As Israel intensified its killing campaign in the Gaza Strip in May, people across the globe took to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians.
Others used social media to document, condemn and raise awareness of Israel’s crimes.
But Facebook and Instagram users soon noticed their posts being taken down, their accounts suspended and their content receiving reduced visibility.
A new report by Human Rights Watch confirms that the two social media platforms, both owned by Facebook, did indeed suppress and remove content, in many cases erroneously or unjustifiably.
But Facebook’s acknowledgment to HRW of errors and unjustified removals was at best insufficient. It failed to “address the scale and scope of reported content restrictions, or adequately explain why they occurred in the first place,” the watchdog said.
Last week, Facebook announced it was hiring an outside consultancy to investigate accusations that it was censoring content favorable to Palestinians. There is plenty of evidence of suppression for the investigators to look into.
In the period 6-19 May – which includes the Israeli attack on Gaza – Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh (pronounced “hamleh”) documented 500 instances of Palestinians’ speech rights being violated online.
They include removing content, account closures, blocked hashtags and altering reachability of specific content.
The vast majority of these violations – around 85 percent – occurred on Facebook and Instagram, including the deletion of stories.
Almost half of takedowns were done without prior warning or notice and another 20 percent did not specify the reason for the removal.
In one instance, Instagram restricted use of the hashtag #alAqsa in English and Arabic – which refers to the al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem. After 7amleh challenged the company, the hashtag was reinstated.
7amleh also observed an increase in “geo-blocking” on Facebook – technology that restricts access based on a user’s location.
Some posts that Instagram purged were simply reposts of content from major media organizations that could not remotely be construed as inciting violence or hatred.
But Instagram labeled them as such, suggesting that the platform “is restricting freedom of expression on matters of public interest,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Even when social media companies recognized errors and restored content, the damage was already done.
“The error impedes the flow of information concerning human rights at critical moments,” Human Rights Watch said.
The group called for an external probe into Facebook’s suppression practices.
In one instance, Facebook removed a post by a user in Egypt with more than 15,000 followers. The user had shared an Al Jazeera news item about the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.
Initially, Facebook deleted the post under its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations Community Standard,” which prohibits specific organizations and individuals from having a presence on the platform.
Facebook later restored the post after the case was reviewed by its oversight board.
The board concluded the post contained no “praise, support or representation” of the Qassam Brigades.
The oversight board also criticized the vagueness of the policy – and demanded that Facebook explicitly define what constitutes “praise, support or representation.”
The oversight board is sometimes critical of company policy and claims to be independent.
But alarms were raised last year when Facebook appointed former Israeli official Emi Palmor as a member. Palmor spent years at Israel’s justice ministry enforcing censorship of Palestinians’ speech.
Human Rights Watch urged Facebook to publish its “dangerous individuals and organizations” list, a recommendation previously made by the oversight board.
But Facebook has consistently refused to do so, claiming it would harm its employees.
Last week, The Intercept published a leaked version of the list.
It names “over 4,000 people and groups, including politicians, writers, charities, hospitals, hundreds of music acts and long-dead historical figures,” The Intercept reported.
The list of those Facebook deems “dangerous” largely coincides with those the United States and Israel regard as enemies.
But it goes much further than that.
“It includes the deceased 14-year-old Kashmiri child soldier Mudassir Rashid Parray, over 200 musical acts, television stations, a video game studio, airlines, the medical university working on Iran’s homegrown COVID-19 vaccine and many long-deceased historical figures like Joseph Goebbels and Benito Mussolini,” The Intercept said.
As well as Hamas and its military wing, the list includes the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – a Marxist-Leninist political party founded in 1967. Israel considers virtually all Palestinian political parties to be “terrorist” organizations – a pretext to routinely arrest Palestinians for political activity.
While the list contains at least three Zionist groups – the Jewish Defense League, Kahane Chai and Lehava – these are so extreme that Kahane Chai is even banned by the Israeli government.
Kahane Chai, or Kach, is an Israeli party founded by Meir Kahane, an extremist settler who advocated for the total expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. Kahane Chai is designated by the US State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.
Lehava is a racist group that works to prevent mixed marriages between Jews and Palestinians. Its members have repeatedly been filmed rampaging through occupied East Jerusalem chanting “Death to the Arabs.”
But many Israeli politicians, parties and religious leaders who regularly incite hatred and violence – such as interior minister Ayelet Shaked who promoted on Facebook a call for genocide of the Palestinians – are absent.
So is Israel’s army.
Even though the Israeli military regularly commits massacres of entire Palestinian families, crimes against children, extrajudicial executions and forced expulsions, it is not deemed “dangerous” enough to make it to Facebook’s list.
And Israel still regularly uses Facebook to threaten more violence.
For instance, the Israeli military habitually posts direct threats of collective punishment against the two million Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
In May, Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz used Facebook to threaten more destruction than he ordered in Gaza in 2014.
Back then as Israel’s army chief, he commanded a 51-day assault that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children.
“Gaza will burn,” Gantz said in a video posted on Facebook in May, a direct threat that likely constitutes evidence of premeditated intent to commit war crimes.
“Gaza residents, the last time that we met on Eid al-Fitr, I was chief of staff during Operation Protective Edge,” he says in the video over footage of destruction.
“If Hamas does not stop its violence, the strike of 2021 will be harder and more painful than that of 2014,” he promised.
The bigger question is why Facebook – which has nearly a third of the world’s population on its platform – is able to decide what or who is “dangerous”?
It appears, as Columbia University professor Joseph Massad has recently written, that the criteria for who or what is considered “dangerous” or a “terrorist” depends more on a person’s identity rather than what they do.
“It is not the act of ‘terrorism’ that defines the actor as ‘terrorist’ but rather the opposite: It is the perpetrator’s conferred identity as ‘terrorist’ that defines his/her actions as ‘terrorist’ in nature,” Massad says.
Meanwhile, as Facebook cracked down on Palestinians, Israeli Jewish extremists used instant messaging services to organize mob attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel.
This included Facebook groups and the Facebook-owned service WhatsApp.
There is no indication Facebook takes this sort of misuse of its platform seriously, while banning Palestinian political groups, journalists and discussion at Israel’s behest.
Long before Israel’s assault on Gaza in May, Facebook was habitually taking down pages of Palestinian news organizations, often without prior notice or justification.
Last year, Facebook even removed the page of the health ministry in Gaza – a vital source of information for people there. It was restored following inquiries from The Electronic Intifada.
But the censorship does not seem to be enough.
US media and political elites have been demanding increasing government control and censorship of social media platforms in recent years.
The initial pretext was the evidence-free allegations that Russia had used social media, including Facebook, to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election to help Donald Trump win.
The leak in The Intercept and the Human Rights Watch report coincide with a recent Wall Street Journal “investigation” supposedly examining leaked internal Facebook documents.
The newspaper claims that the so-called Facebook Files reveal that the company is responsible for a bewildering array of “harm[s]” ranging from the poor self-image and mental health of teenage girls to violence in Ethiopia.
Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, who leaked the documents, has been feted as a “whistleblower” by congressional leaders and mainstream media.
Haugen was brought before Congress to provide fodder for those demanding more censorship and control of public discussion on Facebook under the guise of stopping countries like China and Iran from using the platform for nefarious ends – a repurposing of the same old Russiagate narrative.
Haugen’s call for what The Washington Post termed “expansive and ambitious” government regulation was enthusiastically received by several leading lawmakers.
Journalist Max Blumenthal noted that Haugen’s claims “tracked so closely with imperial US narrative.”
Naturally, the same quarters welcoming Haugen’s calls for increased censorship of what people can say online have ignored the reality to which Palestinians can already bear witness: Demanding that Silicon Valley corporations act as arbiters of truth ultimately serves to crush dissent and suppress the most vulnerable and marginalized voices.
That is likely what makes government regulation of online speech so attractive to political elites.
By: Tamara Nasser
Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.