Social Media Censorship of Palestinian Voices

Recent days witnessed the Israeli attacks on international media offices, including The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera in Gaza. Israel claims sans evidence that Hamas was operating off the Al-Jala Tower that housed these media offices. Contrarily, the media houses deem the attacks an attempt to interrupt the reporting of the unrest in Jerusalem. However, the question remains whether, in the era of social media, is it possible for any stakeholder to take control of the Israel-Palestine narrative. For Palestinians, social media has remained an essential means of disseminating relevant information, as they render conventional media reporting insufficient. However, Palestinian campaigners and protestors are now increasingly criticising various social media platforms for blue-pencilling and “blocking” the content they share.

Given the recent violence concentrated on the third holiest site of Muslims, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Eastern Jerusalem has become the target of the gravest atrocities since 2017. Palestinians residing in the Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood have been utilising social media tools to live stream their resistance against the impending eviction. The forced removal is intended to make way for the Israeli settlers that claim the Palestinian homes. Therefore, social media accounts based in Gaza and worldwide have been publishing pictures and videos about the violence in Palestine, with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah in English and Arabic. However, users have protested that their social media accounts have been censored, restricted or entirely blocked. Platforms, including Twitter, Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram, have been blamed for obstructing any posts sharing updates regarding the Palestinian expulsions from Shiekh Jarrah.

The Defence Minister of Israel, Benny Gantz, has asked Tik Tok and Facebook to remove content which he believes could incite violence. Thus, press freedom activists have accused Israel of limiting the Palestinian stories. Sada Social, a non-profit Palestinian youth initiative that documents Palestinian content violations, has reported numerous recent breaches of Palestinian content on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media, holds that the social media companies are removing “human rights documentation, and silencing Palestinian Human rights activists in the digital space.”

Platforms, including Twitter, Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram, have been blamed for obstructing any posts sharing updates regarding the Palestinian expulsions from Shiekh Jarrah.

A sustained track record supports the connivance between social media companies and Israel. For example, according to a 2020 report by 7amleh, 81% of Israel’s Cyber Unit requests for content deletion were accepted by Facebook. Similarly, other platforms, including Twitter and WhatsApp, carried out arbitrary censoring of Palestinian content in compliance with Israel.

In the case of Facebook, its 20-member Oversight Board, responsible for weighing the website’s rulings regarding its content, includes Emi Palmor. Palmor, a former General Director of the Ministry of Justice in Israel, is notorious for tracking Palestinians on social media platforms. During her tenure, the Israeli Cyber Unit of the Justice Ministry categorically restricted the freedom of expression about the matter of Palestine. Similarly, it ensured the removal of a plethora of Palestinian’s content. Given Palmor’s track record, the neutrality of Facebook’s decisions regarding Palestinian content becomes rather debatable. Nevertheless, recently, in a response letter to the Palestinian Mission to the UK, Facebook has admitted its misstep in reviewing the accounts of Palestinians and of those using relevant keywords. Likewise, the platform announced its intention to rectify the mistake.

As for Twitter, the company has put the onus on certain system glitches that led to the removal of Palestinian’s content. Similarly, Instagram has conveniently mentioned a “technical issue” causing hindrances in uploading and viewing Instagram stories. A Palestinian activist, Mohammed El Kurd, stated that his Instagram stories were removed for being “hate speech”. He had been updating online regarding the status of Sheikh Jarrah via his Instagram and Twitter accounts. By the same token, Marwa Fatafta, the Middle East and North Africa Adviser for Access Now in conversation with Thomson Reuters Foundation, maintained that such technical hitches are “no longer accepted as an excuse”.

Therefore, on May 11, many NGOs, including SMEX, 7amleh, Samir Kassir Foundation, Masaar, Team Community, and Lebanese Center for Human Rights, collectively launched a petition. The petition appeals to the big tech firms “to stop silencing Palestinian content”, restore the “affected posts and accounts”, and furnish a transparent justification stating the motive of the removal.

The current scenario reiterates Edward Said’s historical claim that Palestinians have been deprived of the “permission to narrate.” The recent events reflect only a microcosm of what has been going on in Palestine for years. It gives the impression that Palestinians have been denied the right to present their side of the story freely. The locals, unhappy with the insufficient coverage and essentially flawed narratives of the Western media, found an opening with social media platforms. Then again, there are widespread incidences of an ongoing systemic silencing of the Palestinian stories by these companies. Still, Palestinians, digital rights organisations and Palestine sympathisers worldwide are adamant about presenting their narrative and are not ready to be silenced.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan is Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She is also Visiting Faculty at the International Islamic University, Islamabad.

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