CAIR Op-Ed: Pushing Back Against Big Tech’s Censorship of Palestine Advocacy

By Ismail Allison, CAIR National Intern

Imagine being robbed of everything you own in broad daylight. Imagine a criminal taking away your wallet, your car, your house, even your family. Imagine dozens of onlookers who could call for help simply ignoring what’s happening to you. Or worse, imagine the onlookers praise the robber and condemn you as the criminal.

This is the situation that Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have experienced every day for decades. Robbed of their very lives while numerous foreign governments and media outlets stand by, watching.

For many Palestinians, social media has been the best way to tell their stories, seek help and inspire change. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provide Palestinians with a platform to document and bring attention to the injustices that corporate media outlets regularly ignore. However, the recent violence against Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in Gaza revealed that social media is not a safe place for Palestinians to tell their stories.

The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement (7amleh), a Palestinian digital rights organization, released a report documenting 500 cases of censorship and free speech violations against Palestinians across various social media platforms between May 6 and 19, when violence reached its peak.

On Facebook and Instagram, hundreds of users who expressed solidarity with Palestinians facing ethnic cleansing in Sheikh Jarrah, or criticized the Israeli assaults on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or otherwise voiced support for Palestine and opposition to Israel reported their posts and stories deleted. Many also had accounts suspended or removed.

According to the 7amleh report, 46% of cases of censorship on Instagram and 47% on Facebook came with no explanation as to why the content in question was being taken down.

Instagram removed and blocked posts and hashtags relating to Al-Aqsa while Israeli police conducted raids on the mosque and attacked worshippers. When an employee of the social media site reported the unjust removal of an infographic describing the current situation at Al-Aqsa, he was told that the post was removed “based on a reference to ‘alaqsa’ which is a designated organization,” a term used by Facebook to refer to terrorist or hate groups.

Some posts had their visibility curtailed. Palestinian journalist Hind Khoudary, who works for US-Jordanian fact-checking platform Misbar, reported that all her Instagram stories supporting the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, which previously garnered up to 6,000 views, now receive only about 300. “They all suddenly disappeared,” Khoudary told Al Jazeera. “I don’t get any views.”

Muna el-Kurd, a Palestinian journalist living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood and herself facing forced eviction, had her Instagram account suspended as she covered the situation in the area. Her brother Mohammed el-Kurd, a poet and writer who has appeared on CNN and MSNBC, had his account removed for hate speech after posting videos of Israeli police violence without commentary. The Facebook group “Save Sheikh Jarrah,” which had over 130,000 members, was temporarily disabled for “going against community standards.”

In their apology for the content purge, Instagram said that an automatic update had caused content shared by multiple users to appear as missing. Palestinian journalist Maha Rezeq challenged this claim. “Technical updates are not selective about race, nationalities, and political views,” Rezeq said in a tweet from May 9. “You are oppressing indigenous struggles. Your credibility is forever compromised.”

The glitch excuse is further weakened by the statement put out by the office of Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, after a meeting he had with executives from Facebook, which owns Instagram, and Tiktok. Gantz said the executives had agreed to “quickly and effectively” address the problems posed by “extremist elements” on their platforms.

Facebook’s capitulation to Israeli demands is not surprising. The social media giant has a history of doing the bidding of the Israeli Cyber Unit, which monitors Palestinian social media activity and sends its findings back to big tech companies. According to a 2020 report by 7amleh, Facebook accepted 81% of requests for content removal from the Cyber Unit. Emi Palmor, who used to head the Cyber Unit, sits on Facebook’s oversight board, which is responsible for deliberating on decisions related to content allowed on the platform.

Israel’s influence over Facebook is apparent in the way the website treats content critical of Zionism. A policy manual for moderators obtained by The Intercept includes a section on determining when usage of the word ‘Zionist’ is tantamount to hate speech. The example provided in the section is of a post reading “Israeli settlers refuse to leave houses built on Palestinian territory.” The comment in response to the post saying “f*** Zionists” is deemed anti-Semitic and worthy of deletion. Any Muslim can attest that statements such as “f*** Muslims” often appear on Facebook. With this unequal enforcement of bad policies, it is easy to understand Facebook’s crackdown on posts expressing solidarity with Palestinians facing expulsion from their homes by Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah.

Amid pressure from digital rights groups and widespread public outcry, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs Nick Clegg met virtually with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and apologized for the removal of Palestinian content. Clegg said Facebook had a team of Arabic and Hebrew speakers closely monitoring the situation on the ground, and Facebook admitted they had an “inherent issue” with their algorithms that they would address.

Similar censorship occurred on Twitter. In their 2021 report, 7amleh found that Twitter suggested misleading hashtags for tweets discussing Israeli crimes. When users wanted to type #savesheikhjarrah, the suggestion came up as #savesheikhjarrahh. When they typed #GazaUnderAttack, the suggestion came up as #GazaUnderAtackk. The misspelled hashtags greatly curtailed the reach of tweets drawing attention to the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Twitter also removed or temporarily disabled dozens of Palestinian accounts, including many belonging to journalists and activists. Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian journalist, had her account disabled while she was tweeting live from East Jerusalem, where Israeli police fired teargas canisters into a crowd of demonstrators.

While social media companies silence the voices of Palestinians, they provide space for Israeli hate groups to spread racist messages and organize their attacks. 7amleh’s 2021 report documented over 40 cases of hate speech and incitement of violence against Palestinians on Telegram and WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. “We need to arrange a holocaust for Arabs,” one message reads. “All Jews should come out to the streets to murder them, rape them, beat them up.”

WhatsApp, who blocked several Palestinian reporters, permitted a group called ‘Death to Arabs’ to organize a racist riot against Palestinians on May 12. “Together we organize and together we act,” read a message in the group chat. “Tell your friends to join the group, because here we know how to defend Jewish honor.” The group, which coordinated with other similar groups on WhatsApp, began their assault at 6 pm in the town of Bat Yem.

The violence that night resulted in the savage beating of a man the attackers believed to be Palestinian. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. The mass censorship and discrimination of Palestinians on social media platforms and the license given by those same platforms to Israeli extremists has not gone unnoticed.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan sent an open letter to Facebook, Twitter, and ByteDance, the parent company of Tiktok, calling for an end to censorship. “It is critical to ensure that your companies, whether intentional or unintentional, do not have algorithms or staff that silence people based on their ethnicity or religious affiliation,” Tlaib said. Referencing the use of Whatsapp by Israeli hate groups, Tlaib said she “cannot understand how Facebook can justify censoring peaceful Palestinian voices while providing an organizing platform for extremist hate.”

On Tuesday, reports surfaced of a petition being circulated by Facebook employees calling for a third-party audit of moderation decisions regarding Arab and Islamic content. “Our users and community at large feel that we are falling short on our promise to protect open expression around the situation in Palestine,” the employees said. This comes after similar calls by employees at Google, Apple, and Amazon for accountability and solidarity with Palestinians.

These developments, along with the public’s response to mass censorship of Palestinians, are positive signs. When big tech silences Palestinians, we must speak up even more loudly, call out the companies by name, and demand they live up to their written policies and claimed values. Public pressure is the best tool we have to end anti-Palestinian censorship, and it’s working: tech companies are being exposed and held to account for silencing the voices of Palestinians, who remain resilient in the face of mass censorship.

Times are changing. People who are dedicated to freedom, equality and justice will no longer allow the Israeli government to dictate its policy of apartheid in the digital sphere.

Ismail Allison is a recent graduate of Howard University who serves as an intern with the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

America’s largest Muslim civil rights organization.

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