More than a decade ago, a small neighborhood in East Jerusalem became the focal point of a new type of Palestinian non-violent resistance against Israeli occupation. Sheikh Jarrah, as it is known, is a nondescript area but it has been at the center of Israeli efforts to “Judaise” the city by evicting Palestinian families and replacing them with Jewish settlers. As the evictions ramped up, Palestinians used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share with the world the daily reality of Israel’s actions. Sheikh Jarrah now is back in the news, but Palestinians have come up against new barriers to sharing their story – this time from the very same social media companies that claim to provide free and open discussion spaces. The suppression of the Palestinian narrative is the clearest demonstration of how social media companies are unable or unwilling to live up to their own mission statements as open platforms for unbiased conversations.
The brittle relationship between social media companies and censorship has been under the microscope for years, but the Palestinian question gets to the very heart of the issue. The last flare-up in violence between Israel and Hamas placed the conflict back at the top of the international news agenda. In the absence of any concrete (or coherent) political leadership, a new generation of Palestinians have used their considerable skills to turn their social media accounts into powerful tools for organizing and spreading their stories. Their success in overcoming the obstacles that prevent the international community from fully understanding the crushing reality of Israeli occupation is evident in the way this latest wave of violence has been accompanied by unprecedented censorship.
From Twitter banning Palestinian journalists without explanation to the blocking of Palestinian content on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook), Palestinians have been censored in the last two months as never before.
But awareness of social movements such as Black Lives Matter is also higher than ever, which means it is much harder to suppress information. Since May, there have been several internal rebellions at major social media companies over Palestinian content.
It began with hundreds of employees at Google and Apple calling on their respective CEOs to condemn the violence against Palestinians and “reject any definitions of anti-Semitism that hold that criticism of Israel or Zionism is anti-Semitism.” Hundreds of Facebook employees followed suit with an internal letter calling for the company to stop censoring Palestinian voices (specifically on Facebook-owned Instagram).
“As highlighted by employees, the press and members of Congress, and as reflected in our declining app store rating, our users and community at large feel that we are falling short on our promise to protect open expression around the situation in Palestine,” they wrote. “We believe Facebook can and should do more to understand our users and work on rebuilding their trust.”
The petition also called for a third-party audit of Facebook enforcement actions concerning Palestinian and Arab content and highlighted a post from the then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that the petitioners claimed “mischaracterized Palestinian civilians as terrorists” but was allowed to remain on the platform.
The petition created enough pressure to force Instagram to make changes to its algorithm. Some media observers found that Facebook’s algorithms labeled words such as “martyr” and “resistance” – commonly used by Palestinians in reference to their struggle – as “incitements to violence.” Even content relating to the Al Aqsa mosque was removed after the algorithm identified the third holiest site in Islam as a terrorist organization. The company later reinstated several posts saying they had been removed in error.
At a time when trust in social media companies is low and all sides of the political spectrum are finding fault in how these companies handle user content, the fact that major platforms like Instagram have had to publicly confirm the bias in their own algorithm is a major confidence blow. It adds weight to the argument that these increasingly vital services either can’t live up to their stated objectives of providing a free and open space to their users, or else they just don’t want to.
For its part, Israel has a strong record of pressuring social media companies to adopt its positions. In May, for example, The Intercept website obtained a secret Facebook memo that outlined rules for moderating the term “Zionist” that essentially enabled Facebook to suppress criticism of Israel. No longer content with pressuring traditional media outlets like The New York Times, Israel’s PR machine has shifted its focus to social media companies – and with great success, by all accounts.
How can the Palestinians respond to this wave of overt censorship? The same way they have reacted many times before, right from the beginning of the conflict. They will continue to tell their stories using whatever means at their disposal. The objections from social media employees show that people are more aware than ever of the mechanism of censorship at work. They understand how suppressing Palestinian content reveals a fatal flaw – namely, that social media companies cannot regulate themselves.
The fact that Instagram was forced to admit its error and change course shows that this is an issue that’s not going away. Now that the conflict is falling out of the headlines, it is vital that the debate on social media and the regulation of information does not fade into the background too.
For all its flaws, social media remains one of the most powerful arenas of discussion we’ve got.
Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.