Social media giants repress Palestinian content

Palestinian social media users feel they have to self-censor in order to stay on major platforms (Mohammed Asad - APA Images)

Omar Zahzah

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 29, 2022

Silicon Valley is solidly entrenching itself as a devoted enemy of political dissent.

As the West implements draconian sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, including the banning of the Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik from YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok as well as search engine results, social media censorship of political messaging about the Palestinian liberation struggle continues.

On 8 March, Instagram – owned by Facebook’s Meta Platforms – deleted the main account of the organization Within Our Lifetime (WOL), a New York City-based Palestinian community organization.

The social media account was removed over a post that highlighted revolutionary Palestinian women in commemoration of International Women’s Day. WOL explained that their account was suspended “after years of online censorship and shadow banning.”

Shadow banning is the practice of restricting social media content that is not noticeable to the user.

While companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube once styled themselves protectors of free speech given the highly publicized use of their platforms during the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011, their actions over the following years have proved otherwise.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in 2020, rampant censorship on social media is targeted against the very same regions these platforms initially used to promote their ostensible values of “free speech.”

When pressed in the past, social media companies provided vague responses that “only focused on technical issues and did not adequately explain the high rate and diverse types of censorship documented by rights advocates,” according to the Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh.

The targeting of WOL’s Instagram account “shows that we need to whitewash our history as an [organization] in order to survive on social media. These actions show there’s a limit to how much history, culture and politics you’re allowed to express,” WOL chair Nerdeen Kiswani told The Electronic Intifada.

Kiswani explained that the post initially received a disciplinary action – called a “strike” – from Instagram, which she said was common.

Historically, she explained, Instagram would strike WOL posts with no clear pattern.

The company even flagged a January post about a Palestinian prisoner, Hisham Abu Hawash, being infected with COVID-19 while in an Israeli hospital.

“Why should we assume that a post about a Palestinian prisoner getting COVID is going to get a strike?” Kiswani said.

Arbitrary measures

Kiswani explained that the Women’s Day post not only received a strike, but Instagram also sent a warning that the entire WOL account could be deleted permanently.

Following this warning, WOL organizers found themselves unable to access the account. They launched a social media campaign to pressure Instagram to restore the account and, on 12 March, received an email from Instagram saying only that the account had been “disabled by mistake” and it would be restored.

“While the restoration of our main account following a massive outpouring of support from our comrades and supporters around the world marks a victory, we know that Instagram continues to uphold anti-Palestinian racism and actively works directly with our oppressors to silence us,” WOL stated.

But activists noted that Instagram’s lack of transparency and seemingly arbitrary punitive measures indicate that the platform remains an embattled site for liberation-focused political messaging about Palestine.

In April 2021, after removing an advertisement for an Arab, Muslim, Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies program event at San Francisco State University that featured Palestinian icon Leila Khaled, Facebook permanently deleted the academic program’s page.

This deletion followed months of intense collaboration between San Francisco State University and private tech companies like Zoom to violate the academic freedom of the AMED studies program’s director, Rabab Abdulhadi, by preventing an event with Khaled from appearing on any digital platform.

But even without deletion, organizers continue to struggle with censorship. A member of the grassroots organization Palestinian Youth Movement, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Electronic Intifada that the group has had its social media activity heavily challenged since at least 2018, when Facebook began disappearing their posts about protests for the 70th anniversary of the Nakba.

“We wouldn’t have the option to invite people to the protests, and we continued receiving messages saying that our page was not being recommended to people,” the PYM member explained.

The digital repression escalated in May 2021, when PYM began working with the Yemeni Liberation Movement on actions including a hunger strike opposing US support for the Saudi-led blockade against the Yemeni people.

The PYM member mentioned that after the collaboration with the Yemeni movement, their social media began to experience heavy shadow banning to the point that PYM organizers would have to manually instruct followers to seek out their group’s posts, which were not visible to them otherwise.

While one can only speculate about the precise reasons for such restrictions, Instagram itself has admitted to limiting the visibility of content it deems inappropriate even when the posts in question don’t run afoul of the platform’s community guidelines.

Self-censorship

Even Palestinian accounts that focus on culture have been targeted.

Morgan Cooper-Totah lives in Ramallah and manages Handmade Palestine, an initiative that promotes and sells the work of more than two dozen Palestinian woman artisans, designers and cooperatives.

Despite Handmade Palestine’s focus on handcrafts and cultural heritage, Cooper-Totah told The Electronic Intifada that Instagram began to block her from its platform several months ago.

She said that approximately 30 percent of her sales were made through Instagram. In January, Cooper-Totah explained she had received an email from Instagram saying the password for Handmade Palestine had been changed.

But after creating a new password, Cooper-Totah was blocked from accessing the account for the next two months, with Instagram ignoring her appeals and even going so far as to disable the account.

Handmade Palestine’s Instagram page was restored in mid-March. But Cooper-Totah told The Electronic Intifada that even with the restoration, the precariousness of managing an account dedicated to Palestine and supporting Palestinian women creators taught her that she must self-censor to protect the women who are selling their crafts through the site.

“And isn’t that the end goal?” Cooper-Totah asked. “If we self-censor, Instagram doesn’t have to disable us.”

Sarab Itayim is a Ramallah-based yoga instructor and one of the creators promoted through Handmade Palestine. She sells yoga and bag straps that she designs and are made by women in the Amani refugee camp.

“My opinion on all of this hacking and deletion is that we’re doing something right if they’re going to these extremes,” Sarab said.

Instagram “is helping us spread more truth on the ground to connect to the outside world. And that scares them,” she added.

Media workers targeted

Lara Elborno is a Palestinian American lawyer and podcast host who uses social media to call attention to the Palestinian liberation struggle.

She told The Electronic Intifada that her personal Instagram account swelled to more than 40,000 followers after the world’s attention turned to Israel’s planned expulsions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah and Israeli attacks on Gaza in May 2021.

But with more followers came increased repression, she said.

“Several of my posts would be deleted by Instagram for alleged ‘hate speech’ or ‘violence,’” she explained.

She says that some of the deleted posts included images of Zionists calling for a second Nakba and a photo of her brother-in-law’s apartment building in Gaza after it had been struck by an Israeli airstrike.

“Surely, Instagram’s guidelines cannot possibly be intended to prevent victims of violence and hate speech from sharing their experiences,” Elborno said.

“Every time I appealed Instagram’s censorship of my posts, Instagram would restore my post saying it never should have been deleted in the first place.”

Elborno explained that her posts were also subjected to shadow banning and had received frequent threats of deletion from Instagram – despite none of her posts violating the company’s guidelines. She also began losing hundreds of followers.

“People would message me and tell me their account had unfollowed mine without any action from them and that they had to refollow me,” she said.

Elborno provided several examples of social media repression to a Human Rights Watch report on the issue.

On 8 March, Instagram deleted the account for Elborno’s podcast, The Palestine Pod. The platform initially provided no reason for the deletion, she said.

Instagram even initially refused to review the deletion of the account due to Elborno’s inability to provide “company documents” like articles of incorporation or a utility bill – documents which Instagram said they required in order to restore the account. These documents do not exist, Elborno explained, as The Palestine Pod is a self-produced podcast show.

Only after launching a social media campaign through the hosts’ own individual accounts – as well as outreach on their behalf by the civil rights group Palestine Legal – was the account restored.

Elborno and her co-host, Michael Schirtzer, were informed by an email from Instagram’s corporate office that the account was flagged for “suspicious behavior” either for “scraping information” from Instagram, “using an app or service to interact” with Instagram “in unauthorized ways,” or because “the account was shared or compromised.”

But, again, none of these reasons were applicable to the podcast’s Instagram account activities. And once it was restored, Elborno and Schirtzer received dozens of messages from fans who said that they had been involuntarily kicked off of the account’s followers list.

Hypocritical

Elborno noted that this censorship felt hypocritical at a moment when social media companies are making a point to allow users to celebrate and glorify Ukrainian resistance against Russian occupation, including armed resistance.

Twitter allowed BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen to post an instruction given to Ukrainian army volunteers about where, on Russian armor, to direct Molotov cocktails.

Reuters recently reported that Meta Platforms would allow for posts calling for the death of presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko.

“It’s outrageous that Palestinians speaking out against occupation continue to be censored on these platforms when in the last few weeks we have seen that it’s actually okay to speak out against military occupation – but only in situations they deem appropriate,” Elborno told The Electronic Intifada.

Civil rights defenders are aware of the glaring double standards being applied by social media giants.

“The law is not a particularly effective tool when it comes to forcing social media giants to treat their users fairly,” Zoha Khalili, an attorney at Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

“In the same way that Facebook and Instagram can decide that they will make an exception to their rules to allow people to openly call for violence against Russians when it is politically expedient, they seem to have taken the opposite approach of aggressive and baseless censorship when it comes to Palestinians and their allies,” she added.

“The US legal system both gives these companies broad leeway to make these choices and largely immunizes them from accountability for the choices they make.”

Khalili said that public campaigns and boycotts – when possible – are the best recourse.

“It is much more effective to mobilize to put pressure on these companies, name them and shame them for their double standards, or even to leave the companies in favor of platforms that do not engage in racist censorship – if such platforms exist.”

For her part, Elborno said that the issue is about far more than the mere deletion and restoration of social media accounts.

She noted that the Human Rights Watch report underscores the damage that lingers even after social media accounts are reinstated.

“The error impedes the flow of information concerning human rights at critical moments,” the group states.

“That’s why it is essential that our right to create content in the moment is preserved,” Elborno said.

“It comes down to the impact that our voices can have in educating the public and mobilizing the public consciousness to achieve liberation.”

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel