Pin It

Is pro-Palestine content being censored on social media?

Palestinian creators are claiming their posts are being shadow-banned and deleted

Last month, Bella Hadid accused Instagram of shadow-banning her pro-Palestine content.

“My Instagram has disabled me from posting on my story – pretty much only when it is Palestine based I’m going to assume,” she said on her stories. “When I post about Palestine I get immediately shadow-banned and almost one million less of you see my stories and posts.” 

Hadid isn’t the first to claim digital censorship in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Last year, following the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, a number of pro-Palestine activists claimed their content was being shadow-banned on Facebook and Instagram. The company said it was due to a “global technical issue” in an official statement. However, more content creators believe the problem is still ongoing.

Adnan Barq, a Palestinian YouTuber in Jerusalem, didn’t originally intend to make political content. However, showcasing his daily life living in occupied Palestine meant showing himself passing through checkpoints in order to get to Bethlehem University in the West Bank. “It made me realise that we normalise this crazy stuff,” he tells Dazed. He said he began to make jokes and use “dark humour” to talk about the checkpoints and the Israeli West Bank wall – known in Arabic as the “wall of apartheid” – which the Israeli government says is necessary to stop terrorist attacks.

When things got “serious and deadly” last year, Adnan felt a responsibility to cover what was happening for his followers, but soon started to experience what he calls censorship. “My Instagram posts and stories were being deleted for no reason without any official notice,” he says, adding that some of his posts were removed due to violating dangerous community guidelines, although he doesn’t know why, and that his followers were being removed without consent.

Like Hadid, he says he has also experienced shadow-banning on Instagram. “I have almost 100,000 followers, but my story views are barely 10,000,” he says. “Instagram also keeps marking my content as ‘sensitive’ for no reason and I’ve been told that people are unable to share my posts.” Additionally, Adnan says, YouTube has demonetised his videos, meaning he can’t show advertisements on his videos making all of his content “ineligible for making money”. 

Just this week, pro-Palestine philanthropic streetwear brand HYPEPEACE reported its Instagram account had been deactivated without warning. “We were logged out of our account and Instagram asked us to add our phone number for security,” a spokesperson tells Dazed. “After complying, the app stated it would review our information within 24 hours. Unfortunately, since then, our account has been inaccessible, stating ‘your account has been disabled for not following our terms.’” They add that they hadn’t broken any of Instagram’s rules or terms and no specifics were given to explain which terms were violated and the spokesperson believes this is due to their outspoken support for Palestine.

Before this, HYPEPEACE also noticed the stories they shared about the attacks by the Israeli forces on Al-Aqsa worshippers during Ramadan “would barely reach 100 views, whereas stories about unrelated topics throughout the same day would be seen by 1,000 or more people.”

“Our Instagram account is by far our most important medium to communicate to the public and to our audience. Disabling us is a way of silencing our voices in supporting the Palestinian cause,” the spokesperson says.

“Social media is an important lifeline for Palestinian activists and journalists to organise, protest, document and report on human rights abuses” – Marwa Fatafta

It’s not just Meta. Last month, assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University and author of the upcoming Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East, Marc Jones, noticed a trend on Twitter. A number of pro-Palestine groups and individuals received an influx of followers from accounts all created on that day. One individual, Abier Khatib, was followed by 438 new accounts in one day. While it isn’t clear whether this is a genuine censorship tactic, Jones says it’s “definitely coordinated”.

“Most commentators, activists and journalists in the Middle East are generally functioning under a cloud of surveillance and such sudden bot influxes cause concern and anxiety,” Jones tells Dazed. “As a result, some limit their accounts while they wait for the problem to subside, making them less visible.” He adds that an influx of fake followers “degrades the quality of an account” and may cause Twitter to make their content less salient and that similar bot networks have been used to mass report accounts to get them suspended. Jones says activists and journalists in Yemen, the Gulf and in North Africa have also experienced this tactic.

According to Nadim Nashif, the executive director and co-founder of 7amleh: The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, this is more than just a bug in the system. “It’s systemic,” he tells Dazed. Nashif says there are three elements at play: biased content moderating systems, links between social media companies and the Israeli government, and coordinated attacks from “semi-governmental organisations” against pro-Palestine groups and individuals online.

“Being based in the US and having the mentality of 9/11, the companies themselves are much more suspicious towards Arabic content,” Nashif says. “They have different keywords that activate automatic takedowns through their artificial intelligence (AI) systems.” He references Facebook’s Dangerous Organisations and Individuals (DOI) list, which was leaked by The Intercept. “It was clear that most of the names on there are coming from the MENA region or from Southeast Asia and most of them are coming from Muslim heritage,” he says. “This reinforced how much these companies align with US official policies and do not have global policies around any kind of extremism.” 

According to Nashif, there are around 55 Palestinian names that are banned from being mentioned, including in journalistic work, meaning that even impartial reporting on the conflict is sometimes removed. On top of this, he says that they are more suspicious of Arabic words, which often have multiple meanings depending on the context they’re used in, and are automatically associated with terrorism and violence and therefore trigger takedowns.

This is compounded by Meta’s relationship with the Israeli government. In 2016, it was announced that the Israeli government and Facebook had agreed to work together to determine how to tackle incitement on the platform. Notably, the Cyber Unit cooperates with the Israeli government and its secretive agencies, which surveil Palestinian social media, and social media companies to apply for takedowns of certain content. “The unit claims that the content is violating community standards, and around 85 to 90 per cent of content is removed,” says Nashif. These are what are known as “voluntary takedowns,” because they aren’t removed by court order. In the past few weeks, Nashif says, 87 per cent of more than 5,000 posts requested to be taken down were removed.

“This is obviously very problematic because this is not a normal situation, this is a situation of occupation,” he says. “So in many cases, these requests are down to Israeli government calling something incitement where the Palestinians are calling for their freedom, or calling for demonstration, or calling to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque – the vast majority were taken down.”

On top of this, Palestinians are grappling with the introduction of the ‘Facebook Bill’, which aims to grant District Court judges throughout the country the power to remove posts from Facebook and other social media platforms using secretive evidence and ex parte hearings – meaning the other side “wouldn't have a chance to defend itself,” Nashif says. The bill was originally brought forward in 2016 but was halted on the grounds of freedom of expression. In December last year, the bill was once again approved.

Finally, there are NGOs and semi-governmental organisations, which Nashif says are supported by the Israeli government, that send out notifications to tens of thousands of subscribers asking them to report certain content in order for it to be removed. “The problem is that in many cases, people don’t don't know Arabic, so they don’t really understand what they are reporting,” he says. “It’s an obvious manipulation of the system.”

Marwa Fatafta, MENA policy manager for Access Now, a global digital rights advocacy group, echoes Nashif’s point that the Israeli authorities have been “hard at work in systematically pressuring social media companies to censor Palestinian voices,” and that social media platforms have been “complicit”. For Nashif, the underlying reason why social media platforms are so willing to work with the Israeli government is profit. He adds that Facebook has a strong relationship with the Israeli market with “more than 300 million ads a year”.

“So you have one side that wants to control the internet and control freedom of expression, and you have the other side that wants to make profit,” he says. “This is not a good formula in places where there is no democratic regime.” 

Fatafta adds: “Social media is an important lifeline for Palestinian activists and journalists to organise, protest, document and report on human rights abuses. Palestinians are treated like third-class users on these platforms where little attention and resources are given to uphold their rights and protect their safety online.”