Facebook and Palestinian content

By Aya Alghazzawi • Gaza City

Recently, a group of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Palestinian activists in Gaza, namely The Gaza Voice team, commemorated Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) which is an annual event that was first launched in Canada in 2005 and is held by more than 250 cities across the globe every year to spread awareness regarding Israel’s Apartheid regime and to internationally mobilize grassroots support. Usually, IAW activities include intellectual gatherings, Palestinian popular artistic and musical events, inviting speakers whether locally or globally, watching and discussing documentary films, and networking with various Palestinian solidarity campaigns and pro-Palestinian movements. This year, all activities in Gaza, as well as in other parts around the world, have been held online due to Covid-19 restrictions.

One main thing The Gaza Voice team uses to educate people about IAW is social media sites. Content on social media ranges widely from posting about Apartheid, Israeli crimes, intersectionality, events invitations, news and reports among others. For example, The Gaza Voice have produced a simple video about the historical background of the term “Apartheid” and comparing Israeli Apartheid with Apartheid in South Africa using legal language. Also, the team produced a boycott manifesto targeting women to spread awareness about the alphabets of BDS and the important role women can play in the Palestinian struggle on all levels.

However, Facebook and its platforms rejected a sponsored promotion request for the aforementioned materials after taking no less than 24 hours to consider the request, accepting it for few hours then shutting it down entirely. The content didn’t have any words that could directly trigger FB’s algorithm or breach the community standards and guidelines. This action was followed by shadow banning the page to make it less viewable to the audience. Furthermore, many followers reported that they suddenly found out that they unwillingly stopped following and liking the page without their knowledge of it. And because Facebook’s terms of service also state that a user’s information is shared among Facebook’s platforms, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, if a post is flagged or banned, the content was rejected on different platforms. Facebook’s action comes as a means of its censorship of the Palestinian content and silencing Palestinian voices.

Facebook’s Censorship of Palestinian Content has been the norm

Facebook is said to decide within the coming two weeks whether to include using the word “Zionist” under its hate speech policy. This aims at mixing anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and hate speech but also at silencing Palestinians and depriving them of their right to free speech, given the abnormal life Palestinians are made to live.

What happened with The Gaza Voice was not the first time nor will it be the last. (Pro) Palestinians who post about Palestine or expose Israeli crimes often get their content either deleted and or ban shadowed. Many of those users get banned for a period that varies from one week to forever. This becomes tangible when famous people and influencers talk about Palestine.

In July last year, Facebook deleted a post for Palestinian-American activist and human rights attorney, Noura Erakat, about the killing of her cousin Ahmed Erakat by Israeli Occupation forces at one of the checkpoints in the West Bank, under the pretext of harassment and bullying.

Simultaneously, Instagram removed a photo published by the Palestinian-Dutch supermodel Bella Hadid of her father’s Palestinian passport stating Graphic Violence.

In May the same year, Middle East Eye reported that more than 50 Palestinian journalists and activists had their profile pages deleted by Facebook, alongside a notification saying their pages had been deactivated for “not following our Community Standards”.

Facebook’s censorship is not surprising

A great and recent report made the Belgian researcher Alysia Grapek shows that “in 2019, Facebook disclosed their cooperation with the Israeli government where it is possible to see how information is shared between the platforms and the government. In 2019, Facebook complied with 79% of the Israeli governments’ requests for/ to remove user data. Reasons for these requests are not disclosed.”

This is not surprising especially after Facebook and Instagram appointed Emi Palmor, a former general director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice’s Cyber Unit that resulted in the removal of thousands of pieces of Palestinian content from Facebook, to the Oversight Board.

7amleh international relations manager, Alison Carmel, told Mondowiess, “Even though there are many qualified Israelis who could have been chosen for this position, Facebook picked Emi Palmor, who has a long history of managing the Israeli government’s efforts to censor Palestinian content and those supporting Palestinian human rights. This is a dangerous development that will likely impact human rights and freedom of expression for decades.” Carmel further added, “For the last couple years, we’ve heard a lot about the perils of “Cancel Culture” and the free speech crisis that has plagued our universities, but it’s very clear that this alleged problem only applies to certain viewpoints. The people who push these narratives don’t care if Palestinians or advocates for Palestine are literally silenced. Their voices don’t count”

What determines what to be Censored?

The Belgian researcher Alysia Grapek’s report “Facebook Censors Palestine” studied blocked and censored Palestinian English content to analyze Facebook’s current mechanics of censorship and whether there are specific words that trigger Facebook’s algorithm.

The study found the following:

  • The Community Standards and enforcement of the guidelines indicate that subjective opinion and interpretation are a key part of what content is censored or allowed.
  • The implementation of the community standards and lack of definition for key terms such as “anti-Semitic” leave much up for interpretation.
  • Content surrounding the lives and experiences of the Palestinian people and the Israeli occupation of Palestine is more actively reviewed and censored by Facebook.

Campaigns to protest Facebook

Lately, over 40 social justice organizations in the US and around the world, including MPower Change, We Are Not Numbers, Media Justice, 7amleh, Jewish Voice for Peace, Adalah Justice Project, BDS Movement, Eyewitness Palestine, and Palestine Legal, have organized a campaign called “Facebook We Need Talk” to protest Faceebook’s said move to restrict the use of “Zionist”-and consequently- Zionism as hate speech. The campaign focuses on signing a 9,000-goal petition to send it to TO: Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, COO and CEO of Facebook.

Last year, (pro)Palestinian groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in coalition with 7amleh, The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and the BDS Movement for Palestinian Rights, launched a campaign to tell Facebook that they MUST focus on removing hate speech, not censoring valid speech by Palestinians and Palestine advocates — and that Emi Palmor has to go.



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