Human Lives Human Rights: The social media giant Facebook has removed the pro Palestinian content by Palestinians and their supporters, including about human rights abuses carried out during the May 2021 hostilities.
A senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch, Deborah Brown said: “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues.”
She added: “With the space for such advocacy under threat in many parts of the world, Facebook censorship threatens to restrict a critical platform for learning and engaging on these issues.”
When violence escalated in the parts of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) during May led people to turn to social media to document, raise awareness, and condemn the latest cycle of human rights abuses.
There were efforts to force Palestinians out of their homes, brutal suppression of demonstrators, assaults on places of worship, communal violence, indiscriminate rocket attacks, and airstrikes that killed civilians.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, removed posts, including reposts of content from mainstream news organizations.
In one instance, Instagram removed a screenshot of headlines and photos from three New York Times opinion articles for which the Instagram user added commentary that urged Palestinians to “never concede” their rights.
The post did not transform the material in any way that could reasonably be construed as incitement to violence or hatred.
In another instance, Instagram removed a photograph of a building with a caption that read, “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 company also removed the reposting of a political cartoon whose message was that Palestinians are oppressed and not fighting a religious war with Israel.
All of these posts were removed for containing “hate speech or symbols” according to Instagram. These removals suggest that Instagram is restricting freedom of expression on matters of public interest.
The fact that these three posts were reinstated after complaints suggests that Instagram’s detection or reporting mechanisms are flawed and result in false positives.
Even when social media companies reinstate wrongly suppressed material, the error impedes the flow of information concerning human rights at critical moments.
Users and digital rights organizations also reported hundreds of deleted posts, suspended or restricted accounts, disabled groups, reduced visibility, lower engagement with content, and blocked hashtags.
In addition to removing content based on its own policies, Facebook often does so at the behest of governments. The Israeli government has been aggressive in seeking to remove content from social media.
The Israeli Cyber Unit, based within the State Attorney’s Office, flags and submits requests to social media companies to “voluntarily” remove content.
Instead of going through the legal process of filing a court order based on Israeli criminal law to take down online content, the Cyber Unit makes appeals directly to platforms based on their own terms of service.
A 2018 report by Israel’s State Attorney’s office notes an extremely high compliance rate with these voluntary requests, 90 percent across all platforms.
Considering the role of governments in content removal, the Oversight Board recommended that Facebook make this process transparent and distinguish between government requests that led to global removals based on violations of the company’s Community Standards and requests that led to removal or geo-blocking based on violations of local law.
Facebook should implement this recommendation, and in particular disclose the number and nature of requests for content removal by the Israeli Government’s Cyber Unit and how it responded to them.
Protecting free expression on issues related to Israel and Palestine is especially important in light of shrinking space for discussion. In addition to Israeli authorities, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza have systematically clamped down on free expression, while in several other countries, including the US and Germany, steps have been taken to restrict the space for some forms of pro-Palestine advocacy.