Big Tech censors Palestinian advocacy, facilitates far-right Israeli violence

The notice on Facebook when the Save Sheikh Jarrah group with over 60,000 was suspended (Image: Twitter)

JVL Introduction

Kelly Kunzl tells disturbing story in this report on Mondoweiss.

Social media are of vital significance for groups protesting about the powerful and the oppressors in today’s world.

But social media are not necessarily neutral. They respond to pressures on them to disrupt communications and censor those whom certain governments and pressure groups deem unruly.

Kunzl reports widespread violation of Palestinians rights with accounts being deactivated and stories blocked. And points to the Israeli Cyber Unit, an intelligence branch of the IDF, involved in generating request for censorship.

At the same time hate speech against Palestinians remains unregulated, with far-right groups using social media to openly advocate violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem and the so-called mixed cities in Israel proper.

See also the Haaretz Editorial Incitement on Social Media Is Also Violence.

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Wed 26 May 2021. Read the original here.

Big Tech censors Palestinian advocacy around the world, while fostering surge in Jewish extremism in Israel

Former Facebook executive Ashraf Zeitoon: “This is part of a smart system and it is a deliberate, systematic silencing of Palestinian voices due to pressure from the Israeli government…there is no sugar coating it.”

In a video widely shared on Twitter, Muna El-Kurd talks about the critical role social media plays in amassing international solidarity for the Palestinian cause.

“We feel social media is the only way left to get attention. Every post, tweet, video makes a difference. This is how we reach out to the masses of decent people and governments around the world” Muna El-Kurd said.

El-Kurd’s words were never more evident than on May 18 when Palestinians in the occupied territories, major Israeli cities, and diaspora communities around the world rallied together for a ‘general strike day’ to protest Israel’s rocket fire barrage of the Gaza strip that killed over 250 Palestinians sequestered in the coastal enclave.  Protests in the UK, across Europe, and the US rallied thousands of demonstrators again on Saturday.

El-Kurd is a journalist and resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah where she has become an outspoken activist resisting the forced displacement efforts of her and several other Palestinian families by the settler organization Nahalat Shimon International.

She has garnered over one million followers on Twitter and Instagram combined as she continues to document the gradual transition of her neighborhood into a closed military zone. Chronicled in her most popular Tweets and posts are scenes of the brutal crackdown of Israeli soldiers on the near daily protests against settler expansion in the area.

However, El-Kurd’s global outreach has also positioned her as a central target in a years-long campaign by social media giants, primarily Facebook and the Facebook owned platforms, to censor Palestinians and supporters online.

A report issued by the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, 7amleh, details that from May 6 to May 19 as many as 500 violations of Palestinians’ digital rights were committed, 85 percent of which occurring on Facebook and Instagram.

Earlier this month El-Kurd’s Instagram account was temporarily deactivated while the account of her twin brother, Mohammed El-Kurd, was threatened with deletion and some of his stories were blocked.

Muna El-Kurd started the online campaign #SaveSheikhJarrah in March in order to illuminate the plight of Palestinians living in the neighborhood and to provide a platform for the daily woes of a community suffering the ongoing reality of an imminent, forced expulsion.

Facebook apologizes for censorship

Efforts to halt the evictions came amid an already tense atmosphere during the Holy month of Ramadan as Palestinians protested Israel’s enforcement of harsh restrictions on worshipers trying to enter the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, resulting in frequent clashes with soldiers.

Tensions escalated when Israeli soldiers invaded the Haram al-Sharif compound, firing tear gas and stun grenades on crowds, injuring around 178.  The invasion then ignited the sudden rocket fire attacks by Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, into Israel after the government refused to adhere to Hamas’s demands to remove soldiers from the city.

The combination of events prompted a flurry of activity on social media as users shared images and videos along with the #SaveSheikhJarrah and #al-aqsa of the Israeli police violent crackdown on Palestinians protesting across Jerusalem. Immediately hundreds of  such posts were censored or taken down.

Users quickly shared screenshots of notifications altering them of the censorship, displaying a common thread for many of the blocked posts: social media platforms were telling users they had ‘violated community guidelines’.

The Twitter accounts of other prominent Palestinian journalists and activists such as Mariam Bargouthi were also temporarily de-activated along with Facebook advocacy pages like Save Sheikh Jarrah.

Facebook and Instagram released public statements attributing the mass censorship to a fluke “technical glitch” but 7amleh’s research indicates that 68 percent of the 500 reported violations against Palestinians digital rights occurred after the companies made this claim.

In a separate statement Instagram said that the company’s content moderation system mistook the hashtag Al-Aqsa for Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades, which is designated a terrorist organization by both the US and the European Union.

Ashraf Zeitoon, a former Facebook executive, expressed deep skepticism regarding the statements,

“The content policy team at Facebook have people that are experts in counter terrorism, they know what they are doing.  This is part of a smart system and it is a deliberate, systematic silencing of Palestinian voices due to pressure from the Israeli government….there is no sugar coating it,” Zeitoon told Mondoweiss.

Zeitoon worked for the company’s Middle East and North Africa policy department from 2014 to 2017.

A system of discriminatory algorithms

Mona Shtaya, a local advocacy advisor at 7amleh, says that such user censorship is part of  a systemic effort of big tech companies to suppress the Palestinian narrative from the online space.

This is part of a smart system and it is a deliberate, systematic silencing of Palestinian voices due to pressure from the Israeli government…there is no sugar coating it.”

Ashraf Zeitoon, former Facebook executive

According to Shtaya, the Israeli Cyber Unit, functions as one of the main pioneers in these efforts.  Founded in 2015 as an intelligence branch of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Cyber Unit was tasked with investigating crime and terrorism online.

The unit’s employees comb the internet for posts that they flag as incitement of violence or hate speech  for the social media companies to then review.

7amleh’s reports revealed that the amount of these “voluntary” censorship requests issued by the unit has seen a substantial increase from 2,420 cases in 2016 to 19,000 in 2019 alone, 81 percent of which inquiries were approved.

Emi Palmor, former manager of Israel’s Cyber Unit, joined Facebook’s oversight board in 2016.

“This is very problematic, you don’t take the regulator and put them on board with you,” Zeitoon commented in response to Palmor’s appointment.

Shtaya said that this censorship movement by the social media companies is also armed with a mobile app called Act-IL which describes itself as “the place where all pro-Israeli advocates, communities and organizations meet to work together to fight back against the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state”, giving individual users the ability to flag content at the touch of a button.

“It (Act-IL) is used to organize and mobilize Israelis and pro-Israelis around the world to report the Palestinian content and play with algorithms as an army of online trolls” Shtaya told Mondoweiss.

According to Zeitoon, social media platforms like Facebook face an immense amount of pressure from the Israeli government and Israeli lobby groups in the US to maintain biased content moderation policies.

“It all started in mid-2016 when the Israeli government threatened social media platforms with tough regulations on hate speech and incitement of violence online.  This led Facebook for the first time ever to sign a memorandum with the Israeli government to say that we were going to do more to understand their concerns” Zeitoon said.

Zeitoon says that the content policies behind the algorithms at Facebook are more biased towards the Israeli narrative.  According to Zeitoon this is best demonstrated in the company’s censorship of the term “Zionist.”

In a report of Facebook’s internal policies on moderation online, released to The Intercept,  the publication found that posts critical of the Israeli government or documenting Israeli state backed violence along with anti-Zionist statements are governed as hate speech by the social media company’s policies.

“They are trying to change the guidelines to equate anti-Zionism as antisemitism. Antisemitism is a form of hate speech that is not allowed on Facebook, so the system itself will remove a lot of pro-Palestine content under this rule,” Zeitoon told Mondoweiss in response to the report.

Zeitoon said he had fought against a previously proposed measure by Facebook to designate the West Bank from “occupied territories” to “disputed territories”, a move he said that would have had major implications for the censorship of Palestinian content online.

In recent weeks Palestinian rights advocates and supporters have also revealed that Instagram has been using less overt methods of censorship to limit a user’s viewership of their posts and accounts, something Zeitoon says tech companies call “throttling” or “shadowbanning.” Users lamented to the company for restricted use of the live streaming feature, a decrease in the amount of views on their stories, and the removal of archived posts on their accounts.

Most recently, in a screenshot shared on Mohammed El-Kurd’s Instagram story he revealed that the location tag for “Sheikh Jarrah – Jerusalem” was removed, leaving “Sheikh Jarrah Yerushalayim, Israel” as the only option.

“They are doing everything they can to erase us,” El-Kurd concluded.

American companies have also reported censorship by Instagram for their posts in solidarity with Palestinians, in addition to being unable to use the direct messaging feature.  Not even charity efforts are able to avoid Facebook’s oppressive wrath; Chicago-based Palestinian brand creator Aminah Musa’s followers were blocked last week after she published an online campaign to collect donations for food aid to Gaza.

Hate speech against Palestinians remains unregulated 

According to 7amleh’s research, the same heavy-handed regulation and moderation is not enforced across Israeli content, allowing hate speech and incitement of violence against Palestinians to spread unfettered in recent weeks.

A nine second clip showing a Palestinian man slapping the face of a young Jewish boy dressed in religious attire on a Jerusalem tram went viral in mid-April on the video sharing platform Tik Tok, marking the beginning of an upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians across the region.

Following the video, the far right Jewish ultra-nationalist group Lehava, armed with bats and knives, took to the streets in outrage across Jerusalem calling for “death to Arabs” on April 22.  Prior to the planned march, members of far-right groups encouraged violent attacks against Palestinian residents of Jerusalem in social media posts.

This event launched ongoing mob violence by Jewish-extremist groups against Palestinians across major cities of Tel- Aviv, Haifa, Lod, and Acre.  Videos of groups of men wielding Israeli flags, targeting and mercilessly beating up Palestinians on the streets were widely shared across social media.

“Israelis are given the space to share their incitement, hate speech, and their racist and violent rhetoric against Palestinians online while we aren’t given the minimum opportunity to share documentation of human rights violations.”

Mona Shtaya, advocacy advisor at 7amleh

“Israelis are given the space to share their incitement, hate speech, and their racist and violent rhetoric against Palestinians online while we aren’t given the minimum opportunity to share documentation of human rights violations that we are exposed to on the ground, in the streets, everyday” Shtaya said.

A New York Times report revealed along with analysis by the Israeli watchdog group FakeReporter, that over 100 new Whatsapp groups were created by Israeli extremists groups over the course of just a few days to incite violence against Palestinians and encourage members to engage in planned attacks. The popular encrypted-messaging app is one of the platforms owned by Facebook.

“This hate speech online has been translated into actual violence against us Palestinians on the streets as we have seen, they (social media companies) say they apply the policies equally but we can see this is not the case” Shtaya told Mondoweiss.

Facebook’s senior management held virtual meetings in recent weeks separately with both the Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and with the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh to discuss the issue of censorship on their platforms.

At the meeting with Gantz, Israeli officials expressed that they were not satisfied with the level of censorship and pushed Facebook and Tik Tok executives for a harsher crackdown on what they deem as “content that incites violence and hate speech”.

“Israel is trying to continue to push public pressure, but the meeting with Mohammed Shtayyeh is a positive sign that all the outcry and efforts by the media to shed light on what is happening is finally changing things,” Zeitoon said.

Shtaya was designated to represent Palestinian civil society at the meeting with Mohammed Shtayyeh where Facebook apologized to the prime minister for the censorship of Palestinian voices and admitted to there being “an inherent issue with their algorithms.”

However, Shtaya emphasized that the meeting hardly marked an end to the fight for  Palestinians’ digital rights.

As Facebook announced that it would set up “an emergency response center” to handle the social media activity in the aftermath of the ceasefire announced between Hamas and Israel on May 21, users continued to report heavy censorship when Israel deployed soldiers into the Al-Aqsa mosque compound for another time on Friday.

“Putting pressure on social media companies is key, we must continue until their content moderation policies are fair and they end their discrimination against Palestinians,” Shtaya said.

Kelly Kunzl is an American freelance journalist, reporting on Palestine