Rights groups and Palestine advocates are demanding answers from Facebook after multiple reports that the social media giant has censored Palestinian content on its platforms, especially during the recent Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem.
In a letter to Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg on Wednesday, dozens of organisations said they were “angered and disturbed by the recent censorship of Palestinian users and their supporters on your platforms”.
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Earlier this month, Palestinian social media users reported that their posts on Facebook and Instagram – which is owned by Facebook – in solidarity with families facing forced expulsions from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah had been blocked, hidden or deleted.
“At this moment, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are often Palestinian protestors’ and residents’ only tools to share information to keep each other safe in the face of repression by the Israeli government and police, and during attacks on civilians,” reads the letter.
“This blatant censorship of Palestinian political content is putting these activists further at risk.”
The letter’s signatories – including 7amleh, Adalah Justice Project, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Jewish Voice for Peace – demanded that Facebook explain how it applies its policies, provide data on all removals, and allow independent researchers to review the removals.
It also asked the company to review its relationship with the Israeli government.
In an email on Wednesday evening, a Facebook spokesperson told Al Jazeera the company’s policies “are designed to give everyone a voice while keeping them safe on our apps, and we apply these policies equally, regardless of who is posting or their personal beliefs”.
The spokesperson said Facebook had met with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh to discuss its policies and hear their concerns.
The company has also set up a “Special Operations Center”, the spokesperson said. “We have a dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, closely monitoring the situation on the ground, who are focused on making sure we’re removing harmful content, while addressing any enforcement errors as quickly as possible.”
The spokesperson did not say what constitutes “harmful content”.
Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh had previously accused social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and TikTok of collaborating with the Israeli government to censor posts documenting Israeli rights violations against Palestinians.
Israeli media outlets reported on May 14 that Gantz had urged Facebook and TikTok executives in a meeting to act against “disinformation and incitement” on their platforms.
Earlier this month, Instagram said a technical bug had affected millions of stories around the world, when asked about the problems with the posts. But that explanation was rejected by Palestinian digital rights experts.
In a report last week, 7amleh said it had documented more than 500 reports of Palestinian digital rights violations between May 6 and 19, which it described as “a significant increase in the censorship of Palestinian political speech and narrative online”.
On Tuesday, The Associated Press news agency also reported that 17 journalists in Gaza said their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked since Friday, when a ceasefire came into effect to end 10 days of Israeli bombardments of the Palestinian territory and rockets fired towards Israel.
By midday on Monday, only four journalists – working for Al Jazeera – confirmed their accounts had been restored, the news agency said.
Social media has been one of the only places for us to get first-hand accounts from Palestinians about the occupation & violence they face. That's why I'm writing to urge @Facebook, @instagram, @Twitter & @tiktok_us to cease censorship and ensure Palestinian voices are heard. pic.twitter.com/ltamvE1uKk
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) May 25, 2021
The letter to Facebook comes a day after US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib wrote letters to executives of Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, asking for more information about the removal of posts and what each company’s decision-making process entails.
“With reporting in the mainstream media often ignoring and silencing Palestinian voices, social media has become a crucial source for information, pictures and videos documenting the injustices that Palestinians face,” she wrote.
“Palestinians often have nowhere else to turn to make their voices heard other than social media.”
Tlaib also questioned what she said was “a disturbing double-standard” in which pro-Palestinian posts were censored or restricted, while “extremist Israeli groups are allowed to coordinate violent mob attacks on Palestinians”.
The New York Times reported on May 19 that extremist Jewish Israelis had formed at least 100 new WhatsApp groups “for the express purpose of committing violence against Palestinians” amid recent tensions and protests over Israeli violence in East Jerusalem and Gaza.