Social networks accused of censoring Palestinian content

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Violence between Israel and Palestine has been going on for decades, but the conflict has flared up in recent weeks, in part because of the forced eviction of Palestinians who live in Jerusalem on land claimed by Israel, and attacks on Muslims near the Al-Aqsa mosque toward the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But as Palestinians and their supporters have shared images and posts about the violence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, some have noticed their content suddenly disappearing, or their posts being flagged for breaches of the platforms’ terms of use when no such breach had occurred. In some cases, their accounts have been suspended, including the Twitter account of Palestinian-American writer Mariam Barghouti, who had been posting photos and videos of the violence in Jerusalem. Twitter later restored Barghouti’s account, and apologized for the suspension, saying it was done by mistake.

Some of those who have been covering such issues for years don’t think these kinds of things are a mistake — they believe social networks are deliberately censoring Palestinian content. In a recent panel discussion on Al Jazeera’s show The Stream, Marwa Fatafta of the human-rights advocacy group AccessNow said this is not a new problem, but it has recently gotten worse. “Activists and journalists and users of social media have been decrying this kind of censorship for years,” she said. “But I’ve been writing about this topic for a long time, and I have not seen anything of this scale. It’s so brazen and so incredible, it’s beyond censorship — it’s digital repression. They are actively suppressing the narrative of Palestinians or those who are documenting these war crimes.”

On Monday, AccessNow did a Twitter thread about censorship involving Palestinian content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. The group said it has received “hundreds of reports that social platforms are suppressing Palestinian protest hashtags, blocking livestreams, and removing posts and accounts.” Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, who runs a magazine for millennials called Muslim, says he has documented 12,000 acts of censorship on Instagram alone in the past several weeks.

A group called 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Development, just released a report called Hashtag Palestine, looking at such takedowns and account blockades related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2020. “This is not the first time that Palestinians’ voices have been silenced, and it is clear that it is not the last,” Mona Shtaya, an advisor to 7amleh, told Al Jazeera about the recent account suspensions and content removals. In 2020, 7amleh found that Facebook complied with 81 percent of Israel’s requests to take down content, and the group says much of that was related to Palestine. In addition to takedowns, Fatafta said AccessNow has heard many reports from groups and individuals that have been unable to use certain features, including “likes” and comments, or had their live-streams blocked or shut down in the middle of a broadcast.

The social-media companies have admitted to some takdowns and account blockages, including the one Mariam Barghouti experienced. Instagram apologized for the fact that many accounts couldn’t post content related to Palestine for a number of hours on May 6, and in some cases had their accounts flagged or blocked. The company said this was part of a broader technical problem that affected posts from a number of countries about a wide range of topics. “Many people thought we were removing their content because of what they posted or what hashtag they used, but this bug wasn’t related to the content itself,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, tweeted.

Some of those affected said they didn’t buy the explanation, however: Shtaya called it “neither logical nor convincing.” Instagram also blocked posts related to the Al-Aqsa mosque, and later apologized, saying the name of the mosque was mistakenly flagged by its moderation algorithms as terrorist content.

Facebook has also apologized for some of its takedowns in the past. In 2016, four editors at the Shehab News Agency and three executives from the Quds News Network, both news organizations that cover events in Palestine, had their personal accounts suddenly disabled, something Facebook said at the time was accidental. According to 7amleh and other groups, the Israeli government has a cyber unit that routinely makes takedown requests related to Palestinian content, and in some cases “coordinates groups of online trolls to report and share content that includes disinformation and hate speech directed towards Palestinians.” In an email to CJR on Tuesday, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the horrific ongoing violence. We know there have been several issues that have impacted people’s ability to share on our apps. We’re so sorry to everyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events.”

Here’s more on social media and Palestine:

Arbitrary: AccessNow, 7amleh and a number of other human rights and advocacy groups recently wrote an open letter to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social-media networks saying their “arbitrary and non-transparent decisions constitute a serious violation of Palestinians’ fundamental rights including their right to freedom of expression, and their right to freedom of association and assembly online, which both Facebook and Twitter have pledged to honor in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.” The groups asked for more transparency around moderation efforts.

Google: Sada Social Center, which monitors social media violations against Palestinian content, said in 2020 that Palestine was not identified as such on Google or Apple’s maps, but only as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The group also found that Google had begun to remove the names of Palestinian cities and roads from its maps while keeping Israeli roads. YouTube has also been guilty of removing content and/or blocking accounts that post content related to Palestine, according to 7amleh.

Anti-Semitism: Some Facebook users note that posts on social media criticizing Israel or defending Palestine are often flagged as anti-Semitism. The Intercept reported recently on what it called Facebook’s “secret internal rules for moderating use of the term Zionist,” which it says results in suppressing criticism of Israel. The rules appear to have been in place since 2019, which contradicts claims by the company that no decision had been made on whether to treat “Zionist” as a proxy for “Jew” when defining hate speech.

Takedown: Editorial staff at the video-game news site IGN published an open letter on Monday complaining about the removal of an IGN article and a related tweet that contained links to charities supporting Palestinian victims of violence. Both were posted May 15 in response to Israeli missile strikes on Gaza, but were taken down on May 16. IGN released a statement the next day that said the content was removed because it was “not in-line with our intent of trying to show support for all people impacted by tragic events,” and “mistakenly left the impression that we were politically aligned with one side.”

Other notable stories:

Reporters Without Borders announced Tuesday that it is launching the Journalism Trust Initiative, a set of resources designed to promote transparent and trustworthy journalism, funded by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (who is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers). Reporters Without Borders says the project will allow media outlets “to diagnose, optimize and promote the accuracy of their journalism, with the aim of building a healthier news ecosystem.” It is based on a list of criteria developed in collaboration with 130 media organizations and journalists.

A recent New York Times op-ed, titled “Stopping the Manipulation Machines,” criticized the use of so-called “dark patterns” — design tricks that push people to do things online by confusing or manipulating them. As an example, it talks about what some call Amazon’s “roach motel” account signup process, which makes it a lot harder to cancel an account than to sign up for one. But One Zero notes that the Times itself uses this same strategy, requiring subscribers to call on the phone in order to cancel, or sit through an online chat session with someone who tries to convince them not to quit.

Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor and regular contributor to CJR, writes about a defamation lawsuit launched by Project Veritas — a right-wing group that specializes in ambush videos — against the New York Times. Grueskin notes that after he asked for an interview with Veritas founder James O’Keefe, he was notified while working in his office at the Columbia campus that “a Project Veritas crew had made its way into the school, without advance notice and despite covid-related restrictions on visitors [and] they were walking the halls, looking for me.”

Journalist Keith Kloor described in a Twitter thread what he called a “massive journalism fail” in the reporting on UFOs from some well-established news organizations such as 60 Minutes. Kloor (and others) point out that such programs often rely on a handful of usual suspects to do interviews with, including Luis Elizondo, who is described as “a 20-year veteran of covert military intelligence operations.” But Kloor — who wrote about Elizondo for The Intercept — says there is no evidence that the man ever worked for or led a military UFO research unit, despite his claims to have done both of those things.

According to a newly unsealed court document reported on by New York magazine, the Department of Justice obtained a grand jury request to expose the author of a Twitter account that had mocked Republican congressman Devin Nunes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee. The magazine calls Nunes is an “enthusiastic litigant,” who believes that his critics in the media “should be shut down or forced to pay him lavish sums for their effrontery, and has filed, or threatened to file, a series of lawsuits against publications including Esquire, the Fresno Bee, and Twitter.”

In a development that will bring joy to text-loving journalists, Spotify said Tuesday it will start auto-transcribing podcasts in the coming weeks. The company said it will begin to offer the new feature on a number of its exclusive and original shows as part of a rollout of new accessibility elements for its app. Users can read the transcript with or without listening to the audio and can tap on any section of the text to jump to that point in the audio. Spotify said it plans to enable transcripts across all of its podcasts.

On Tuesday, staffers at Forbes magazine said they plan to form a union, which would cover about 105 employees in the editorial department, including reporters, editors, designers, photographers, videographers and social media editors. More than 80 percent of employees in those departments have signed union cards with the NewsGuild of New York, which also represents the unions of the New York Times, Time, and NBC News Digital. CNN reported that the staff of Forbes are looking for job security, pay equity and editorial independence.

Journalism students need to be better prepared for the reality of online abuse and harassment they might receive when they join the industry, according to a new study described by Press Gazette. Published in the Journal of the Association for Journalism Education, the study found that abuse has become “more commonplace, more vile and more serious” in ways that can impact young journalists and their emotional well-being. It says that discussing this reality early is vital in preparing students.

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