In recent weeks, major social media have been flooded with content about the ongoing military escalation in Israel and Palestine.
Users, activists and journalists have denounced the censorship, particularly by Facebook and Instagram, of posts reporting on what is happening in Gaza and of messages of solidarity with its inhabitants. Meanwhile, in Israel, online publications and hate speech on social media are becoming a formidable tool of repression and retaliation against those who criticise the actions of the national army.
“A global problem”
The company that has been more under scrutiny in recent weeks is perhaps Meta, the owner of Instagram, Whatsapp and Facebook. The answers provided in recent days by the multinational corporation seem to betray an increasing difficulty in justifying temporary interruptions in the functions that allow to broadcast live video, sudden decreases in the visibility of certain publications, and malfunctions in the internal translation software of its applications.
Last week, the corporation apologised for including the word “terrorist“ in the automatic translation of the biography of some Palestinian users. Due to what the company described as a “bug”, the Arabic formula meaning “thanks be to God” (Al-hamdulillah) was translated into English as “praise God, Palestinian terrorists are fighting for their freedom”.
Two other alleged “bugs” allegedly caused a significant reduction in interactions under the posts of some users and a temporary interruption of live feeds on Instagram. “This was a global problem”, the multinational company announced, “that affected accounts around the world homogeneously, not just those that are trying to post about what is happening in Israel and Gaza”.
A Palestinian problem
On the other hand, “these so-called technical problems only occur when there are escalations in Palestine”, digital rights expert Mona Shtaya of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (Timep) pointed out on Friday 21 October in an interview with Wired.
This is not the first time Meta has been accused of discriminating against Palestinians. Already last year, a study by the independent consulting institute Business for Social Responsibility claimed that the company had been biased and violated the digital rights of Palestinians during the 2021 bombings.
“For years we have been drawing Meta’s attention to the negative impact its content moderation has on Palestinians”, a note published by Human Rights Watch stated at the time, “so even if the bias is initially unintentional, if you have been aware of this problem for years without taking appropriate action, what is unintentional becomes voluntary”.
Gaza blocked, even on social media
Meta’s alleged application malfunctions may have dramatic implications when they directly affect the people living in the Gaza Strip.
At a time when Israeli attacks have further complicated the already difficult access to the internet and electricity, blockages and malfunctions of social media make it even more difficult for Gazans to communicate with the world, and in particular to express themselves in the media.
In a situation where journalists on the ground are being killed every day this may seem like a detail but, precisely because of the scarce presence of reporters, reaching local sources is crucial for those who want to report on the war.
“I tried to add a woman who lives in Gaza to my Facebook friends, to interview her”, an Italian journalist who prefers to remain anonymous told Orient XXI: “Facebook notified me that I could not do so because I did not know her in real life. Immediately afterwards, I successfully added a perfect American stranger named John Smith”.
Another phenomenon denounced in recent weeks is the removal or suspension of posts and profiles, sometimes motivated by alleged violations of the guidelines on violent or dangerous content, other times justified by explanations that apparently have nothing to do with the ongoing war, but which come in close correspondence with the publication of posts on Palestine.
Banned and Bombed
Among the cases where this has happened is that of Mondoweiss, a news site covering Palestine, Israel and the United States, whose accounts have been suspended at various times by TikTok.
Even more emblematic is perhaps the story of Motaz Azaiza, a photojournalist who recounted how his Instagram profile, at the time we write followed by more than seven million accounts, was allegedly suspended on 12 October, while he was publishing photographs depicting the effects of the bombing on the civilian population of Gaza. The following day, the account was reinstated, allowing Azaiza to show the debris from the attack that killed 15 of her family. Currently, the profile is visitable, but some journalists and social media users claim that his publications in recent days have become less visible on their homepages.
It is a problem that is difficult to prove, but has recently been denounced by a high number of users worldwide, and it is known as shadow banning: a manipulation of the algorithm that, based on the use of certain hashtags and words, makes certain content less frequent to be viewed.
Digital self-defence, a buffer solution
Many in recent days have shared strategies to circumvent the problem, such as changing a letter to words likely to trigger the mechanism, e.g. writing “P@lestine” instead of “Palestine”, posting holiday photos and selfies to confuse the algorithm, and avoiding too many posts close to each other on the same topic. “Shadow banning is a real phenomenon”, argues Itxaso Domínguez de Olazábal, campaigns manager at the European Union for the organisation 7amleh – the Arab centre for social media advancement, reached by email by Orient XXI.
“Meta, however, does not officially recognise this and does not notify users, making it difficult to prove”, he adds “and the tips and strategies disseminated by activists could serve to circumvent the problem temporarily, but in time they are likely to be incorporated into the machine learning process.
In Israel, online solidarity between censorship and attacks
Beyond the wall, in Israel, the online expressions of solidarity towards Palestinians are becoming an easy target both in terms of virtual censorship and institutional repression and attacks by ultra-right groups.
In the words of Tiziana Terranova, professor of digital media theories at the University L’Orientale in Naples, these aspects would seem to be interconnected: “studies and research tell us that for at least ten years there has been a strong investment of resources and energy by the Israeli government and subjects who identify with it to promote their own point of view and hinder the circulation of the Palestinian one in every way”, she explains to Orient XXI.
“In general, the tendency recorded by some research is to transform ordinary users into digital soldiers. The use of bots and fake profiles that can, for instance, automatically monitor adverse content and trigger alerts is also common”.
Dismissals, arrests, expulsions: pro-Palestinian posts in the crosshairs
In recent weeks, Israel’s Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi is promoting legislation that could allow for the arrest of civilians or the seizure of their property in cases where they are deemed to have disseminated information that is “detrimental to national morality” or tantamount to “enemy propaganda”.
In addition, the Knesset approved at first reading a law punishing the “consumption of terrorist material”. This law, according to activists from the Adalah legal centre for Arab minority rights in Israel, contravenes the principle that people cannot be charged for thoughts or intentions. From 23 to 7 October, Adalahhas already recorded more than eighty arrests and fifty dismissals of Israeli Arabs, decided on the basis of online publications.
Maisa Abd El-Hadi, an Arab actress and influencer living in Israel, has been arrested on 24 October on eight different charges for sharing a photo of the bulldozer that broke through the Gaza wall on 7 October, accompanied by the words “let’s go Berlin style”.
As for Palestinian students in Israel, at least eighty of them were allegedly reported to the academic authorities and sometimes suspended or expelled.
In most cases, “they had only expressed solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza or quoted verses from the Koran”, the association explains “These draconian actions were prompted by complaints received from extreme right-wing students who were targeting Palestinian colleagues in their academic institutions and monitoring their social media accounts”.
Haters and the Israeli police
In some cases, people who had been threatened online and offline for their messages of solidarity with Gaza tried to go directly to the Israeli authorities.
Last week, lecturer and singer Dalal Abu Amneh, who lives in Nazareth, Israel, was arrested while filing a complaint about threats she had suffered on social media after 7 October. “Following her online posting, her students started writing on social media inciting violence against her and her family, even going so far as to disclose her husband’s address”, Nadim Nashef, the founder of 7amleh, told during a webinar held last week, “Dalal went to the police for help, and instead of being helped she was arrested and spent two nights in jail”.
The motivation for Abu Amneh’s arrest was the same behind his persecution: solidarity expressed towards Palestinians. In particular, the reason given for his detention was the publication, on 7 October, of the phrase “there is no winner but God”. According to the Israeli authorities, the post risked “causing riots”.
Similar retaliations also affected pacifist Israeli Jews, such as the ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey, who was attacked by a group of activists who threatened his life and set off fireworks under his home on the night of 15 October. Frey had received online attacks following the sharing of a prayer for Gaza’s civilian victims. To the newspaper Haaretz, Frey reported that the Israeli security forces intervened at half past two o’clock.
The officers allegedly accused him of supporting Hamas, and one of them intentionally spat on him. The Israeli police denied this reconstruction.
X, unrestrained hatred
While concerned about online censorship, Palestinian digital rights and freedoms activists also recognise the problem of the proliferation of hate speech which, as in the cases of Abu Amneh and Frey, can have serious implications in the real world. 7or, the online hate monitoring tool launched by 7amleh activists, recorded nearly 400,000 instances of hate speech in Hebrew between 7 and 23 October, most of it spread through Elon Musk’s platform. “Meta, on whose networks we have documented the largest number of digital rights violations, has been relatively transparent about its actions”, 7amleh told us: “In contrast, platforms such as X and Telegram have been less responsive to our alerts about hate speech and misinformation”.
Following pressures from the European Union, Meta has in fact stated that it is stepping up efforts to limit the proliferation of violent publications on both sides, and has removed 795,000 posts and comments in Arabic and Hebrew to this end.
Activists point out, however, that the company failed to specify the percentage of content removed in each of the two languages.
Israel advances on the homepage
“The issue is also the dissemination of Israeli propaganda against the Palestinians, which has remained online without being moderated. We are talking about incitement to hatred, hate speech and racist speech. And this is not the first time”, Timep‘s Mona Shtaya explained during an online seminar held on 26 October.
A user who prefers to remain anonymous told Orient XXI that when his Facebook home was invaded by pictures of the Israeli army accompanied by inscriptions such as “We are coming to educate you” or “Hamas we are coming to punish you”, he tried to report them to the social media for hate speech. First, she would be notified that it was not hate speech, then the reporting process would stop due to a bug.
In turn, YouTube has been criticised for the space given to Israeli ads: in particular, an army propaganda message is appearing on many homepages, and according to several users is an example of hate speech.
“The problem of online hate speech is not a Palestinian problem,” Shtaya stressed, “these days we are seeing attacks against Jews, against American Muslims. It is everyone’s problem. Companies need to do more to protect their users”.
The original article in Italian has been published by OrientXXI.