social media companies in cooperation with authoritarian and repressive regimes must be properly investigated and addressed.
Checking the Absolute Power of Big Tech and Upholding Human Rights
The content moderation policies of social media platforms are problematic for various reasons. These companies and their actions lack any transparency, as they use vague internal guidelines and follow local laws that are authoritarian and repressive in many countries. As a result, policies end up discriminating against marginalized and powerless communities in service of the tech companies’ economic and political interests. These include, but are not limited to, the companies’ compliance with state institutions, like the Israeli Cyber Unit, and bowing to the pressure of powerful groups and totalitarian governments. As such, the automated algorithms that moderate the majority of content on social media reflect that bias.
In addition to this intentional and biased censoring of certain content and terms, what recent events have made clear is that these content moderators are not aware of, or trained in, domestic political dictionaries, such as in the Palestinian context. As about a tenth of the content is reviewed by outsourced content moderators whose performance is measured by the number of issues they resolve, these moderators spend a few seconds on each case and are not motivated to investigate or understand nuance. Another challenge is the large numbers of reports from Israel’s Cyber Unit, flooding the system with hundreds and thousands of cases and leading to additional errors and further complicity, which in turn the algorithms learn to follow. Whether through automated algorithms or outsourced content moderators, the guidelines being followed to identify “inappropriate content” remain vague and the systems used are not designed to deal with contextual nuances (like dialects of Arabic, sarcastic tone, political terminology such as “martyr” in Palestine, or the discussion of groups like Hamas in an analytical rather than supportive manner). Moreover, there is a gross lack of transparency in the platforms’ content moderation policies and the type of training given to moderators. This all contributes to indiscriminate mass censorship and the failure of tech companies to uphold the freedom of expression of users, especially among oppressed groups like Palestinians.
The power of tech companies in policing speech online with a complete lack of accountability and transparency, and without compliance with human rights and freedom of expression standards, contributes to the use of social media as weapons of persecution and repression.
Social media and tech companies have absolute power and control over content. At the same time, online spaces are vital for oppressed populations as they comprise the only avenues available to express their views and evade state suppression. The critical importance of the digital sphere in the human rights arena is scorned by the indifference of tech companies in addressing the many concerns of bias and censorship reported by human rights organizations. In this context, social media companies act as the judge and jury (and law enforcement) where they set their own policies, implement them according to their agendas and interests, and review and make decisions regarding complaints without legal oversight, universal standards, or independent investigation. The power of tech companies in policing speech online with a complete lack of accountability and transparency, and without compliance with human rights and freedom of expression standards, contributes to the use of social media as weapons of persecution and repression. To counter this dangerous trajectory for human and digital rights, the following recommendations are proposed.
1. Accountability. Tech companies should institute independent mechanisms and allocate resources to investigate reported cases of content bias and censorship. They should develop both internal and industry-wide means to ensure that individuals have access to recourse and redress.
2. Responsibility to protect. For far too long, social media companies have evaded the responsibility to protect the human rights of their users, leaving the bulk of the work for under-resourced nonprofit human rights organizations to actively collect evidence and prove cases of violations on these companies’ platforms. Instead of bending to authoritarian governments, social media companies should bear the responsibility to protect the human and digital rights of their users, evaluate the impact of their policies and products on violations of international law, and ensure that their actions do not breach international standards for freedom of expression.
3. Transparency. While information about policies and “community standards” of social media companies is mostly available online, albeit with varying degrees of detail, the information about content moderation algorithms and training is not made public. As content moderation decisions, although assumed to be neutral and objective, have often proven political and in contravention with human rights principles, information about these decisions and algorithms needs to be transparent. What is also problematic is the lack of transparency on reporting data, handling requests from governments (such as by the Israel’s Cyber Unit), compliance rates, error rates and false positives, type and quantity of content removed, and machine learning. Social media companies should be obliged to provide transparency on the decision-making processes involved in content moderation and commit to the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation. This information should be made available for public audit of the companies’ policies and processes by independent human rights groups.
4. Ending collusion with repressive states. Social media companies should commit to the framework of human rights law as the authoritative standard in developing their policies and content moderation guidelines, and not to state laws or private commercial interests. These companies should also affirm that they will resist complying with legislation or government pressure that aims to censor political speech and deny the digital and human rights of their users. They should end secret cooperation with repressive and authoritarian governments.
5. Universal standards. Finally, international standards and implementation mechanisms must be developed by independent multilateral bodies with the aim of protecting individuals from both repressive governments as well as profit-driven tech companies and ensuring the digital rights of citizens across the globe. These standards should serve to guarantee human rights and could be in the form of binding treaties involving states and corporations alike.
The close relationships and collusion between tech companies concerned with profit, and repressive governments fixated on control, present a potential for further disastrous consequences for human rights, if not addressed.
Digital rights are essential for the Palestinian struggle for justice and for Palestinians to finally be seen and heard as human beings. It is regrettable that there is sufficient evidence to show that tech companies are complicit in suppressing and silencing Palestinian narratives. This phenomenon is not unique to the Palestinian context, as oppressed and marginalized communities around the world are facing similar social media bias and censorship. The close relationships and collusion between tech companies concerned with profit, and repressive governments fixated on control, present a potential for further disastrous consequences for human rights, if not addressed. Clear, transparent, and independent mechanisms for accountability and objectivity by social media companies are needed to enforce the upholding of human rights and freedoms of expression across the globe.