Middle East Eye / March 18, 2022
Silicon Valley’s decision to allow anti-Russia threats reveals it as little more than a propaganda arm of the West.
Silicon Valley has rammed through a series of changes over the past few days at dizzying speed, making explicit what should already have been obvious: Social media firms have rapidly become little more than propaganda arms of the United States and its allies.
That role has been increasingly difficult to conceal as western politicians and traditional media outlets have whipped up anti-Russia hysteria over the past three weeks, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The most blatant change was a sharp about-turn by Facebook in its policy on hate speech and incitement. Leaked emails to content moderators seen last week by Reuters indicated that Meta, the rebranded company behind Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, would allow threats of violence against Russians and death threats directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin on its platforms.
Such threats were, according to the guidance, permitted among users in much of eastern Europe and Russia. But whatever the official position, Meta’s new policy is likely to have a wider impact, given how widespread anti-Russia sentiment has become in the West.
In what was presented as a “clarification” this week, Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, a former UK party leader, said calls to assassinate Putin or “violence against Russians in general” would not be condoned. He appeared to narrow calls for violence more specifically to the Russian state and its conscript soldiers in Ukraine.
For years, social media firms have highlighted the importance of cracking down on hate speech and incitement. It was the justification for an unprecedented decision by tech giants to ban Donald Trump from their platforms in early 2021, even though he was a sitting US president.
Now the policy against hate speech and incitement is being watered down for one group only. An exemption for calls for violence towards Russians is likely to further fuel an already tangible Russophobic atmosphere, where even renowned, long-dead cultural icons such as Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are being shunned.
In a related, equally stark policy change, Meta announced it would overturn an existing ban on praise for the Azov Battalion, the most prominent of several Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary groups absorbed into the Ukrainian National Guard. Ultra-nationalists, the Azov fighters have been accused of directing violence at Ukraine’s ethnic Russian community.
Silicon Valley’s rank hypocrisy in allowing hate speech against Russia and Russians is particularly evident when compared with the special protections put in place by tech firms to block criticism of Israel and Israelis.
If Meta’s new policy for Ukraine were to be applied impartially, would Palestinians then be allowed to promote violence against Israel and against Israeli soldiers that have been occupying and besieging them for decades?
Unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is three weeks old, Israel has been violently occupying and besieging Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem for more than half a century. Israel has also been committing war crimes by transferring hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens into territory belonging to Palestinians, in an effort to colonize their land and ethnically cleanse them.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza for the past 15 years has entailed putting its two million inhabitants on a “starvation diet” and repeatedly bombing the tiny enclave “back to the Stone Age“, including attacks on schools and hospitals.
Palestinians and their supporters have every reason to condemn Israel and its leaders as passionately and vehemently as Ukrainians and their supporters are denouncing Putin and Russia for the current invasion. So why does one group have the right to incite violence and hatred, while the other doesn’t?
In practice, Israel has long been shielded by an array of restrictions for social media users. Posts risk being deleted if they fall foul of rules against fake news, disinformation, offensive content, bullying, support for terrorism, hate speech and incitement. But supposed violations often appear unrelated to matters of truth or falsehood, or right or wrong – and instead accord with Israel’s status as a valued client state of the US.
Hate speech rules
The only meaningful difference between the two cases – aside from the fact that one set of abuses has been going on far longer – is that Israel’s crimes are largely supported by the western political and media establishments.
Calling for violence against Putin and Russians aids western foreign policy, which has been goading Moscow by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep for more than two decades. By contrast, calls for violence in the context of Israel risk highlighting the West’s long-running complicity in Israel’s crimes.
But the tech giants’ hypocrisy is even more glaring. It is not just that threats against Israelis or Israeli leaders – unlike those against Russians – incur an instant ban from any platform on which they are posted. The truth is that, in the case of Israel and Palestine, simple criticism of Israel – or even pride in being a Palestinian – can lead to a suspension or deletion.
Take the decision in 2020 by Instagram to remove a post by model Bella Hadid. All she had done was show a photo of her father’s US passport listing his birthplace as Palestine. Her comment stated: “I am proud to be Palestinian.”
Instagram, however, claimed the post violated “community guidelines on harassment or bullying” and regulations on “hate speech”. After Hadid kicked up a storm, Instagram backed down.
But aside from famous models, the very people who have helped spur Meta’s profits, ordinary users are likely to find a far less sympathetic ear. Silicon Valley’s hostility towards expressions of support for Palestinians was particularly stark last May, when Israel bombed Gaza for 11 days.
Hundreds of Palestinians were de-platformed by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter when they criticized the bombardment or the ongoing evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, a flashpoint for Palestinian protests. Among those suspended by Instagram was Mona al-Kurd, a prominent Palestinian activist who has campaigned against the evictions. Facebook also took down a post by a Palestinian American, Alia Taqieddin, advertising a solidarity march for Palestine in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Instagram removed posts about Al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred site in Jerusalem for Palestinians and Muslims, which Israel has been encircling with Jewish settlers for decades. After the mosque became a centre for protests in May, the tech company mistakenly flagged it as a terrorist organisation.
Climate of censorship
More than 30 human rights groups protested the wave of suspensions last May, describing them as an intensification of an existing climate of censorship faced by Palestinians.
That view was echoed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October: “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine,” it observed.
HRW cited an example of Instagram removing as “hate speech” a photograph of a building captioned simply: “This is a photo of my family’s building before it was struck by Israeli missiles on Saturday May 15, 2021. We have three apartments in this building.” The accounts of Palestinian news agencies and journalists have also been repeatedly shut down.
None of this is surprising. Silicon Valley firms, including Meta, have been openly forging ties to Israel for many years. Meta’s oversight board includes Emi Palmor, who helped to establish a cyber unit in Israel’s justice ministry that has been accused by human rights groups of muzzling online dissent by Palestinians.
Silicon Valley firms appear to have accepted Israeli claims that denunciations of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians amount to hate speech or incitement. Back in 2016, Israel’s justice ministry reported that Facebook and Google were “complying with up to 95 percent of Israeli requests to delete content” – almost all of it Palestinian.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, surveys suggest that most Palestinians are fearful of expressing their political views on social media. By contrast, according to 7amleh, a Palestinian social media monitoring site, Israeli Jews are responsible for posting racist or inciting material roughly every minute, but action is rarely taken against them.
Vilified as antisemites
The seeming premise for this exaggerated sensitivity by social media firms towards criticism of Israel has been the fear that, because Israel claims to represent all Jews in the world, expressions of hatred towards it might feed antisemitism.
Western political and media establishments have been complicit in reinforcing this wrongheaded assumption. They have been only too willing to echo Israeli officials in conflating Israel – a highly militarised, occupying state – with the Jewish people. Paradoxically, anti-racists trying to clarify the distinction between Israel and Jews, such as former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, have been falsely vilified as antisemites.
But if there is a genuine fear that indulging anti-Israel sentiment will lead to a wider hatred towards Jews, why is there not a similar fear that stoking anti-Russia sentiment will lead to hatred and violence towards Russians?
If Israel’s conscript soldiers are not a suitable target of calls for violence for being in the occupied territories, why should Russian conscript soldiers not also be protected from hate speech?
The Russophobia being indulged by Meta simply reinforces these double standards in public discourse. If it is wrong to urge a boycott of Israel for its crimes, why is it suddenly acceptable to call for something far worse – collective punishment – for Russians, as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken did this month in demanding the Russian people “suffer the consequences of their leaders’ choices”.
Over the past eight years, many thousands of ethnic Russians have died in what amounts to a civil war in Ukraine’s Donbas region – one of the triggers, if Putin is to be believed, for Russia’s invasion. Now Meta appears to be encouraging more of the very Russophobia that feeds the current confrontation.
There are also substantial and visible Russian expat communities in western countries, including the US and UK. That has been underscored by the sudden surge in antipathy towards – and sanctions on – Russian oligarchs, such as Roman Abramovich, the high-profile owner of Chelsea Football Club.
Meta was approached for a comment, but it had not responded to these criticisms by the time of publication.
Tools of power
The tech giants are not simply following commercial imperatives. They are making deeply ideological decisions that dependably accord with western state interests. They are communication monopolies that enjoy this status precisely because they are in bed with western governments.
The connection was impossible to miss when the European Union decided to ban two Russian broadcasters, RT and Sputnik, this month. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok immediately de-platformed the Russian stations.
When Putin has suppressed criticism of his policies in Russia, he has rightly been accused of authoritarianism. But western publics have been largely blind to Silicon Valley’s own authoritarianism on behalf of the US and its allies.
The reality is that the silencing of dissent and the amplification of hatred have been contracted out to social media firms. That provides western states with an alibi when they crush – at arm’s length – some kinds of political speech and promote other kinds.
Google announced, for example, that in response to the invasion of Ukraine, it would change its algorithms to ensure sites critical of western actions would be hard to find on searches.
But the truth is that Google long ago manipulated its algorithms to favour what it terms “authoritative” sources, meaning traditional media of the kind that rarely hosts reporting or commentary that strays from the most superficial criticism of western foreign policy. More critical sources are usually hidden so far down Google rankings that only the most dedicated researchers are likely to find them.
The skewed algorithms have protected western allies from proper scrutiny, whether it be Israel oppressing Palestinians, or Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen. Those same algorithms are now doing the dirty work of stoking anti-Russia sentiment.
Google had not responded to these criticisms by the time of publication.
As a consequence, western publics have been plunged into the fog of war, denied access to Russian voices and exposed chiefly to the most sympathetic accounts of Ukraine’s actions. Critics of western policy now face an array of restrictions on talking about the biggest events shaping our lives.
In the coming weeks and months, western governments will make life-and-death decisions – ones that could yet lead to nuclear confrontation. But their publics will have little idea where events are heading, or why.
Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism