This article was updated on 23 May with a comment from a Facebook spokesperson.
Facebook banned an advert paid for by The Electronic Intifada a day after it was approved and was running successfully.
The ban lasted for almost three days before the ad was restored without explanation.
This apparent act of censorship comes as Facebook is deepening its collaboration with Israel lobby groups and a pro-war Washington think tank to impose tighter controls on what people are allowed to see online, especially about Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.
The ad promoted a post linking to an article by Max Blumenthal headlined “‘Killing Gaza’ captures culture of resistance.”
The promoted post, which can be seen above, is a straightforward boost for the article.
Along with the headline, the ad text states: “ ‘Killing Gaza,’ a film by Max Blumenthal and Dan Cohen, documents the trauma and defiance of those who survived Israel’s sadistic 2014 assault. It’s now available online.”
The photo accompanying the ad – not in any way graphic – is a still from the film.
The Electronic Intifada promoted the post on 17 May, and Facebook approved it in about an hour. It then ran for over a day and in that time the post was seen more than 53,000 times, mostly due to the paid promotion.
It was shared dozens of times and about 1,000 people clicked on the article.
The promotion was successful: in advertising jargon it was producing a very high click-through-rate of almost two percent – about double the average for Facebook ads.
But on 18 May, The Electronic Intifada received an email from Facebook with the subject line, “Your active ad is disapproved.”
“We have reviewed your ad more closely and have determined it doesn’t comply with our advertising policies,” the email stated. “This ad will not be active any longer until you edit it to comply with policy. You can click the ad name below to see why it wasn’t approved and make edits.”
However, Facebook did not identify any problem specific to the ad. Nor did the ad appear to violate a list of criteria for “low quality or disruptive content” provided by Facebook.
The Electronic Intifada appealed the decision and sent a request for comment to Facebook’s media office about why the ad was removed.
On 21 May, the ad was re-approved. Facebook usually gives initial approval to ads in less than an hour, however it took from Friday until Monday for the ad to be restored.
Hours after the ad was restored, Facebook’s media office wrote back to acknowledge The Electronic Intifada’s inquiry and to ask if the publication had appealed the ban on the ad – despite the fact that our initial inquiry had stated this was the case.
No explanation has been provided for why the ad was taken down.
The restoration of the ad does little to allay concern over censorship. Banning an ad for almost three days – especially when it may relate to current events or breaking news – is arbitrary and draconian.
The fact that the ad was eventually restored without any changes only confirms that its removal was unjustified in the first place.
“We’re sorry for this error. We hold advertisers to stricter policies – which includes content on an ad’s landing page – and may reject an ad if there is excessive violence,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote to The Electronic Intifada on 23 May. “We re-reviewed EI’s ad upon appeal and determined it does not violate our policies. It is live on Facebook.”
In March, the company deleted the Facebook pages and Instagram account of a major outlet in Palestine, the Safa Palestinian Press Agency.
The ban was condemned by journalists, but when asked by The Electronic Intifada why it had removed the pages, Facebook responded by smearing Safa’s output as “hate speech” and “incitement.”
Israel lobby groups have been pressuring companies and governments to suppress speech in support of Palestinians or critical of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism under the guise of fighting “hate speech” and anti-Semitism.
In March, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald told The Electronic Intifada that “Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness – at times bordering on eagerness – to curry favor with powerful governments by deleting content that they dislike.”
All this is part of a pattern of censorship of Palestine-related speech by the Silicon Valley companies that unaccountably control much of the online space many of us take for granted as if it were public.
Last month, for instance, Google-owned YouTube began restricting access to the video of a 2015 interview Max Blumenthal did about the situation in Palestine, with The Empire Files, a show hosted by journalist Abby Martin.
The Empire Files tweeted that it had been notified by YouTube that the video had “been blocked from being viewed in 28 countries (including Israel) to ‘comply with local laws.’”
Elsewhere viewers were disabled from commenting on or sharing the video, or were receiving warnings about the content.
In an article on the censorship, Blumenthal wrote: “The video published by The Empire Files did feature a shockingly genocidal tirade, but not from me; it concluded with footage of an Israeli soldier barking through a megaphone to the residents of the Palestinian town of Beit Ummar in the occupied West Bank: ‘Go home, or we will gas you until you die!’”
Blumenthal pointed to “the pro-Israel blacklisting organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as the most likely source of pressure on YouTube to suppress content critical of Israel.”
ADL “command center”
In March 2017, the ADL announced that it had received funding from the Omidyar Network to build “a state-of-the-art command center in Silicon Valley to combat the growing threat posed by hate online.”
The “command center” would “employ the best technology and seasoned experts to monitor, track, analyze and mitigate hate speech and harassment across the Internet, in support of the Jewish community and other minority groups,” according to the ADL.
A few months later, the ADL announced that it had become a “select contributing member of YouTube’s Trusted Flagger program” – meaning that content that the ADL says violates YouTube’s “community guidlines” is “prioritized for review” and potential deletion.
The ADL clearly has its sights on Facebook as well. Last Monday, the Israel lobby group publicly praised Facebook for its efforts to crack down on “hate speech.”
Facebook had announced that in the first quarter of 2018, “we removed 2.5 million pieces of hate speech,” but that only 38 percent of this had been “flagged by our technology” – a number the ADL considers too low.
“This is precisely why we are working on the Online Hate Index to tap the power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and social science to understand hate speech online,” the ADL stated. “Our goal is to help companies like Facebook better comprehend the extent of hateful content on their platforms by creating community-based definitions of hate speech.”
Given its attacks on such groups as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, there is little doubt that any definition of “hate speech” concocted by the ADL will include advocacy for Palestinian rights, especially BDS – the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that the ADL already smears as “anti-Semitic.”
Partnering with war lobby
In a further step that will alarm free-speech advocates, Facebook is cementing a partnership with the ruling military-industrial elite to decide what people are allowed to see on their screens.
Last week Facebook announced it is teaming up with The Atlantic Council’s “Digital Forensic Research Lab” as part of a new effort to crack down on what the social media giant calls “disinformation.”
The Atlantic Council is a Washington think tank funded by NATO, the US military, the brutally repressive governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, European Union governments, and a who’s who of investment firms, oil companies, arms makers and other war profiteers.
According to Facebook, The Atlantic Council will “help increase the number of ‘eyes and ears’ we have working to spot potential abuse on our service.”
What all this means is that Palestinians and their supporters, and people who challenge US-led militarism in general, are likely to see online space for free expression, independent journalism, political organizing and dissent shrink even further.
- Killing Gaza
- Max Blumenthal
- Dan Cohen
- 2014 Gaza war
- social media
- Abby Martin
- Safa Palestinian Press Agency
- Glenn Greenwald
- Pierre Omidyar
- Anti-Defamation League
- The Omidyar Network
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- The Atlantic Council
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates