Who gets to speak out against their occupier on social media ?

Large scale destruction by Israel in Beit Hanoun,Gaza Strip, May 2021 (Mohammed Zaanoun - Activestills)

Mona Shtaya

+972 Magazine  /  March 22, 2022

Social media giants are taking action to protect Ukrainians’ free speech as they resist a military occupation. Why aren’t they doing the same for Palestinians ?

In early March, the tech conglomerate Meta, among other social media companies, issued new guidelines that provide exceptions in several countries for Facebook and Instagram posts that contain violent speech toward Russia’s army and politicians, including President Vladimir Putin.

While emphasizing that it would not allow credible calls for violence, including against Russian civilians, Meta’s “spirit-of-the-policy allowance” permitted violations of hate speech if they either targeted Russian soldiers, or targeted Russians “where it’s clear that the context is the Russian invasion of Ukraine (e.g., content mentions the invasion, self-defense, etc.).” In a statement to the media, a Meta spokesperson noted that an example of such speech included “death to the Russian invaders.”

The new measures came as part of the mass international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, including reactions from social media platforms, which have scrambled to implement existing policies regarding the war. These measures were ostensibly adopted to protect Ukrainians’ online content, amplify their voices, and help them resist the invasion.

Many of these measures were not just unprecedented; they demonstrated both the capability and the will of social media corporations to stand with oppressed people and hold aggressors and occupying powers accountable — depending on the circumstances.

Meta, for example, made several announcements on its blog that it would be ensuring greater transparency around Russian state-controlled media, such as RT and Sputnik, and would be prohibiting ads from these outlets. It also moved to strengthen the security of private messaging on its platforms by providing encrypted, one-to-one chats on Instagram, so that users in certain countries can communicate safely.

“We recognize that local context and language-specific expertise is essential for this work, so we will remain in close communication with experts, partner institutions and non-governmental organizations,” Meta wrote on Feb. 26. The company followed through on its pledge, working with local and international networks to address emerging risks for Ukrainians and Russia critics, such as removing the ability to view and search “friends” lists on its platforms in order to further protect users and proactively enforce their community standards and guidelines globally.

Meta is not the only company to take such action. Other tech media companies, such as Twitter, Apple, Google, and Paypal, also took serious measures to combat disinformation and put restrictions on Russian state media’s ability to buy ads, blocking certain Russian channels in Ukraine, and sharing resources to help users safeguard themselves online. Online financial platforms like PayPal have even shut down their services in Russia in response to the invasion, with PayPal’s CEO Dan Schulman saying that the company “stands with the international community in condemning Russia’s violent military aggression in Ukraine.”

Censoring the occupied

 Social media companies’ swift steps to protect Ukrainians’ free speech, especially in a time of war, was shocking to many Palestinians. Less than a year ago, during Israel’s attack on Gaza and the mass uprising in May, Palestinians turned to social media platforms to document human rights violations and disseminate their opinions with the aim of boosting and enriching the Palestinian narrative in the digital space, especially as that narrative rarely receives fair coverage in international mainstream media.

We Palestinians, however, never witnessed any of the measures taken by social media platforms for Ukraine. On the contrary, these platforms actively participated in a campaign of online repression last May that systematically targeted and censored Palestinian voices while taking down content that spoke out against Israeli oppression. This included removing on-the-ground documentation of police and settler assaults in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where families were being threatened with forced displacement, and in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli fighter jets were heavily bombarding two million besieged people.

Amidst the uprising, 7amleh, the Palestinian digital rights organization where I work, documented more than 500 cases of digital rights violations between May 6 and May 19, 2021; 85 percent of those cases took place on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms (the number of actual violations is likely much higher).

For instance, at one point during the escalation, Instagram blocked the hashtag #AlAqsa, as they thought it contained content that violated their list of “dangerous organizations and individuals,” which was not made public but later leaked; in fact, the hashtag largely contained expressions of solidarity and materials documenting rights violations against Jerusalemites at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Other stories, including those with the slogan “Stop Ethnic Cleansing,” were also taken down. At 7amleh, we received screenshots of Instagram stories where all those relating to the May uprising were forcibly removed and even deleted in personal archives.

By contrast, 7amleh also found that during the same period, 183,000 out of 1,090,000 Hebrew public conversations on social media platforms contained racism, insults, or incitement against Palestinians and Arabs, yet social media companies did not remove this content. One of the documented tweets, for example, stated “A good Arab is a dead Arab.” Another tweet read, “Scum. Just wipe them off the face of the earth and never leave a trace. Slaughter all Gazans and all the Arabs everywhere.” Yet another said, “All the Arabs in the world and the Arabs who are reading this message, may all your family members have cancer.”

Moreover, unlike Meta’s moves against Russian state media, social media pages owned by Israeli security and military services were allowed to promote their aggression against Gaza. This included a video published by the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry that attempted to justify the war with graphic imagery, and which garnered about 1,200,000 views within five days before it was removed from YouTube following pressure. Other platforms also allowed content explaining how the Israeli Air Force targeted buildings in Gaza, promoting and justifying outright violence. These posts were not removed and the pages were not blocked from publishing similar content.

These dramatically different policies in contexts of war and occupation illustrate a clear double standard when it comes to Palestine-Israel. On Meta’s blog, the company has openly used the word “resistance” to describe Ukrainians’ fight against Russia’s attacks, expressing sympathy and understanding for their “fury at the invading military forces.” In contrast, the word “resistance” was the very reason why some Palestinian posts were taken down from Meta’s platforms last May, wherein it was interpreted as incitement to violence against Israelis.

PayPal, meanwhile, has not made any moves to restrict its operations in Israel as it has in Russia. In fact, the company still refuses to provide services in Palestinian areas of the occupied territories, while operating regularly in illegal Israeli settlements in those same territories. At the time of the attack on Gaza last May, Venmo, which is owned by PayPal, even stopped its services in Gaza and prevented donations from being made to Palestinian relief organizations, which were clamoring to aid wounded and displaced Palestinians amid Israeli bombardments.

This systemic hypocrisy is especially harmful in Palestine, because it allows an occupier to pursue hate speech and incitement against the oppressed people, without holding them accountable or censoring content that leads to real-world harm. If anything, it allows the far more powerful Israeli regime and Jewish-Israeli society to ostracize Palestinians, distort their image, and spread propaganda against them, which in turn enables discrimination and violence against them.

Power imbalances

Some have attributed the swift movement of Meta and other social media companies in the Ukrainian-Russian crisis to the geopolitical competition between Russia on the one hand and Europe and the United States on the other. But the problem runs far deeper than that. Russia has been bombing Syria for years, yet social media companies did not make any similar movement to blacklist Russia’s state-owned media, nor to allow Syrians to practice hate speech against Russian politicians and the military.

The absence of such actions suggests that, among other things, the race and/or ethnic background of those facing oppression is at the heart of the matter. And this is not just about subconscious bias: in 2017, ProPublica discovered through obtained documents that “white men” were being defined as a protected category in Facebook’s community standards, while other groups — Black children, for example — were not.

Equally, the policies of social media companies, especially Meta, are largely based on existing power relations. In this case, the political and economic asymmetries that favor Israel greatly affect how the company moderates Palestinian content. For example, about $319 million were spent in Israel for social media ads in 2021, 95 percent of them on Meta platforms. This number is greater than the ads spent on by Palestinians, Jordanians, and Egyptians combined, making the Israeli advertising market one of the largest in the region.

This power imbalance also extends to the company’s management. Jordana Cutler, Facebook’s Public Policy Director for Israel and the Jewish diaspora, was previously a senior advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later a chief of staff at Israel’s U.S. embassy. Describing her role at Facebook, Cutler remarked: “Inside the company, part of my job is to be a representative for the people here in Israel, voice of the government, for their concerns, inside our company.”

At the same time that the Israeli government, through its “Cyber Unit,” is sending tens of thousands of requests to social media companies to take down pro-Palestinian content, the government has also begun to legislate a new “Facebook bill” that would increase its censorship powers.

If passed, the law would allow Israeli district court judges to take down content not only from Facebook and other social media platforms, but from any site at all. The “Facebook bill” contains vague definitions of “public safety” and “national security,” which permits judges to interpret the terms in favor of the state’s political interests. The law would further impose restrictions on internet service providers, who would be required to block access to certain websites based on court orders.

Some observers are hopeful that the new measures following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could pave the way for similar measures to defend other oppressed groups facing conflicts and occupations around the world. Unfortunately, it is more likely that these double standards will continue to reinforce the power imbalance in our narratives and digital wars.

For now, it is unclear how these measures will impact the war in Russia and Ukraine. This does not mean, however, that we should oppose the actions taken by social media platforms to stand by Ukrainians: rather, we should view them as a turning point for global policy, and which should be built on to help other oppressed groups around the world — be they Palestinians, Kashmiris, Uyghurs, indigenous peoples of Colombia and Western Sahara, Myanmarese, and other communities.

Palestinians have long demanded many of the steps currently being taken in support of Ukraine: an appreciation of political context, an acknowledgement of what ordinary people are being subjected to, and a recognition of power asymmetries. Shaping content and policies around these principles, as Meta declared it would do vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, is vital to prevent real-world harm — especially when a society has few means to resist its military occupier.

Mona Shtaya is a Palestinian digital rights defender working in the MENA region; she works as an advocacy advisor at 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, and is currently an MA candidate in Social Media and Digital Communications at the University of Westminster