“We battled the algorithm and won”

Meta and Twitter have been accused of censoring Palestinian voices


Social media juggernaut Meta Platforms lists “Give People a Voice” as one of the principles on its website.

“People deserve to be heard and have a voice – even when that means defending the right of people we disagree with.”

It seems that Meta employees should have added “fiction writing” to their job description, however. A number of damning recent articles exposing patently unjust experiences of censorship have revealed the company to be more concerned with silencing voices – particularly Palestinian ones.

On 22 September, the Washington Post published a bombshell report on the conclusion of an outside audit by the consultancy Business for Social Responsibility (BSR).

The audit found that Meta “had denied Palestinian users their freedom of expression by erroneously removing their content and punishing Arabic-speaking users more heavily than Hebrew-speaking ones” during Israel’s May 2021 assault on Gaza.

As detailed in the article, the BSR report found that use of Arabic on Meta platforms had a high frequency of being falsely associated with “terrorism.”

Meta had also only utilized mechanisms to detect “hate speech” in Arabic, not Hebrew.

However, as the article also details, the BSR report stopped short of calling Meta’s conduct intentional, a decision that was challenged by the digital advocacy organization 7amleh, quoted in the piece: “We believe that the continued censorship for years on [Palestinian] voices, despite our reports and arguments of such bias, confirms that this is deliberate censorship unless Meta commits to ending it.”

Indeed, recent reporting from The Intercept suggests that Meta is quite adept at intentionally restricting political content based on the identity of its users.

The Intercept discovered a correlation between heightened online repression of pro-Palestine posts and Israel’s latest August 2022 bombardment of the Gaza Strip. It also uncovered the damning revelation that Meta repeatedly instructed content moderators not to delete posts about Ukraine, “specifically allowing their graphic images of civilians killed by the Russian military to remain up on Instagram and Facebook” while failing to apply a similar policy to posts about Palestinian victims of Zionist aggression.

Double standards

Palestinian poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd spoke about his recent experiences of censorship on Meta’s platforms:

“Like anyone speaking out and writing about Palestine – not just Palestinians – the content I shared was often censored, blocked, or fully removed from my social media accounts,” El-Kurd told The Electronic Intifada.

“Many of the Israeli abuses I shared, and all things remotely Palestinian, were marked as ‘sensitive’ or ‘harmful.’ We have seen Facebook repeatedly censor content at the request of various repressive governments, so, naturally, one concludes social media companies are silencing Palestinian voices at the request of the Israeli regime.”

I asked El-Kurd to elaborate on what calculations he believed had prompted this latest wave of tech censorship that seemed to focus so tightly around Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

“The Israeli regime does not want a repeat of May 2021. Last year, at the height of ‘the Unity Uprising,’ many people credited social media networks as the main reason the movement became global,” El-Kurd said.

But, he argued, global mobilization for Palestine was achieved “despite” social media companies.

“Palestinians found creative ways to bypass the suffocating restrictions and censorship. We battled the algorithm and won, shifting public opinion.”

As such, El-Kurd continued, social media companies are most likely refining their censorship apparatus, innovating new means of clamping down on individuals taking to social media to critique Zionist colonial state violence and to support the Palestinian liberation struggle.

El-Kurd is probably right. Writing from Gaza City, Palestinian journalist Hind Khoudary reported local accusations that Meta was engaging in a “digital massacre” after the company censored scores of journalists and activists posting about the assassination of Palestinian resistance fighters Ibrahim al-Nabulsi, Islam Suboh and Hussain Jamal Taha on 9 August.

Khoudary wrote that any content referencing al-Nabulsi, Suboh and Taha was blocked. He cited a report that found that, 24 hours after al-Nabulsi’s assassination, at least 75 journalist and activist accounts were restricted or deleted on social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

Palestinian blogger Rima Najjar has been bombarded with numerous restrictions from Facebook for multiple posts about last month’s Zionist assaults on Gaza, Jenin and Nablus. Najjar filed an appeal to Meta’s Oversight Board and published an updated version of this appeal in CounterCurrents.

More than Meta

What Najjar’s appeal and the Intercept’s reporting make clear is that Meta has the ability to make political distinctions and recognize the ethical legitimacy of armed resistance – and is actively choosing not to for the Palestinian struggle.

But digital censorship of Palestine stretches far beyond Meta. Haya AbuShaban, a Gaza-based Palestinian social media user, told The Electronic Intifada that during the May 2021 assault, Twitter temporarily banned her account as well as those of several other Palestinian associates.

“Twitter was the most reliable news platform since we could quickly find out what was happening. Usually the news takes a long time, we would hear the bomb and have to wait 10 minutes to find out where and who died. Twitter just started banning our accounts and we only got them back after the war was over.”

Operating under a similar modus operandi, on 6 August Twitter locked the account of Palestinian journalist, writer and Palestine Chronicle editor Ramzy Baroud after he tweeted a newsreel from the Palestine Chronicle about the raid that resulted in the deaths of al-Nabulsi, Suboh and Taha. The vague message informing Baroud of the decision said only that he had “violated the Twitter rules.”

In what she described to me as “an atrocious decision,” activist Sarah Wilkinson also had her Twitter account suspended on 10 August for 12 hours for calling the Israeli massacre of 47 adults and 16 children in two days of bombing in Gaza that month “genocidal.”

“So now we have another word that we are not allowed to equate the Israeli regime with,” Wilkinson told The Electronic Intifada, “despite that incremental genocide for example is exactly what it is.”

Furthermore, as of approximately 6 September, Twitter also seems to have permanently banned the account of Stanley Cohen, activist and lawyer. In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, Cohen said he feels his social media account is far more than a record of his personal views – it’s about openly promoting support for collective liberation.

“I’ve got almost half a million posts, and I feel it’s important because there are a lot of women and men out there who feel they’re alone, who feel they’re not heard, they can’t win the fight,” Cohen said. “But other than the handful of Zionists who’ve blocked me … no one else has gone after me. No one else has challenged me.”

Crossing the Rubicon

Twitter, it seems, decided to attempt what no Zionist account had so far been able to successfully accomplish: Cohen claims that, on the week of 6 September, he Quote Tweeted a propagandistic tweet applauding “Zionism and Israel as expressing the finest in the Jewish tradition of love and humanity” and juxtaposed it with, “Death to Arabs,” the phrase fascist Zionist settlers proudly chant in the streets when attacking Palestinians.

The juxtaposition was clearly intended to be satirical and to reflect the blatant falsehood of the tweet he was criticizing, given the genocidal phrase’s popularity with violent settlers. But what Cohen describes as Twitter’s ongoing evasiveness in response to his multiple inquiries suggest that the platform will either keep his account permanently banned or, as he suspects, restore it with all followers deleted.

Twitter’s hostility to Leftist accounts is nothing new. But the prominence of some of the figures who have been subjected to banning and suspension suggests a growing escalation and boldness in censoring individuals devoted to the Palestinian struggle – one that seems to be spreading across social media platforms.

Nadim Nashif of 7amleh, the digital rights organization, told The Electronic Intifada that since 2015 there “has been an ongoing war” on the Palestinian narrative across social media platforms. The Israeli Cyber Unit, he said, surveils Palestinian social media and pressures social media companies for the removal of anything to which it objects. Israeli NGOs mass-report pro-Palestine content, thereby complementing governmental requests for censorship.

Social media companies, Nashif said, accept lists provided to them by the State Department and the Israeli government that accuse, without foundation, various Palestinians, parties, factions and NGOs of being “terrorists” or “terrorist organizations.”

We have crossed the Rubicon: social media companies can no longer claim to be applying standardized regulations equally to all users. Big Tech companies have firmly entrenched themselves as politically savvy censors on the side of Zionist colonization and against Palestinian liberation.

As El-Kurd powerfully expressed about the events of 2021, the future of Palestinian return and liberation will therefore necessitate a similar process of “battling” the algorithms of these colonial-corporate companies for whom anti-colonial liberation is a violation of 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.