Friday, May 21, 2021

How Social Media Companies are Suppressing the Voice of Palestinians

Over the past two years, it has become increasingly apparent that social media companies are using their clout to control the narrative to suit its own purposes, particularly when it came to stifling Donald Trump and his followers and the substantial portion of the population that does not believe the mainstream views on the pandemic and the use of mRNA and other experimental vaccines.  While it receives little attention from the mainstream media, social media companies are also using their substantial powers to control the pro-Israel/anti-Palestinian narrative as you will see in this posting.


First, let's look at a position paper entitled "Systematic Efforts to Silence Palestinian Content on Social Media" by Mona Shtaya, a member of the 7amleh Advisory Council, a Palestinian Digital Activism Forum.  Shtaya opens by noting that, following the Palestinian popular uprising, in 2015, Palestinian contest began to disappear from social networks particularly Facebook, Twitter and Google.  This content included issues regarding Palestinian rights and Israeli human rights violations and removal of this information was used to delegitimize and silence Palestinian voices.  Here is a quote from the paper showing how Israel has played a role in this removal with all bolds throughout this posting being mine: 


Since 2015, Israel has been developing new ministries and special units that report Palestinian content to social media companies. In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Justice developed a special ‘Cyber Unit’ to support Israel’s National Cyber Crime Unit (Lahav 433) and the Israeli Law, Information and Technology Authority at the Ministry of Justice. 8 The Cyber Unit is also responsible for making requests -- based on the alleged violations of domestic laws, as well as the companies own guidelines, terms and standards -- to tech companies like Facebook and Google. Even though Adalah and ACRI argued that the Cyber Unit cannot submit “voluntary” requests to bypass constitutional and administrative norms, including transparency and due process, these processes continue and as a result of Israeli efforts, large amounts of Palestinian content has been taken down and severe limitations on freedom of expression and opinion have been imposed by Facebook and other social media companies.


There are also a number of government-operated non-governmental organizations (GONGOs) which are working with citizens and supporters to report Palestinian content and have it removed from social networks as quoted here:


Several of these government-operated non-governmental organizations are working to conflate criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and hate speech and have designed strategies to manipulate social media algorithms with the support of online trolls. Their work includes both efforts to take down content critical of Israel and supporting Palestinian human rights, as well as working to promote content intended to smear Palestinians that includes disinformation, incitement and hate speech directed towards Palestinians. One of the first trolling groups was started by the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) and the Israeli American Council (an American NGO that is backed by the settler supporting mega-donor Sheldon Adelson), ACT.IL. Tested during Israel’s 2012 and 2014 attacks on Gaza, which resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, ACT.IL was designed to coordinate groups of online trolls to report and share content that includes disinformation and hate speech directed towards PalestiniansToday the online platform includes 15,000 active members and has offices in three countries.  In addition, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, developed a similar application,, in June 2017. These trolls are instructed to rally against Palestinian content and report it for takedowns, to spread misleading or even at times misinformation, or to smear human rights defenders, organizations and activists.


Shtaya notes that in 2017, the Israeli government developed a "Facebook Bill" (The Bill for the Removal From the Internet of Content Whose Publication Constitutes an Offense) which pressured social media companies to comply with Israel's broad definition of "incitement".  This bill would have granted Israeli courts the power to block content at the request of the government and would have issued orders to delete contact if it "harmed the human safety, public, economic, state or vital infrasctuructre safety" and would have paved the way for legal action against social media companies which disseminated this content including the imposition of significant fines and the banning of these platforms from Israel.  At the last minute, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to halt the progress of the bill because it severely infringed on the principle of freedom of expression. 


Here are some examples of policies that Facebook has development about extremist content.: 


Facebook, under their “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals Policy,” developed their own definition, which includes organizations or individuals involved in “terrorist activity, organized hate, mass murder (including attempts) or multiple murder, human trafficking and organized violence or criminal activity.”  This content, as well as content that expresses support or praise for groups, leaders, or individuals involved in these activities, is removed by the company. However, Facebook’s policies related to extremism are also removing the word martyr (people who have been murdered by Israel) or some martyrs names and key political speech including the Arabic word muqawama (resistance). As neither the United States nor the Palestinian law criminalizes this kind of political speech, this shows how Facebook is going beyond their legal obligations and expanding their censorship of Palestinian content to include Israeli definitions, which are beyond minimum legal standards, further violating Palestinian’s human rights and digital rights.


One other issue that Palestininans face in the social media space is the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) which was founded in 2017 with this goal: 


Here are the players and the scope of their work:


While, on the surface, this may appear to be a good thing, the devil is always in the details as outlined here from the Shtaya paper:


Initially founded by Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, and Twitter today the GIFCT has grown to include increasing numbers of tech companies. Together they contribute to a database that includes over 200 million pieces of content. While GIFCT is most often criticized for lack of transparency, in addition, the GIFCT has supported a network of research institutions whose partners are known to support counter-terrorism narratives that equate criticism of Israel or support for Palestinian rights to calls for incitement to violence. This includes the Brookings Institution (United States), whose Saban Center for Middle East Policy was established by Haim Saban, a known pro-Israel supporter who uses his vast media network to spread pro-Israel propaganda. The institute is currently directed by Martin Indyk, a well known pro-Israel lobbyist and American diplomat who founded the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel GONGO started by the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and known to be a "part of the core" of the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States. The network also includes the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (Israel), which is a project of the IDC Herzliya, and which most recently published a paper entitled, “The Virus of Hate: Far-Right Terrorism in Cyberspace” which attempts to draw connections between neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists and pro-Palestinian Facebook groups. Other members of the research network supported by GIFCT include the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (Netherlands), Swansea University (UK), the Observer Research Foundation (India), the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (Israel) and the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Indonesia).


Terrorism is always in the eyes of the beholder and, in the case of Palestinians and Israelis, each describes the other's actions as acts of terror.


Let's move on to look at another organization's comments on social media and Palestinian issues.  Access Now is a group that "defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world" using the following:

In a May 7, 2021 press release, Kassem Mnejja and Marwa Fatafta weighed in on how Facebook and Twitter were silencing users who were protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinians in the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem as shown here:


Here is a quote from the press release:


Facebook and Twitter are systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem. We demand Facebook and Twitter to immediately stop these takedowns, reinstate affected content and accounts, and provide a clear and public explanation for why the content was removed. 


In the past days, people have taken to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to document and denounce Israeli police brutalityand violent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinian activists and residents who are peacefully protesting against the imminent threat of being evicted from their homes. 


In a rapid escalation, hundreds of posts and accounts documenting these violations, have been deleted on Instagram and Twitter. The scale of these content takedowns and account suspensions reported by users and documented by digital rights organizations is egregious and pronounced. 


Facebook and Twitter have not provided any explanation to their users for these actions. Instagram, for instance, has removed hundreds of stories related to Sheikh Jarrah including archived posts. The platforms’ arbitrary and non-transparent decisions constitute a serious violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights including their right to freedom of expression, and their right to freedom of association and assembly online, which both Facebook and Twitter have pledged to honor in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Though work is being done to escalate these cases with Facebook and Twitter, timing is critical - users from Sheikh Jarrah have made it clear that without the world’s attention they would be in even more danger. We demand Facebook and Twitter to immediately stop censoring and reinstate the accounts and content of Palestinian voices. These companies must open an investigation into these takedowns, and transparently and publicly share the investigations."


The authors of the press release go on to note the following:


This latest spate of content takedowns is part of a wider pattern of consistent censorship of Palestinian and allied voices and systematic efforts to silence them, which civil society organizations have documented for years. Similar past cases related to takedown of Palestinian speech on these platforms have been attributed to requests by Israel’s Cyber Unit, an internet referral unit whose mission is to submit ’voluntary’ requests to social media companies for content removal.


The press release closes with this:


We, the undersigned organizations, urgently call on Facebook and Twitter to:


1.) Immediately open an investigation into those cases, as well as transparently and publicly share reasons behind takedown of accounts and posts related to Sheikh Jarrah;


2.) Immediately reinstate all accounts and content currently taken offline in breach of international standards on freedom of expression;


3.) Provide transparency on the decision-making processes involved in content takedowns related to Palestine;


4.) Publicly commit to resist government and court orders in breach of international standards on freedom of expression;


5.) Publish detailed data on requests submitted by the Israeli Cyber Unit including numbers of complaints received, content removal, account suspensions and other content restrictions, together with details on the category of content that was removed and/or reinstated; and


6.) Commit to the baseline principles set forth in the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation.





Access Now

Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE)


Center for Constitutional Rights

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Free Speech on Israel

Friends of Sabeel North America

Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)

INSMnetwork – Iraq

Jewish Network for Palestine

Jewish Voice for Peace



Masaar-Technology and Law Community


MILEN – Media and Information Literacy Expert Network


MPower Change

Pen Iraq

Ranking Digital Rights



The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)

United Methodists’ Holy Land Task Force


Let's close this posting with this final quote from the 7amleh paper:


"For years the exact numbers of takedowns have been unclear. However, recently, as a result of a request for information issued in accordance with Israel’s access to information law, the Israeli government stated that from 2017 - 2018 Israel’s direct requests to social media companies led to the deletion of 27,000 posts from Facebook, Twitter and Google. Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minorities Rights in Israel reported that the Israeli Ministry of Justice made tens of thousands of requests to content intermediaries like Facebook and Google to censor the Palestinian narrative.  While these efforts are not exclusively focused on Palestinian content, the Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked stated that “Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israel’s requests to ​delete content that the Israeli government says incites Palestinian violence.​” This shows a significant focus on Palestinian content and efforts to label Palestinian political speech as incitement to violence.


The attempts by social media companies to silence the Palestinian narrative should surprise no one given the companies' track records when it comes to controlling the American political and COVID-19 narratives.  Why anyone allows these companies to control anything is beyond my comprehension given that their actions are so blatantly biased.

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