Tech giant Meta – owner of Facebook – is increasingly being identified with censorship and repression of pro-Palestine content.
The company has regularly targeted accounts advancing the Palestinian liberation struggle in various capacities, subjecting them to all forms of obstruction, from shadow-banning to outright deletion.
But up until now, Meta’s political bigotry has largely revolved around hiding, blocking or removing content that centers Palestine.
Now, it seems the platform is also tacitly supporting clear and open targeted abuse of pro-Palestine content creators by anti-Palestinian accounts orchestrated by JewBelong, a recently-formed non-profit group.
JewBelong is a website that claims to promote and explain Judaism mostly to Jews, as well as to act as a community space for Jews who feel distant or insecure about Jewish religion, heritage and culture.
However, it is openly targeting Palestinian accounts – occasionally giving cash prizes – in clear violation of stated Meta community standards to “include different views and beliefs, especially from people and communities that might otherwise be overlooked or marginalized.”
If these are indeed values to which Meta holds itself, Palestine is apparently an exception to the norm.
Cash to harass
Incentivized online harassment of pro-Palestine accounts has long been a Zionist strategy. For years, Israel has offered “hasbara fellowships”, which are essentially scholarships given to students to engage in digital propaganda for Zionism and the Israeli colonial regime.
Hasbara is the term used by Israel for its various promotional activities.
The now-defunct app Act. IL, which was aligned with the Israeli government, offered its users various “prizes” and scholarships to complete digital “missions” – including spamming the inboxes of companies or universities hosting pro-Palestine material in order to push for cancellation.
And while they do not appear to offer monetary compensation, blacklist sites such as Canary Mission and the more recent Stopantisemitism.org weaponize the trope of “fighting anti-Semitism” to encourage Zionists to mass-report Palestinians and their allies.
JewBelong is a non-profit group founded in 2017 by Archie Gottesman and Stacy Stuart that, according to its ProPublica page depends entirely on “contributions,” meaning donations, for income.
Its initial purpose was supposedly to “provide straightforward explanations, clear definitions, meaningful readings and easy rituals so that anyone who’s interested in starting or reigniting a Jewish practice can find a way in that works for them.”
Now it seems that JewBelong has embraced digital advocacy for Israel and Zionism that includes harassment of pro-Palestine accounts.
An honest reveal
This may not be a rebrand so much as an honest reveal. Several team members of JewBelong have direct ties to Zionist organizations and institutions.
Advisory board member Yuval David is a “go-to host and narrator for Jewish, Israeli, LGBTQ, arts, cultural and humanitarian organizations and initiatives” that include the US branch of the colonial Jewish National Fund, and the far-right Israel lobby group StandWithUs.
Fellow advisory board member Noa Tishby is an Israeli actress and writer whose first book is titled Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth. She is also the “first-ever Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs special envoy to combat anti-Semitism and delegitimization” of Israel.
And that’s not all: the organization’s recently-launched Partisan Prizes has provided $360 payments to “brave social media influencers working day and night to call out anti-Semitism and protect Israel’s right to defend herself.”
JewBelong claims to have awarded 23 young individuals with cash prizes for digital pro-Israel advocacy. Awarded accounts include those of Zionist journalist Eve Barlow and Zioness.
One of the prize recipients, who goes by @partisanprincess on Instagram (attributing the origin of this handle to JewBelong’s creation of the Partisan Prize) has been repeatedly and systematically mass-reporting pro-Palestine accounts in an explicitly acknowledged attempt to get them deleted.
Screenshots obtained by The Electronic Intifada reveal stories and posts by @partisanprincess encouraging followers to mass-report accounts such as the Palestine Pod, a podcast about Palestine co-hosted by Lara Elborno and Michael Schirtzer.
“@thepalestinepod was taken down once, we can do it again,” reads one story that labels a Palestine Pod episode with a Palestinian guest speaker “vile propaganda.”
The Palestine Pod account was temporarily deleted by Instagram, though it was restored following a sustained social media and legal campaign.
Meta employees subsequently said that the account was mistakenly flagged for data scraping, the act of automating access to, or scraping information from Meta products. Usually, such issues resolve themselves prior to deletion, but this was not the case for the Palestine Pod.
This incentivized mass-reporting is having a range of impacts. The Instagram page for @crackheadbarneyandfriends – a self-described New York City folk-hero and anti-fascist performance artist – was deleted after the program dedicated an episode to Israel’s assassination of Palestinian reporter Shireen Abu Akleh (the page was eventually restored.)
But even when JewBelong’s mass-reporting campaign does not result in accounts being deleted, it still encourages targeted harassment that can in turn have a chilling effect.
Palestine Pod co-host Michael Schirtzer told The Electronic Intifada that “Zionists routinely make death threats at activists supporting Palestinian rights. This includes Palestinian activists and anti-Zionist Jewish activists.”
The fact that anti-Zionist Jews have also been heavily targeted in this latest harassment campaign shows that the issue is not anti-Semitism, as Zionists are wont to maintain, but rather the threat embodied by a political coalition between Palestinians and Jews that squarely rejects Zionist colonization.
In researching the campaign against the Palestine Pod, Schirtzer discovered, he said, a “digital hasbara” WhatsApp group that “encourages group to report Palestinian accounts and anti-Zionist Jews including Rabbi Brant Rosen.”
Rosen is the founder of Tzedek Chicago, a Chicago-based synagogue formed in an attempt to create a Jewish communal space outside of Zionist principles. In March 2022, Tzedek Chicago went from a “non-Zionist” to an “anti-Zionist” position, making it possibly the first anti-Zionist synagogue in the US.
Rosen told The Electronic Intifada that the reaction to the announcement, especially online, was intense.
“We expected some backlash. But almost immediately, Twitter and Instagram just exploded,” Rosen said. “The responses were vicious and increasing. The majority of them were coming from places I didn’t recognize. I was gaining followers from Twitter accounts with Israeli names, and zero followers… clearly there was some kind of new online campaign that I have never seen before. I was especially taken aback by how long it lasted. It just dragged on for weeks.”
Rosen added that, in his opinion, “Israel and the Zionist movement have among the most sophisticated bot infrastructures in the Twittersphere. It’s widespread and nasty, and it’s very well organized. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
One would think that an atmosphere of mass harassment is something that Big Tech companies would work to offset. But despite frequent, detailed and sustained correspondence with Meta employees, Michael Schirtzer of the Palestine Pod was told that these harassment campaigns do not violate the company’s oft-touted “community standards.”
“Encouraging people to report does not violate our policies and therefore there isn’t an action we can take here,” one email shared with The Electronic Intifada reads. The employee went on to say that the company would “escalate” if the “victim receives harassing comments or threats.”
Meta refused to comment for this article.
But besides the fact that Schirtzer and other outspoken pro-Palestine content creators have been harassed, Meta’s rigid and conservative response overlooks the coordinated character of the campaign itself – to monetarily incentivize attempts to harass and silence Palestinian content.
Furthermore, whatever Meta maintains, it’s difficult to see how harassment of any kind is not a violation of so-called “community standards.” In this case, the conventions of these digital platforms are being weaponized against content creators for their identities and political beliefs so as to ensure de facto silencing and erasure – a clear example of harassment.
Zionist harassment and bullying campaigns often exploit the letter of the law and official policies to maximize the impact of their persecution while minimizing accountability.
“Zionist institutions have been steadily building their practice of lawfare, which games the anti-discrimination policies of companies like Meta,” anti-Zionist activist and New York University scholar Emmaia Gelman told The Electronic Intifada.
“They’re not technically breaking the rules. But the effect is that Meta’s rules become a tool for racist institutions to further harass, punish and silence people who are being subjected to racist state violence.”
By refusing to directly intervene in this latest onslaught of anti-Palestinian and anti-Semitic harassment, Meta is allowing its platform to be used for targeted, racialized bullying and censorship.
It seems there may very well be a Palestine exception to so-called “community standards.”
Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.