Amidst ongoing violence, many Palestinians and their allies believe their social media posts are being censored and deleted.
Some have described what's happening as a "digital apartheid." Over the past few weeks, many activist groups and people posting pro-Palestinian content have accused social media of censoring their posts and of going so far as to delete them in some cases.
For some quick background on the situation at hand, an 11-day conflict between Israel and Palestine recently resulted in a ceasefire. It would take a full length book to summarize the history and nature of the conflict between these two groups, but here's a quick summary of what's happened this month.
After days of fighting between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police, Hamas fired long range rockets toward Jerusalem. The initial fighting happened because of an attempt by Israeli settlers to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes. In retaliation to the rocket firing, Israel conducted hundreds of airstrikes, killing at least 230 Palestinians and wounding over 1,000 more.
As many have done with their causes in the past, those supporting Palestine in and outside of the area, including in the United States, have taken to social media to get the word out.
Social media has been one of the only places for us to get first-hand accounts from Palestinians about the occupati… https://t.co/ILb9LnGjwp— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib)1621976550.0
This has been seen in the past in the Middle East during previous conflicts and movements, such as the Arab Spring in 2011. A study done by the University of Washington found that social media played a "central role" in shaping the political debates around the Arab Spring.
"Conversations about revolution often preceded major events, and social media has carried inspiring stories of protest across international borders," an article from the University of Washington about the study wrote. "Online activists created a virtual ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public."
The article also noted that efforts to quell social media posts about the protests may have actually resulted in more public activism, because after people were isolated due to Internet shutdowns, they may have gone to the streets instead.
Efforts to quell social media protests can again be seen in the latest movement to promote the human rights of Palestinians. Many, like Salma Shawa, founder of Anat International, a Palestianian clothing brand, have said they had pro-Palestine content removed or censored.
Shawa runs her business out of Gaza, where she grew up before moving to the United States for college. Anat International specializes in unisex hand embroidered garments, which are imported to the United States before being shipped worldwide.
When this recent wave of conflict began, her business's account started gaining more followers. She noted that she wasn't censored right away, but soon noticed that her story views were going down, from around 1,500 to only 250-300. This was in spite of the fact that she was still getting direct messages and engagement on posts.
"It was very weird because I had gained like five or six thousand new followers in a week, so you would assume that my views on story would also go up," Shawa said.
Shawa spoke with other creators who were facing similar issues and saw infographics circulating that detailed how to get around the algorithm and what many considered to be a shadow ban. A shadow ban is when a platform blocks a user's content without them knowing, by doing something such as making comments no longer available for others to view.
"I started following those tips of just taking a small break on story where I post my face or some random thing that you can trick Instagram," she said. "I'm not so sure that it was working. I did it anyways; I still do it every now and then."
Her initial posts that she feels were being censored were using words like "Palestine," "Israel," "attacks" and "colonialism." Now she and others have taken to replacing certain letters in a word with exclamation marks or different symbols as another way to trick the algorithm.
"On top of having to deal with what was going on in Palestine and having to deal with educating the world and raising awareness and covering everything that was happening on the ground, we also had to grapple with another form of digital apartheid," Shawa said.
For one of her posts where she featured pictures from a protest that had signs and flags, multiple followers messaged her to say that the picture was showing up on their feed with a warning that it had sensitive or graphic content.
"It seems to be a pattern of how social media is created. On top of people running these platforms being just so powerful, it also feels like the algorithms are discriminatory," Shawa said. "Even though they're not human, they were programmed by humans that are complicit."
This happened to my sister right now and a few others who posted about Palestine on their stories. Is this somethin… https://t.co/2GhtLDsSc6— Fariha Iqbal (@Fariha Iqbal)1622998717.0
When Instagram was called out on this issue, the company said it had to do with a glitch due to their automated systems launching an update to help detect whether reshared media in someone's story was actually still available or not.
"Unfortunately, the update resulted in our systems treating all reshared media posted before midnight as missing," the company shared on their Twitter. "Part of the reason that it took us such a long time to figure out what was taking place was because this had been an automated deployment, and we had to comb through every possibility."
Shawa said she experienced similar issues with her TikTok account. According to her, the previous few videos she posted before the conflict began were getting 10,000+ views, comments, and engagement, despite the fact that she didn't have that many followers.
Once the conflict began, her viewership went down to around 300 views, and TikTok stopped her from posting an explainer video more than once, telling her that the video, which had text that included the word "Palestine," violated their community guidelines.
Other activists tell a different story than what the social media companies are saying. On May 21, 7amleh, The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media, issued a report entitled "The Attacks on Palestinian Digital Rights." The organization documented more than 500 reports of Palestinian digital rights violations, of which 50% were connected to Instagram. 45% of these incidents were deleted stories.
"The reasons presented to users included hate speech, violation of community standards, requesting proof of identity among others," 7amleh wrote in their report. "After 7amleh's submission of the reports to social media companies, companies recovered and restored some of these accounts and censored content. However, several reports are still under review."
7amleh also noted that Instagram's explanation focused on technical issues but didn't explain the high rate of censorship documented by human rights advocates. The organization goes so far as to make a connection between Israel and some of these tech companies, noting that the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs promoted a video on YouTube entitled "Israel will Protect its Citizens Against Hamas' Terror."
We also saw this kind of censorship during the 2020 uprisings that happened nationwide following George Floyd's murder at the hands of a police officer. In late June, TikTok users reported their posts with the Black Lives Matter hashtag were being affected, making it appear that the videos had zero views. At the time, TikTok released a statement blaming it on a bug.
"We acknowledge and apologize to our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed," the company wrote. "We don't ever want anyone to feel that way. We welcome the voices of the Black community wholeheartedly."
TikTok user Jailyn Feliz (@jailynisfeliz) spoke to Refinery29 last summer, expressing that they were receiving low amounts of views despite having over 30,000 followers.
"I posted three TikToks that day. I also spent the day liking, commenting on, and sharing the content of Black creators and following them," Feliz told the outlet. "I was proud of the movement and seeing more Black creators on my For You Page was my motivation for participating."
That being said, one needn't look far for evidence of the bias of algorithms. The book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble discusses this issue further, highlighting the relationship between search engines and discriminatory biases. "Algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web," she writes.
Despite all of the bias and censorship, Palestinian supporters continue to post their content, hoping that it will reach audiences around the world who can lend an ear.