Facebook employees questioned restrictions on Palestine posts during Gaza offensive

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  October 29, 2021

Documents shared by a Facebook whistleblower reveal concern among employees that tech giant was censoring pro-Palestine content.

Several Facebook employees raised concerns about restrictions on the Instagram posts of Palestinian users during Israel’s offensive on Gaza and the upheaval in occupied East Jerusalem this May, internal company documents reportedly show.

The employees voiced frustration as they struggled to understand why content was being removed and restricted, including Instagram Stories by prominent Palestinian activist and journalist Mohammed al-Kurd, according to an ABC News report published on Friday.

“Can we investigate the reasons why posts and stories pertaining to Palestine lately have had limited reach and engagement, especially when more people than ever from around the world are watching the situation unfold?” one employee wrote.

In his message, the same employee included a link to a 12 May tweet shared by El-Kurd, which includes a photo of an error message from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

The documents were passed on by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen to the US Security and Exchange Commission earlier this year and then provided in redacted form to Congress.

A congressional staffer passed them on to several media outlets, which have been reporting on them since Monday. 

“We’re sorry to anyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events,” Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri told ABC News in a statement on Thursday.

The company said that Instagram had a technical glitch in May impacting millions of users that was quickly fixed.

It also said it knew users felt Instagram Stories related to the Israel-Palestine conflict were having limited reach, adding that it was because original posts were being prioritized over re-shared ones. That was subsequently reversed, Instagram said.

Years of problems

The documents will raise further questions for the social media giant which has already faced criticism in recent years over concerns that its platforms censor Palestinian content.

The criticism hit a new high in May when Palestinian activists found that their posts on multiple platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, were being deleted and their accounts suspended, often without explanation.

7amleh, a nonprofit focused on Palestinian digital rights, found more than 500 incidents in which Palestinian political speech had been censored during the same month.

In response, nearly 200 Facebook employees signed an open letter in June accusing the company of unfairly taking down or down-ranking pro-Palestine content and demanding the new measures were put in place to prevent this in the future.

This month, Facebook announced that an independent body will investigate how Arabic and Hebrew posts are moderated, one of the recommendations made by the company’s Oversight Board after the upheaval in May.

Palestinian digital rights advocates have previously told Middle East Eye that they are concerned that Facebook is removing Palestinian content at the request of the Israeli government, and a highly organized network of volunteers who report pro-Palestinian content.

The Oversight Board asked Facebook during its investigation whether the company had received official or unofficial requests from Israel to remove content in May.

The company responded that it hadn’t received “a valid legal request” from a government authority in the case of one particular post, which the board’s report focused on. The company “declined to provide the remaining information requested by the board”.