Marc Owen Jones
Middle East Eye / February 10, 2022
Online platforms should not allow states to use their services to perpetuate disinformation campaigns – and yet, it keeps happening.
The Israeli foreign ministry recently created a webpage to smear Amnesty International, the UK-based human rights group that last week issued a damning report titled “Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians: a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity”.
The page, which sits on an official Israeli government URL and includes the foreign ministry’s branding, is a repository of links to media articles that accuse Amnesty of smearing Israel. It appears to be a hastily created attempt to sway international audiences and dampen the impact of Amnesty’s report. It is at the very least propaganda, and at worst disinformation.
Promoted via Google Ads and appearing at the top of search results when searching for Amnesty International, the page calls Amnesty a “radical organization” whose report “ticks all the boxes of the definition of modern antisemitism against the State of Israel”.
Accusing anyone who criticizes Israel of being antisemitic is a classic propaganda technique, one designed to induce guilt and to silence those calling out Israeli human rights abuses.
The webpage also asserts that Amnesty aims to somehow destroy Israel: “The purpose of this report … is to eliminate the State of Israel – or deny its right to exist – as the nation state of the Jewish people.”
Criticism is thus being portrayed as an existential threat. Such claims are clearly untrue, bordering on absurd. In its recent report, Amnesty simply asserted that Israel “must dismantle the apartheid system and start treating Palestinians as human beings with equal rights and dignity”.
But the anti-Amnesty campaign doesn’t stop there. StandWithUs, a nonprofit with reported links to Israel’s foreign ministry, paid for a similar ad on Google accusing Amnesty of spreading “apartheid lies”. Elsewhere online, users have reported that YouTube placed content warnings on Amnesty’s video about Israeli apartheid. Amnesty’s tech team says it has raised these issues with Google, which owns YouTube.
This latest scandal highlights the role of big tech in aiding and abetting human rights abuses. I reached out to Google for a comment, but received no response at the time of publication.
Digital rights groups have repeatedly accused Facebook and other social media platforms of censoring pro-Palestinian content amid Israeli government pressure. Last year, Amazon and Google employees signed a petition denouncing Project Nimbus, a $1.2bn contract which the group of anonymous tech workers say would deliver cloud services to Israel that will help illegally collect data on the Palestinians.
Tech companies are far from united in their approach to political advertising and propaganda. Google Ads has policies pertaining to political content, but these mostly concern elections. The company says it supports “responsible political advertising”.
While this is a vague requirement, it’s hard to believe that a smear campaign launched against a globally recognized human rights group by a state that has repeatedly violated international law would fit the bill.
Out of sync
Other platforms are equally out of sync. Twitter has banned paid political advertising, but convenient deference to “local context” means the company has no problem with pro-dictator political propaganda in human-rights abusing authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia.
In response to Middle East Eye questions, Twitter said in a statement that since 2019, “Twitter has banned political advertising on our platform. This is because we believe that political reach should be earned, not bought, and for some time now, we have encouraged a more inclusive approach to political ad regulation.
Facebook allows political advertising, but does not allow coordinated inauthentic behaviour that seeks to manipulate public debate. Although Facebook has taken down some Israeli accounts as part of its efforts to combat this problem, it has been found to be far more aggressive in its moderation of pro-Palestinian and Arabic-language content.
MEE reached out to Facebook but received no response at the time of publication.
At some point, this goes beyond digital Orientalism – the digital exploitation of non-western markets without due concern for the consequences of that exploitation – and becomes digital imperialism, the perpetuation of structures, such as US foreign policy, via digital technology.
From a human rights or moral perspective, it should not be this complicated. If known entities, such as states, are engaging in disinformation and human-rights whitewashing, such efforts should not be monetized by social media companies.
Indeed, if platforms can agree to censor Covid-19 disinformation for the harm it poses to humanity, then they can also censor state propaganda designed to obscure crimes against humanity.
Marc Owen Jones is Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar