On May 10, as Israel attempted to forcefully evict several Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, the latest round of violence flared up in the region that has since spilt into its tenth day, at the time of writing this article, costing at least 200 Palestinian and 12 Israeli lives.
Roughly two days after the conflict started, netizens across the globe supporting the Palestinian struggle noticed a pro-Israel Facebook page was 'automatically gathering followers', without users ever opting to like the page themselves. The page, 'Jerusalem Prayer Team', established in 2002 and the largest Christian Facebook Page on the social media, became part of a global conspiracy theory that claimed that Facebook was attempting to circulate pro-Israeli narratives and censor Palestinian voices.
After users across the globe started a campaign to take the page down, Facebook complied and took the page down on May 18. "We removed Jerusalem Prayer Team's Facebook Page for violating our rules against spam and inauthentic behaviour," said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement.
While the case of 'Jerusalem Prayer Team' may or may not have been a conspiracy theory, it set the grounds for a debate that exposed a growing digital rift between Israeli and Palestinian voices on social media.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Palestinians have taken to Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah to protest and highlight the extent of the brutality by Israeli forces in Sheikh Jarrah. But many found their posts, and even their accounts, blocked. 7amleh, a Palestinian non-profit digital rights group, had received over 200 complaints about deleted posts and blocked accounts since the violence escalated. Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, blamed the suspensions on a 'glitch' and a 'technical bug'. But organisations like 7amleh blame biased algorithms and believe that the latest round of digital suppression is a part of a larger pattern that Palestinians have been experiencing for years.
In their annual report, #HashtagPalestine2020, 7amleh offers detailed documentation of the extent of the digital divide between Israel and Palestine. For example, content takedowns themselves are not new. According to a 2020 survey by 7amleh on Palestinian civil society organisations, 41 per cent of respondents reported moderate content takedowns while 35 per cent reported extensive content takedowns on social media. 44 per cent of respondents shared their experiences of being smeared online.
According to the General Attorney's office in Israel, the Cyber Unit of the Israeli Government made 19,606 requests to social media companies regarding content takedowns in 2019. Facebook received 913 requests from January to June 2020, and complied with 81 per cent of the requests, according to 7amleh's report. The report mentions that Twitter has also suspended Palestinian accounts over the years, complying with requests from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Palestinian news organisations also face similar content moderation on social media, often for being 'too graphic'. In January, TikTok removed the account of Quds News Network, a Palestinian news outlet, without any prior notice or flag. However, TikTok, as well as YouTube, did not take down videos of the Israeli military celebrating violence during the ongoing conflict in the region.
Instances of digital apartheid like these are rampant in Palestine where Israel holds the longer end of the stick. In December 2020, reports surfaced that Palestinians were receiving threatening texts from Israeli intelligence who allegedly used illegal tracking technology to monitor Palestinian movements. In April this year, Zoom blocked an online academic event that featured the controversial Palestinian resistance leader Leila Khaled, a move that was a repetition of a similar one back in September 2020, when Zoom, Facebook and YouTube blocked an academic event featuring Leila. A Reddit thread surfaced roughly two weeks ago that allegedly showed screenshots of an Israeli propaganda app ordering recruits to brigade and vote to manipulate Reddit posts. The cases go on.
As social media platforms continue to evolve into becoming the ground zero for brewing next-gen activism and countercultures, the platforms are desperate to clarify their moral grounds on sensitive socio-political issues, now more than ever as global pressure mounts against biased moderation of content that incites violence. But as Facebook's Oversight Board, created to promote unbiased free speech, appoints Emi Palmor, a former general manager of the Israeli Ministry of Justice and the person responsible for creating the Israeli Cyber Unit, digital rights organisations fear how much good might actually come out of the effort.