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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Pro-Palestine censorship on social media is nothing new


Are social media apps censoring pro-Palestine content? The short answer is yes. The long answer is they’ve been doing this for a long time.

The last few days of Ramadan are often seen as a time to focus on prayers and begin preparing for Eid celebrations. Unfortunately, for many in Palestine, this has not been the case. Since Monday, Israel has at least killed 119 Palestinians, including dozens of children. 

This came following a court ruling that allowed Israeli occupiers to evict Palestinian families from their homes to expand the occupation. The ruling triggered rising tensions in Jerusalem, with Israeli rioters marching through Palestinian land and chanting “death to Arabs”.

At the holy Al Aqsa mosque, shocking footage that emerged online showed Israeli police raided the place or worship and fired at Muslims as they prayed during the holy month. 

Read also: Qatar FM slams Israeli aggression as ‘ethnic cleansing’ at Arab League meeting

Social media has long been used as a tool to publicise crimes and attacks that often go unnoticed. With escalating oppression and aggression against Palestinians in recent days, many took to Instagram and other major social media apps to report the violence in a bid to raise awareness.

However, what followed was surprising. Users on Instagram started noticing stories and posts related to Palestine were being deleted by the platform, with some even reporting direct messages were vanishing. 

Twitter users were seen complaining about post removals

Soon enough, the censorship was followed by immense backlash from users expressing their support for Palestine. Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, responded on Twitter, citing a “technical bug” as the cause of the issue.

He then apologised, admitting that he’s accountable for the issue, and acknowledged that people felt like they couldn’t bring attention to incredibly important causes going on around the world. However, he did not help raise awareness for those issues on his platform.

Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram blamed a technical bug for the issue

Upon further investigation, it appears that there’s merit to Instagram’s apology. Seeing that many users on Twitter complained about their stories disappearing, and not just concerning Palestine, it’s possible they were removed due to a technical bug.

However, this only addresses one portion of social media’s ongoing censorship against pro-Palestine users. Mona Shtaya, the local advocacy manager for the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement 7amleh, told Aljazeera that Mosseri’s statement is not credible. She further explained that they’re still receiving reports of pro-Palestine account suspensions and content takedowns across social media apps.

Several months ago, Bella Hadid found herself a victim of Instagram’s censorship against pro-Palestine posts after posting an Instagram story showing her father’s Palestinian passport.

Read also: ‘Solidarity convoy’ hits Qatar’s streets in support of Palestine

The photo was accompanied by a caption declaring, “I am proud to be Palestinian ❤️”, followed by a message encouraging others to share similar photos too. Her story was removed by Instagram for violating its company guidelines, with Hadid notified that the company removes content that includes “graphic violence”, “hate speech, harassment and bullying” or “nudity and sexual activity”.

She shared the notice on her story to challenge Instagram’s decision to take down her story.

A Facebook representative eventually responded saying that Instagram removes content that includes personal information such as passports. They however went on to add that “in this case, the passport number was blurred out, so this content shouldn’t have been removed. We’ve restored the content and apologise to Bella for the mistake.”

[Bella Hadid’s Instagram]
Muna Elkurd, a Palestinian journalist with over half a million followers on Instagram, was among those posting frequent updates showcasing Israeli violence against Palestinians in recent days before her account was suddenly removed from Instagram.

When it was restored, an Instagram spokesperson said that the account was removed in error, though this supposed error was separate to the “technical bug” that caused stories for many Instagram users to disappear.

The removal of Muna Elkurd’s account isn’t an isolated incident either. 7amleh found that 81% of Israel’s requests for content removal have been accepted by Facebook, with Israel’s justice minister boasting that social media companies and search engines comply with up to 95% of Israel’s requests to delete content.

On the other hand, 7amleh found in 2017 that “every 46 seconds Israelis post a racist or inciting comment against Palestinians and Arabs” with little to no response from companies to regulate this content. With social media usage rising in the past four years, it’s likely that this happens a lot more frequently now.

“What was previously used as a platform to avoid suppressors and practise free speech is now the new suppressor we fear.”

The double standards in social media regulations haven’t gone unnoticed, and organisations such as 7amleh are fighting back against tech companies. A recently published report by the organisation highlights Palestinian censorship by Facebook, Twitter, Tiktok, YouTube and more. 

While tech companies continue to blame their contradictory rules on bugs and errors, Palestinian voices are being silenced nonetheless. Banning large accounts during critical events plays a major role in how the public perceives such events. Restoring the accounts a few days later is often too late as its takes away from the journalists’ right to do their job and share information.

Social media companies have, to some extent, accidentally found themselves elected as the gatekeepers of society. After banning Donald Trump from Twitter earlier this year, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, posted a few tweets admitting that this sets a dangerous precedent regarding the “power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”. 

As a result, we find that social media both amplifies and suppresses our voices. What was previously used as a platform to avoid suppressors and practise free speech is now the new suppressor we fear. Social media gave us a voice when no one else did, but it’s now slowly getting taken away from us.

Read also: Why is the Gulf scared of free press?

The report by 7amleh states that “Palestinian users started to rewrite words that often get flagged by the algorithm using symbols, numbers, spaces or English letters” to avoid their content getting removed. 

Our speech is still monitored, we simply have a new guard to please.

Unfortunately, our ability to raise awareness for issues we care about is largely at the mercy of large tech companies. Fortunately, their success is largely at our mercy too. We need to continue speaking up about issues we care about, and whenever any of our content is suppressed, we need to speak up about that too.

Whether pro-Palestine content is removed due to an error, or due to systematic censorship, we need to hold the platforms accountable.

Do you believe that Instagram stories supporting Palestine have been removed in error, or is something else at play here? Have you experienced any content takedowns yourself? Let us know in the comments.

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