I’m old enough to remember a time when it appeared the Internet would be a great multiplying force for democracy and the advancement of human rights, allowing global activists and citizen journalists to shine a light where there was previously none. But then came social media and the rise of the Big Tech giants, Facebook, and Twitter.
In the past decade, social media platforms – Facebook in particular – have been credibly accused of fueling genocide and violent extremism, including the siege on the US Capitol on January 6, while undermining faith in democracy and the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now there’s a trove of evidence to suggest these platforms are engaging in a form of “digital apartheid,” as Israeli warplanes bomb the Gaza Strip.
There’s a trove of evidence to suggest these platforms are engaging in a form of “digital apartheid,” as Israeli warplanes bomb the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians are being denied space and opportunity to tell their own stories in the US mainstream media, while pro-Israeli commentators lend support to the official US government narrative towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, social media companies are erasing Palestinian voices online by suspending, shadow banning and permanently barring accounts that depict evidence of Israeli terror and war crimes.
When I asked Palestinian activists on Twitter, whether they had their posts censored or deleted, and/or their accounts suspended for posting about Gaza on social media platforms in recent days, I was hit with an avalanche of affirmative replies, including:
“My account has been suspended multiple times when attaching hashtags about either Gaza or Palestine, saying it’s hate speech and will hurt the community.” “Twitter limited some features for my account when I wrote about Palestine.” “Instagram has repeatedly deleted many of my posts about Palestine in the past week.” “I have a private account on Instagram and my stories are getting like 20 percent of the views they usually get.” “Facebook deleted a video I posted which was filmed from within Gaza [during] the first attack and then went on to bar me from commenting for 24 hours. Twitter made me delete the very same video.”
Adam Houda, an Australia-based lawyer, told me he received a 24-hour suspension from his Twitter account for “raising awareness about Israel bombing and murdering civilians, including little children.” Adding, “I wrote back, asking why but haven’t heard anything back. I’m really upset about it.”
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Those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of human rights activism in the digital age might be inclined to dismiss these experiences as either the product of idiosyncratic social media algorithms or even paranoid delusions.
Yet the fact of the matter is this: the Israeli government not only pressures and threatens social media companies to remove pro-Palestinian content from their platforms, but also these social media companies have pro-Israel activists on their boards.
Last week, an Israeli newspaper reported that Israeli Justice Minister Benny Gantz met with Facebook and TikTok executives to take action against pro-Palestinian accounts, urging them to remove content posted by “extremist elements that are seeking to do damage to our country.”
“We are in a moment of social emergency and we expect your assistance,” Gantz added.
The newspaper summarized the meeting like this: “The executives expressed their commitment to act quickly and effectively to prevent incitement on their networks and the violence it can engender, and further relayed their condolences to the Israeli families who have lost loved ones.”
No mention of the Palestinian families who represent 95 percent of all victims since this latest round of violence began a week ago.
Then there’s also the fact that Facebook’s oversight board – tasked with determining what posts and which actors constitute a violation of the company’s user policies – includes the former Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Emi Palmor, who also managed Israel’s Cyber Unit, as reported by Al Jazeera.
These realities have coalesced to produce a clear double standard in the way Facebook and other social media companies remove and censor content.
For instance, the official Twitter account for the state of Israel posted a tweet on May 17 that included no words, only dozens of missile emojis—a not-so-subtle reminder that as of May 20, the Israeli military has killed more than 230 Palestinians, including 65 children and 35 women, in Gaza since May 11.
Had an account belonging to Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, or any Palestinian person or activist posted a tweet filled with rockets, the response from Twitter and the mainstream media backlash would’ve been as fast as it was uncompromising and unforgiving.
“For the first time we see a state openly, loudly, and proudly boast of performing acts of terrorism, state terrorism, against a defenseless population,” Dr. Basen Naim, head of the Council of International Relations in Gaza, told me. “But what’s even stranger is that the state of Israel can do this with impunity.”
Meanwhile, videos of Israeli settlers chanting “Death to Arabs” remain posted online.
These social media companies are unable and unwilling to offer their global users a level playing field.
Ultimately, these social media companies are unable and unwilling to offer their global users a level playing field, given they are predominately based in the United States, where they are not only subjected to US laws and regulations, but also domestic political pressure. This creates a level of synchronicity between their business decisions and the foreign policy dictums of the US government.
Incredibly, the United States has used its veto power at the UN Security Council (three times) to oppose a proposed resolution calling for a cease fire between Israel and Hamas, refusing to even denounce the violence. And as the US government continues to deny and whitewash Israeli war crimes, it, in effect, actively protects Tel Aviv from international condemnation and scrutiny.
It is therefore not surprising that US-based social media companies are conforming to this as well. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which are censoring Palestinian voices and posts that reveal Israel’s brutality are, like the US government, not only complicit but also culpable in turning a blind eye to the suffering of the Palestinian people.