Facebook under pressure over pro-Palestine suppression

October 16, 2021 - 18:30

TEHRAN - The tech giant has succumbed to criticism and will now appoint an external body to examine whether the social media platform suppressed posts supporting Palestine. Facebook will allow an independent body to launch an investigation into content moderation of Arabic and Hebrew posts after the company was accused of removing and suppressing pro-Palestine content.

In a statement, it said, “we have partnered with a non-profit organization expert in business and human rights, BSR, to conduct human rights due diligence of Facebook’s impacts during May-June’s intensified violence in Israel and Palestine.”

The statement added that “BSR will examine relevant internal Facebook sources and engage with affected stakeholders. We will implement the Board’s recommendation in our due diligence, defining and prioritizing all salient human rights issues according to the guidance of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

The tech company says it will publicly announce the probe’s results next year, leaving many analysts to ask why the investigation will take so long. BSR’s website describes itself as an “organization of sustainable business experts that works with big business to create a just and sustainable world.”

Earlier this year, Facebook’s own Oversight Board released a report calling for an independent body to investigate claims of content suppression relating to Palestine. Activists and rights groups had accused the social media giant of censoring Palestinians and supporters following the removal of pro-Palestinian posts. Nearly 200 Facebook staff also accused the company of unfairly taking down Palestine content before and during Israel’s latest war on the besieged Gaza Strip.

The development comes after an uproar from rights groups and advocates of free speech. Last week, Human Rights Watch said Facebook has wrongfully removed and suppressed content by Palestinians and their supporters, including human rights abuses by Israel during its war on Gaza in May 2021. The International Rights Organization denounced Facebook’s acknowledgment of errors and attempts to correct some of them as insufficient, which do not go far enough in addressing the scale and scope of reported content restrictions or adequately explaining why they occurred in the first place.

Nearly 200 staff also accused Facebook of unfairly taking down Palestine content during Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The rights group had called on Facebook to take up the company’s Oversight Board’s recommendation to commission an independent investigation, which it has now done.

Human Rights Watch added that “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine. 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.”

In May this year, an escalation in violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory led people to turn to social media to either 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, and airstrikes that killed civilians.

Human Rights Watch had documented that Instagram, owned by Facebook, removed posts, including reposts of content from mainstream news organizations.

In one case, Instagram removed a screenshot of headlines and photos from three New York Times opinion articles. 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 labeled 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.”

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.

Rights groups have called on the tech giant to make the results of the independent investigation transparent.

Following the criticism, Facebook’s Oversight Board released a report calling for an independent review into potential bias in the moderation of pro-Palestinian posts. The report focused on one particular post that moderators took down and later reinstated; an Al Jazeera Arabic story about the Hamas-affiliated Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades that a user had reposted with the comment “Ooh.”

This is just one case where the Oversight Board agreed that Facebook was correct to reverse the original decision to remove content that just shared a news post of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Gaza based Palestinian group Hamas. Facebook initially removed the content under its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations Community Standard” and restored it after the Board selected this case for review. The Board concludes that removing the content did not reduce offline harm and restricted freedom of expression on an issue of public interest.

In May, Tel Aviv widely escalated tensions with the Palestinians during the holy month of Ramadan by attacking worshippers at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound and evicting Palestinians from a nearby al-Quds neighborhood. This culminated in Israeli forces raiding the al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, and triggering an 11-day exchange of fire between Israeli warplanes and Palestinian missiles in the besieged Gaza Strip.

From May 6 to 19, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (pronounced “hamla” in Arabic, meaning “campaign”), reported documenting “a dramatic increase of censorship of Palestinian political speech online.” In the two weeks alone, 7amleh said it recorded 500 cases of what it described as content being taken down, accounts closed, hashtags hidden, the reach of specific content reduced, archived content deleted, and access to accounts restricted. Facebook and Instagram accounted for 85 percent of those restrictions.

The digital rights group Sada Social says it documented more than 700 instances of social media networks restricting access to or removing Palestinian content in May alone. On May 7, a group of 30 human rights and digital rights organizations denounced social media companies for “systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem al-Quds.”

The Board of independent review into the alleged bias admitted the reviewer should not be “associated with either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and should examine both human and automated content moderation in Arabic and Hebrew.

The level with which Facebook is removing Palestinian content at the Israeli regime’s request, including the regime’s cyber unit and a highly organized network of regime volunteers who report pro-Palestinian content is of major concern among advocates in the digital world.

Observers say taking down the posts reflects how much influence the Israeli regime has on social media giants, especially Facebook, and its ability to halt the flow of information, raising awareness about the plight of the Palestinians and other oppressed people. It also reflects the close ties between Facebook and Israel, leaving a powerful question mark on how much Tel Aviv and its cyber army monitor social media platforms for the sole purpose of removing a narrative that criticizes the Israeli regime and its practices. And it also leaves open the question of why Facebook does not have such strong connections with anti-Israeli critics who have called on the social media giant to remove pro-Israeli posts that violate international law, yet Facebook refuses to listen.

Advocates say the best way to address the problem and have a narrative representing all sides would be to simply boycott the social media platform and search elsewhere for news on the most significant conflict in West Asia.

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