Palestinians’ struggle to secure their digital rights is crucial in the face of mainstream media spin and collaboration of social media platforms with Israel to stifle their voices.
Since attacks on residents and activists by Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah began, countless Palestinians have slammed social media companies for shutting down their personal accounts and censoring content they shared.
Social media users from the ground and around the world have disseminated images and video content on the attacks, using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah in both English and Arabic.
As violence escalated last weekend, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were all accused of removing content that shared information on evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah. Many complained their accounts have been censored, limited, or shut down altogether.
When Israeli forces stormed Al Aqsa on Friday, the hashtags for the mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site – were hidden on Instagram, and content was blocked just as worshippers inside the mosque were being met with stun grenades and rubber bullets, which injured 220 people.
The social media platform Instagram hides the hashtag # Al-Aqsa in due to the widespread publication on it following the field events and the Israeli occupation's assault on Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque pic.twitter.com/33CKTZoiLl— مركز صدى سوشال (@SadaSocialPs) May 7, 2021
Palestinian digital rights group Sada Social condemned Twitter for shutting down several activists’ accounts.
“Sada Social considers the closure of these accounts as a punishment for activists and collusion between the Twitter administration and the Israeli security services, in order to reduce interaction with the Sheikh Jarrah cause,” it said in a statement.
Censorship of Palestine across social media platforms highlights exactly why posting matters. A tweet or Instagram story from folks not on the ground is certainly not activism but clearly its impact cant be understated. Keep posting, sharing and retweeting #SaveSheikhJarrah— Nooran A. (@nooranhamdan) May 6, 2021
Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri declared it was a technical bug which removed millions of stories, highlights and archives around the world, including those related to East Jerusalem.
While he claimed the “glitch” was patched last Friday, as violence proceeded to escalate in Sheikh Jarrah so did reports of content restrictions and account suspensions, which have continued to be experienced by users.
The mainstream media’s efforts to whitewash Israel’s punishing occupation makes unfettered access to social media a lifeline for Palestinians, and the only tool at their disposal to amplify their voices and counter disinformation.
The latest round of social media censorship is only part of a larger pattern of digital repression that Palestinians have been experiencing for years, given the complicity of Israel and technology firms in silencing Palestinians online has long been documented.
"This is the time for allies/friends and pro-Palestinian activists to amplify the voices of Palestinians activists & human rights defenders on the social media to resist the systematic efforts of silencing them on social media platforms" @Monashtayya to @AJEnglish #SavePalestine pic.twitter.com/JRv4QJ3cCD— 7amleh حملة (@7amleh) May 13, 2021
Earlier this week, Palestinian digital rights organisation 7amleh released their annual report #Hashtag Palestine 2020, which offers a snapshot of digital rights violations committed against Palestinians living in Israel and the occupied territories by government authorities and technology companies.
The report highlighted the measures ushered in under the cover of controlling Covid-19 in March 2020 gave Israeli authorities free reign to implement a “biosurveillance” regime that tracked people’s movements as part of the state’s response to the pandemic.
In December 2020, evidence surfaced of the existence of a secret police system for monitoring the online activity of any website and citizen or resident in Israel.
While the controversial monitoring program was ordered to be shut down a year later by the Israeli Supreme Court on grounds of civil liberties infringement, recent reports of Palestinians receiving threatening texts from Israeli intelligence has raised suspicions that the tracking technology has been repurposed to monitor their movements.
Meanwhile, technology companies have continued to violate Palestinian’s digital rights.
The report states that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp have continued to collaborate with Israeli security units, and Palestinian content online is indiscriminately censored because of the policies of these platforms.
According to a survey of twenty civil society organisations that were asked about the extent of content takedown in 2020, 41 percent claimed to have experienced a moderate amount of content takedowns, while 35 percent saw a high amount.
When asked about which online platforms censored their content, Facebook was the highest with 42 percent, while 25 percent came on Zoom and nearly 17 percent on WhatsApp.
A further 44 percent said they experienced being smeared online.
From January to June 2020, Facebook received 913 requests from Israeli authority’s Cyber Unit, which requests to delete or block sites and pages. The platform complied with 81 percent of those requests.
According to the Israeli General Attorney’s Office, the Cyber Unit made 19,606 requests to social media companies regarding content takedowns in 2019.
In many cases, Palestinians' freedom of expression was violated even if they never went against Facebook’s Community Standards.
Social media companies rely on moderation tools that use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, but these systems often struggle to decipher Arabic and are blind to subtleties and context.
Palestinian news organisations have also faced similar barriers to utilising social media platforms when reporting on the front lines, with content being flagged or removed for being “too graphic”.
Last year Facebook also established the Facebook Oversight Board, ostensibly to promote free expression. However, the selection of Emi Palmor, a former general manager of the Israeli Ministry of Justice and responsible for the creation of the Israeli Cyber Unit, “seemed to indicate a continued strong relationship between the Israeli authority and Facebook,” the report said.
Her selection led to global digital and human rights activists launching the #FacebookCensorsPalestine campaign.
Additionally, Twitter suspended tens of accounts of Palestinian users based on information from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic affairs, while YouTube and TikTok allowed videos celebrating Israeli military violence to remain on their platform.
In September, Zoom refused to host an event organised by Palestinian students and professors at San Francisco State University hosting Leila Khaled.
Even when it comes to accessing the digital economy, Palestinians are left with the short end of the stick.
Amazon, which entered Israel in 2020, allows Israeli settlers to access seller accounts but does not accept registrations from Palestinians in Gaza or the occupied territories.
The tourist industry too has flourished at the expense of Palestinians.
In early 2020, Airbnb was listed in a UN database as one of more than 100 companies whose business operations linked them to Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.