Digital apartheid: Palestinians being silenced on social media

Social media companies, from Zoom to Facebook and Twitter, are reinforcing Israel’s erasure of Palestinians.

Flames and smoke rise after Israeli air strikes in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2021 [Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters]

In 1984, Palestinian American intellectual and Columbia University Professor Edward Said famously argued that Palestinians are denied “permission to narrate”.

More than 30 years later, in 2020, Maha Nassar, a Palestinian American Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, analysed opinion articles published in two daily newspapers – The New York Times and The Washington Post – and two weekly news magazines – The New Republic and The Nation – over a 50-year period, from 1970 to 2019. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that “Editorial boards and columnists seem to have been quite consumed with talking about the Palestinians, often in condescending and even racist ways – yet they somehow did not feel the need to hear much from Palestinians themselves.”

Nassar’s research, like many others before it, clearly demonstrates that more than three decades after the publication of Said’s landmark essay, the exclusion of Palestinian voices from mainstream media narratives in the West – and the attempts to erase the humanity of the Palestinians or whitewash Israel’s crimes against them – continue unabated.

Sadly, however, this unjust status quo has not only remained unchanged since Said brought it under the spotlight – it has deteriorated.

In recent years, social media became a lifeline for many who want to raise awareness about causes and struggles ignored or undermined by mainstream media outlets.

Yet tech companies are now actively working to exclude Palestinian voices from their platforms, thereby expanding the calculated erasure and silencing of the Palestinians to social media.

In April, for example, Zoom, Facebook and Youtube blocked the online academic event “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?” co-sponsored by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies program at San Francisco State University, the Council of UC Faculty Associations (CUFCA), and the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI).

The event was to feature anti-apartheid activists from around the globe, including Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled and South Africa’s former ANC military leader Ronnie Kasrils.

This event was in fact a repeat of an open classroom co-organised by Dr Rabab Ibrahim Abudulhadi (AMED Studies) and Dr Tomomi Kinukawa (Women and Gender Studies) of San Francisco State University that Zoom initially censored in September 2020. Then, as now, Zoom and other social media companies said they decided to block the event from their platforms due to the planned participation of Leila Khaled. They claimed, as Khaled is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a “US-designated terrorist organisation”, allowing the event to proceed would be in violation of US laws prohibiting material support for terrorism.

As repeatedly asserted by numerous legal experts, the argument put forth by the social media companies is without merit. It not only ignores all relevant legal precedents and falsely alleges violations of US law, but also amounts to an attack on academic freedoms.

Indeed, in an open letter to Zoom executives published in October last year, experts from Palestine Legal and other legal organisations stressed that Zoom’s censoring of the AMED event constitutes “a dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom, and an abuse of your contract with our public university systems”. They added that “[Zoom’s] status as an essential public service does not give you veto power over the content of the nation’s classrooms and public events.”

These warnings, however, went unheeded, with Zoom and other social media companies completely ignoring the growing criticism of their biased policies and escalating their efforts to silence Palestinian speech on their platforms.

In April, after Zoom refused to host the “Whose Narratives?” event for the second time – following pressure from an Israeli government app and several right-wing Zionist organisations – Facebook not only took down publicity posts about the event, but also deleted the page of the AMED Studies program from its platform in its entirety, effectively erasing a vast archive of talks, discussions and documents on the Palestinian liberation struggle and its relationship to freedom movements from around the world. These materials were being intentionally shared and stored on Facebook for academics, activists, organisers and the community at large to be able to engage with them free of charge and without restriction.

Coming on the heels of Zoom’s repeated attempts to arbitrate what is and is not acceptable speech in academia, Facebook’s deletion of the AMED page made clear Big Tech’s modus operandi when it comes to Israel-Palestine: censor material related to the Palestinian struggle on Israel’s demand, and ignore any criticism of these unlawful and unjust actions.

Israel and its allies are not only pressuring Big Tech to silence the Palestinians from outside. Facebook’s oversight board, an independent body tasked with deliberating on the platform’s content decisions, includes former director-general of the Israeli ministry of justice, Emi Palmor. Palmor personally managed Israel’s Cyber Unit in the past, which successfully lobbied for the removal of thousands of pieces of Palestinian content from Facebook.

While it is only logical to assume Palmor’s presence on the oversight board is contributing to Facebook’s anti-Palestinian actions, Big Tech’s routine silencing of Palestinian voices cannot be blamed on such overtly pro-Israeli actors in its higher echelons alone.

Since the very beginning, social media companies have gravitated towards and aligned with centres of power in the US capitalist and imperialist structures. They even partnered with the US Department of Defence, coordinating surveillance and big data analysis. So it is not that a few powerful pro-Israeli voices are coopting social media companies into silencing dissent; the industry itself is rotten to its core. Let us not forget how Big Tech executives and employees have orchestrated a huge land grab and gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area, displacing thousands of working-class and poor communities of colour.

The AMED Studies Facebook page has not been restored. But as the event organisers have also rightfully noted, the problem is not only Big Tech censorship: after the censoring of the AMED event, university officials refused to offer alternative platforms for the event to take place and engaged in messaging and programming that effectively delegitimised it.

Universities are far from being neutral arbiters in this story: by conceding to the monopoly of tech companies over pedagogical programming and by normalising anti-Palestinian rhetoric, they are complicit in these companies’ overreaching erasure of Palestine and Palestinians from the curriculum.

And the repression of Palestinian voices on social media extends far beyond academia. In recent days, many individuals documenting Israeli settler and state violence against Palestinian families in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah reported that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (owned by Facebook) has been “systematically censoring” their content.

In the latest chapter of Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the Palestinian families of Sheikh Jarrah face imminent forced removal from their homes and are contending with violent repression that is sanctioned and enabled by all levels of the Israeli state.

Last Friday, more than 200 people were wounded when Israeli police shot rubber bullets and threw stun grenades at Palestinians in Al-Aqsa mosque. Israeli forces tried to prevent medics from treating the injured and at least three Palestinians lost an eye as a result of the attack. On Monday, Israeli occupation forces again fired at Palestinians, who had gathered at Al-Aqsa to pray and protect the site from settler violence, with rubber-coated bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas; reporters, journalists and medics were among the wounded. In the latest act of collective punishment, Israel began a ruthless bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip on Monday night, flattening civilian infrastructure and media offices. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 65, 16 of whom are children, with 365 wounded, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. On Wednesday night, settler and police violence against Palestinians in the city of Lydd (also known as Lod) peaked as hundreds of Israelis stormed the city, attacking Palestinian protesters following the murder of 33-year-old Palestinian man, Musa Hassouna. Israeli Border Forces were eventually transferred to Lydd from the West Bank. Furthermore, fascist Israelis participated in an attempted lynching of a Palestinian man in Bat Yam, forcibly removing him from his car and beating him unconscious.

The Israeli Supreme Court has since delayed the Sheikh Jarrah forced removals for 30 days, but activists have identified this as a stalling tactic meant to diffuse momentum and support for the Sheikh Jarrah residents.

In a recent CNN interview, Mohamed El-Kurd, a Palestinian poet and activist from Sheikh Jarrah, powerfully turned the age-old media trope of Palestinians being inherently “violent” on its head by responding to the reporter’s leading question with one of his own: “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?” As usual, US mainstream media organisations attempt to hide the asymmetrical nature of Israel’s aggression by defining its latest and ongoing attacks on the Palestinian people as “clashes” or a “conflict”.

Mainstream media’s ongoing efforts to whitewash Israel’s deadly occupation, coupled with the dire and rapidly escalating situation of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah as well as all Palestinians resisting in support of them, make unrestricted access to social media especially crucial for Palestinians and their allies.

But rather than amplifying the righteous struggle of Palestinians resisting violence and displacement, social media companies are furthering the interests and agenda of the very government attacking them.

This latest round of social media censorship of Palestinian posts about Sheikh Jarrah is part of a larger pattern of repression, given the long and well-documented complicity between Israel and social media companies in regulating and censoring Palestinian content and accounts. Instagram officially attributed these latest deletions to a “global technical issue”. Twitter likewise claimed the restriction of the account of Palestinian writer Mariam Barghouti, which was subsequently reinstated following a huge social media outcry, was an “accident”. Activists and watchdog organisations have expressed doubts about such explanations, given the targeted nature of the removals and censures.

Decades after Edward Said’s criticism of the US media’s insistent refusal to allow Palestinians to narrate their own stories, the voices in support of the Palestinian liberation struggle are being silenced not only by mainstream media organisations but also social media companies.

But we must not give in. Despite efforts by social media companies and media organisations to silence Palestinians, those who truly believe in equality, justice and freedom should continue to endorse and amplify the calls to save Sheikh Jarrah, stop the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, end all military funding for Israel, and bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and state-sanctioned discrimination against Palestinians. We should also support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, until Israel agrees to cease its colonial and apartheid practices for good. Media organisations and social media companies can try to control and distort narratives about Palestine, but they cannot hide the truth and silence Palestinians’ righteous calls for justice forever.

This does not mean we should not try and expose the unethical and unlawful practices by these companies and organisations. We must fight the targeted, cross-platform censorship that echoes and reinforces the Israeli state’s ongoing structural oppression of Palestinians and systematic erasure of Palestinian voices. By engaging in such behaviour, social media companies are practicing digital apartheid. We can not sit idly by. Now more than ever, we need to continue to expose and resist this discriminatory silencing as part of the larger fight for Palestinian freedom and liberation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.