Controlling the narrative is a growing front in Israel-Palestine conflict.
A Palestinian non-governmental organisation has accused social media companies of “closely cooperating” with the Israeli government to censor pro-Palestinian content after Israeli attacks escalated.
Peaceful protests in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah against forced expulsions of Palestinians by Israeli authorities triggered a wave of support on social media platforms. Thousands of tweets, Facebook posts, and TikTok videos citing hashtags such as #savesheikhjarrah have been shared.
However, many users have reported their Facebook or Instagram posts in solidarity with Sheikh Jarrah residents have been blocked, hidden or deleted.
“There was a massive crackdown by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and other social media companies on posts relating to Sheikh Jarrah,” Nadim Nashif, the director of 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights group, told Al Jazeera.
The taking down and blocking of posts mentioning the possible expulsion of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah were “voluntary and outside the courts”, Nashif said, citing 200 testimonials his organisation gathered by speaking directly to people whose posts were deleted.
“There is close cooperation between social media companies and the Israeli government, which abuse this and try to silence the voices speaking out against the Israeli occupation,” he added.
“Obviously, this has harmed freedom of expression and comes at a crucial time of various violations carried out by the Israeli government.”
Moreover, online posts expressing solidarity with Palestinians attacked by Israeli police at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem were also deleted or blocked, users reported.
The storming of Islam’s third-holiest site served as a catalyst for Israel’s ongoing bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip.
The accusations by 7almeh come amid a meeting last week between Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and executives of TikTok and Facebook, Israeli media reported.
Gantz insisted the social media companies remove content that incites violence and “spreads misinformation”.
According to the report, the companies “expressed their commitments to quickly and effectively” remove content deemed to be inciting violence.
‘They silenced us’
Hind Khoudary, a Palestinian journalist working for US-Jordan-based fact-checking platform Misbar, said all her Instagram stories related to support for Sheikh Jarrah residents and Palestinians were censored.
“They all suddenly disappeared… I don’t get any views [on my story],” she told Al Jazeera.
Khoudary said while her stories previously had some 6,000 views, they now receive only about 300.
“I believe Instagram is biased just like news agencies reporting on Gaza. They silenced us. They didn’t want us to tell the truth.”
Another Palestinian journalist, Maha Rezeq, said while she was organising her Instagram stories in highlights, videos, photos and charts documenting Israeli violations against Palestinians they were taken down.
“I initially thought it was a technical issue, but then I realised that only posts critical of Israel were removed … everything else I shared about veganism, environment, remained untouched. As far as I am concerned I was not notified that I violated the ‘community standards’ whatever that means,” she said.
This doesn't describe the Israeli occupier's logic only; it also describes the rudeness of those who support the Israeli colonial policies of expropriating the Palestinian occupied lands. pic.twitter.com/OSB0QejwCT
— Ramy Abdu| رامي عبده (@RamAbdu) May 1, 2021
One of the posts Rezeq shared that was censored was of Mona al-Kurd, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah, arguing with an Israeli settler attempting to occupy her home. The video was widely shared with thousands of views across multiple social media platforms.
On May 8, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said an automated update caused content re-shared by multiple users to show as missing, affecting stories including Sheikh Jarrah and protests in Colombia, adding it “was not our intent whatsoever”.
Twitter said some accounts were “suspended in error by our automated systems” and the issue had been resolved and content reinstated.
Technical updates are not selective about race, ethnicities, nationalities and policial views. Make it make sense @instagram! You are oppressing indigenous struggles. Your credibiltiy is forever compromised. #SaveSheikhJarrah #SavePalestine https://t.co/vBmXfhKo0y
— Maha Rezeq #GazaUnderAttack (@Maha_Rezeq) May 9, 2021
Nevertheless, Rezeq said her Sheikh Jarrah and Palestine-related posts were still being censored.
“This explicit deletion of Palestinian content can’t be anything but institutionalised racism and duplicity,” she said
“Mark Zuckerberg and tech giants are directly complicit in oppressing Palestinians and covering up crimes that need immediate condemnation and investigation.”
7amleh and 24 other civil rights groups, in a joint statement called on Facebook and Twitter to “reinstate all accounts and content currently taken offline in breach of international standards on freedom of expression”.
Not a new problem
While Sheikh Jarrah has highlighted the issue of censorship of Palestinians online to a wider audience, rights advocates say the problem is not new.
“Palestinian activists, journalists and users of social media have been decrying the discrimination that they’re facing on those platforms for years,” Marwa Fafta of digital rights group Access Now told Al Jazeera’s The Stream.
Between the period January to June 2020, Facebook received 913 requests from Israel to block or delete pages from its platform, a report by 7almeh showed. Of those, 81 percent were accepted by the social media giant.
A September 2016 report from the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) detailed extensive Facebook censorship of Palestinian activists, journalists and media outlets, including the blocking of Shihab news agency and Jerusalem News Network pages.
The blocking and deleting of content came amid a meeting held the same month between social media heads and former Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked – who claimed Facebook and others were complying with 95 percent of requests to delete online posts.
Nevertheless, Access Now’s Fatafta said the scale of this new round of online censorship was something she had not seen before.
“It’s so brazen. It’s beyond censorship. Its digital repression,” she asserted.