Social Media Censor Palestinian Activists

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Between May 6 and May 18, 2021, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, found 500 cases of digital rights violations targeting Palestinians. Palestinians and pro-Palestine activists took to social media to condemn the evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem during the Spring of 2021. In response, many faced account suspensions, restriction of shared content, and many Palestinian journalists were blocked on social media.

Of the 500 instances of censorship, half were from Instagram, including 179 cases coming from its parent company Facebook. When examining Twitter, 7amleh found 55 official violations where 91 percent of those who were flagged faced account suspensions. Although some social media users reported that their posts were removed for promoting “hate speech,” many of the social media platforms have suspended accounts without ever disclosing which rules the users allegedly violated.

Social media conglomerates argued vehemently against the allegations of intentional censorship. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter claimed glitches with their automated spam filter and technical issues with the platforms’ AI were to blame. Activists remain unconvinced given the companies’ long history of silencing Palestinian voices.

In 2016, The Guardian reported that the Israeli government collaborated with Facebook to better monitor and control violent content shared on social media. The following year, The Guardian released segments of Facebook’s own moderation manuals, which included Zionists, people who support the existence of a Jewish state and continued occupation of Palestine, among its list of globally protected groups. Mona Shtaya of 7amleh told The Middle East Eye that, in recent years, Israeli cyber units attempted to silence Palestinian voices on social media.

“In 2019, Israel made 19,606 requests from the cyber unit to social media companies regarding content takedowns,” said Shtaya.

In 2021, Facebook increased its capacity to target geographic locations by “geo-blocking,” a process by which social media companies limit user access using precise location services. The Independent cites the usage of geo-blocking as a tactic to silence voices in support of Palestinian rights, as the tool is often employed in occupied territory.

According to 7amleh, up to 45 percent of Instagram users’ stories were deleted with no prior warning due to vague “violations.” After facing backlash, Instagram responded, saying they fixed the technical issue responsible for the rampant removal of Palestinians’ posts. However, up to 68 percent of violations happened after Instagram had supposedly addressed the issue. The mass reports by activists and social media users who faced censorship in spring 2021 and spoke up about the evictions of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah, seems to point to a pattern of censorship that goes beyond “technical malfunctions.”

Because Palestinians lack mainstream media coverage, social media has become an instrumental tool for activists to report on the occupation. Although multiple independent media outlets have reported on the social media censorship during spring 2021, corporate media has been overwhelmingly quiet. One notable exception was the Washington Post, which published a May 28, 2021 article about Palestinian activists being blocked on social media. Additionally, NBC News on May 29, 2021 reported on Palestinian accusations of censorship against social media platforms. However, NBC’s report examined the instances of censorship as evidence of social media companies’ “reputational crises” rather than the profound impact it had on Palestinian activists and journalists.

“The Attacks on Palestinian Digital Rights,” 7amleh, May 21, 2021.

Kari Paul, “Facebook Under Fire as Human Rights Groups Claim ‘Censorship’ of Pro-Palestine Posts,” The Guardian, May 26, 2021.

Linah Alsaafin, “Palestinians Criticize Social Media Censorship Over Sheikh Jarrah,” Al Jazeera, May 7, 2021.

Nadda Osman, “Sheikh Jarrah: Activists Raise Concerns Over Deleted Social Media Content,” Middle East Eye, May 7, 2021.

Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (Illinois State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)