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From Hashtags to Hush-Tags: The Tug of War Over Social Media in Conflict Zones

The removal of victims' online content in conflict zones such as Gaza and Syria plays in favor of regimes committing atrocities. And social media platforms are not passive bystanders in this censorship.


In today’s interconnected world, where smartphones and social media platforms have become ubiquitous tools of communication, an ordinary individual can instantly transform into a global eyewitness, broadcasting their experiences from the heart of a conflict zone. Imagine facing daily bombardment, armed only with a mobile phone, a tenuous Internet connection, and access to social media. In such dire circumstances, your smartphone’s camera can swiftly become the world’s window into the horrors, atrocities, and everyday struggles faced by those living in conflict-affected regions. Some of these stories represent final messages to the world or poignant farewells to loved ones, captured amid adversity. 

However, the very same governments attacking, displacing, and taking the lives of your beloved ones—after committing these heinous acts—go after your stories and emotional messages and pressure the social media platforms to erase them. They seek to complete the crime cycle by erasing not just lives but also the digital traces of these lives. This piece explores the alarming implications of this phenomenon, introduces the term “hush-tags” symbolizing digital content suppression, and delves into its profound impact on truth and accountability.

Over a decade ago, the rise of social media offered an unprecedented opportunity for ordinary citizens to challenge the official narratives propagated by mainstream media outlets. This newfound power empowers individuals to speak out, advocate for change, and offer their unique perspectives on the unfolding events within their communities. During the Arab Spring, social media played a pivotal role in ushering in a new era of citizen journalism. Armed with nothing more than an Internet connection and a smartphone camera, everyday people became documentarians, capturing critical events in their lives, pro-democracy protests, and state-sponsored atrocities. Ordinary citizens and marginalized groups found a voice to share their stories with the world, free from intermediaries and censorship, albeit temporarily. 

In 2016, amidst the severe siege and relentless bombardment of Aleppo by the Assad regime, Bana Abed, a young Syrian girl hailing from Aleppo, found her voice on Twitter with the support of her mother. Despite being just seven years old at the time, Bana’s tweets garnered worldwide attention and played a pivotal role in fostering global solidarity with the besieged civilians of Aleppo. Similarly, Bisan Owdeh, a 25-year-old filmmaker who’s originally known for her storytelling, transformed her Instagram account into a powerful tool to document the harrowing experiences of Gaza civilians during the Israeli assault on the Strip. She shares personal experiences, provides context on hospital bombings, and sheds light on human suffering. Bisan amplifies the voices of marginalized women and girls in Gaza, addressing their struggles, even sharing her own touching experience of cutting her hair due to clean water shortages and hair care products in her besieged region.

The digital memory of civilians and marginalized communities has become a crucial resource for documenting and writing about conflict, atrocities, and people; ultimately contributing to long-term transitional justice

Bisan’s work humanizes the conflict and amplifies the voices of those often overlooked in mainstream media. Her Instagram posts have been widely shared across various platforms and featured in global media, shedding light on the human perspective on the war on Gaza.

The invaluable nature of these digital records cannot be understated. Online international advocacy has emerged as a new means of global solidarity, amplifying the voices of civilians in conflict. The digital memory of civilians and marginalized communities has become a crucial resource for documenting and writing about conflict, atrocities, and people; ultimately contributing to long-term transitional justice. Innovative evidence-collection methods, such as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), have become indispensable tools for accountability and justice. Additionally, social media enables communication with victims and eyewitnesses in remote, inaccessible areas, bolstering the efforts of United Nations special inquiries and international human rights organizations.

Governments worldwide, particularly authoritarian regimes and those embroiled in conflict, have responded with an unease to the newfound freedom of expression facilitated by the Internet. This has led to a concerted effort to stifle online discourse through various means of censorship and oppression, including restrictive regulations, aggressive prosecution, electronic armies, bots, manipulation of social media algorithms, infiltration of technology companies by spies, and leveraging Internet regulations to pressure social media platforms into compliance. These measures are often designed, in many contexts, to shield those in power from criticism and maintain control over the narrative. 

The harm of content removal in conflict zones

In devastating conflicts such as those in Syria and Palestine, governments like the Assad regime and the Israeli government actively work to remove content posted by victims and silence the voices of activists and advocates who amplify their stories.

These actions are made possible through various strategies. Some of them involve direct requests to the platforms. For example, Meta’s Q1 2023 transparency report reveals the extent of governments’ requests, with 1,088 total requests from the Israeli government and only one request from the Syrian government. However, the Syrian regime’s limited access to platforms due to sanctions affects its direct requests. Nevertheless, non-state actors, like the Syrian Electronic Army in Syria and Iron Truth in Israel, play a significant role in employing tactics such as algorithm manipulation and mass reporting involving bot accounts.

The digitizing of warfare has evolved into an extension of the violence that civilians endure daily. Human rights groups have meticulously documented this online war. For instance, in Syria, The Syrian Archive reported 180 incidents of YouTube channel suspensions and content removal between June and September 2017. The Shaam News Network (SNN), one of the first independent news agencies founded in 2011, had 400,000 videos on its YouTube channel and around 90 million views. However, in July 2017, SNN was notified that its channel had been deleted and no longer exists. In 2020, 35 Facebook accounts of activists and journalists were reported to be suspended. 

Similarly, in the Palestinian context, 7amleh, a nonprofit organization that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, has extensively documented numerous instances of content removal, account suspension, and other forms of restrictions. Since October 7, 7amleh has reported 283 cases of content removal and account suspensions only on Meta, in addition to various other means of restrictions, including shadow banning.

It is essential to recognize that social media platforms are not passive bystanders when it comes to online content

It is essential to recognize that social media platforms are not passive bystanders when it comes to online content. They play an active role in different forms of online censorship, making decisions about what content stays and what gets removed. While some removals can be attributed to automated content filtering systems that lack human oversight, there have been reported incidents that suggest a more targeted form of censorship. A recent example is shadowbanning and suspensions of accounts of journalists, such as Ken Klippenstein who reported on Elon Musk’s visit to Israel and his company’s utilization of AI technology to support Israeli military operations.

Notably, transparency reports from these platforms often lack information on these nuanced issues, keeping the public unaware of the challenges faced by civilians and advocates in conflict zones.

In areas marked by ongoing attacks, displacement, and detention, preserving evidence of human rights violations and atrocities becomes exceptionally challenging. The relentless onslaught of violence and chaos often leaves little room for individuals or organizations to safeguard offline evidence. Perpetrators of these heinous acts frequently go to great lengths to destroy physical evidence, further complicating the already daunting task of documenting such violations. 

Citizens in conflict zones have turned to social media platforms as an innovative means to preserve their documentation of the atrocities they endure, circumventing the loss or destruction of evidence. Digital spaces offered an alternative to high-risk physical spaces. But the removal of content in response to governments’ requests or manipulation plays into the hands of regimes seeking to erase any evidence of their atrocities, effectively standing against the victims and their rights—not only in freedom of expression but also in seeking remedies and justice in the future.

The removal of content in response to governments’ requests or manipulation plays into the hands of regimes seeking to erase any evidence of their atrocities, effectively standing against the victims and their rights

Beyond the realm of justice and accountability, global advocacy has significantly influenced public opinion and, in some cases, the foreign policy of some governments toward ongoing conflicts. The removal of victims’ content posted online plays in favor of regimes committing atrocities.

Reports suggest that social media platforms apply double standards when handling ordinary citizens’ posts versus government-backed online groups and posts. For example, posts about the Syrian regime’s chemical attacks on civilians were removed across different platforms, while the regime’s content and that of its affiliated groups, like the Syrian Electronic Army or the Russian Trolls, remain untouched. These imbalances in shaping the narrative have exerted pressure and influence on Western policymakers who were involved in conflicts like Syria. 

In the context of Palestine, Meta and TikTok received 8,000 requests from the Israeli government to take down content related to the ongoing conflict in the first 38 days after October 7, resulting in the removal of 94 percent of the content that was flagged. In contrast, the official Israeli narrative, despite its high level of violence, enjoys greater freedom on Meta and other platforms. An Amnesty International investigation revealed a significant portion of social media content celebrating Israel’s military attacks in Gaza and promoting violence against Palestinians, often echoing the language employed by Israeli officials.

Silencing human voices in conflict

Blocking or silencing human voices in conflict serves the strategy of those perpetrating the conflict in dehumanizing their targets. Mainstream media coverage of the conflict primarily focuses on warfare news, diplomatic and mediation efforts, military operations, and the like, while the violence of censorship is structural and often difficult to report. Consequently, the primary speakers and commentators are mostly officials from the states or state-related actors. Civilians, marginalized communities, and civil society organizations often lack a platform to share their perspectives on the conflict and the human stories that underlie it.

Furthermore, during conflicts, state and state-related actors appoint spokespersons to control the narrative, speaking on their behalf. Regrettably, these officials and spokespersons often exclude the voices of women and marginalized communities, leading to the lack of women’s meaningful participation in the public discourse in conflict. Women in conflict zones who have access to devices and the Internet can find alternative spaces to share their voices and offer an alternative intersectional perspective on the conflict. Unfortunately, the removal of social media content tends to silence their voices and instead amplify a dominant narrative that lacks the voices of women and marginalized communities. 

Fundamental questions arise: Who writes history, and who has the right to tell which stories? If not the people who lived through and witnessed the conflict, then who?

Fundamental questions arise: Who writes history, and who has the right to tell which stories? If not the people who lived through and witnessed the conflict, then who? This also leads to a critical question concerning the ownership of data uploaded to social media platforms. When accounts are suspended or posts are removed, platforms claim ownership of the data, denying users even the ability to download their content.

The battle continues

In the evolving landscape of the digital age, the tussle between hashtags and hush-tags represents a critical battle for the preservation of truth, accountability, and the dignity of marginalized voices in conflict zones. This struggle is far from abstract; it affects the lives of individuals who have borne witness to the harrowing realities of conflict, and whose narratives have the power to reshape global perceptions.

The stakes are high, for behind every hashtag lies not just an individual voice but the collective memory of entire conflict-ridden regions. As social media becomes an increasingly vital platform for bearing witness to atrocities, it is imperative that social media companies recognize their responsibility in protecting this digital testimony.

The right of victims to share their experiences and suffering online is a fundamental human right, inseparable from their right to exist. When social media companies remove their voices from their platforms, they mirror the actions of state actors engaged in mass atrocities, erasing lives both physically and digitally.

Collaboration with civil society and grassroots groups should go beyond tokenism, establishing transparent and accountable partnerships that reflect a commitment to engaging meaningfully with societies and people in conflict zones

The path forward requires collective action. Social media companies have the capacity to enact change, starting with framing their compliance with state requests under the framework of international human rights law. Human rights due diligence must shape the platforms’ response to government requests. The justification for complying with local regulations and responding to government requests for content removal or censorship must undergo rigorous scrutiny in accordance with these standards. This evaluation should occur transparently and uniformly, treating all content with the same level of scrutiny, regardless of its source.

Platforms must ensure human oversight over automated content moderation processes, allocating sufficient resources to effectively monitor AI-driven systems across all languages and contexts. Collaboration with civil society and grassroots groups should go beyond tokenism, establishing transparent and accountable partnerships that reflect a commitment to engaging meaningfully with societies and people in conflict zones.

In the tug of war between hashtags and hush-tags, the responsibility rests on social media companies to stand for humanity, protect the rights and stories of the marginalized and silenced, and to continue fighting for recognition in the digital age. By doing so, they contribute to the preservation of truth, the empowerment of voices that have long been suppressed, and the advancement of a more just and compassionate world.

Noura Aljizawi is a Senior Researcher at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She conducts comprehensive research on the intersection of technology, human rights, and global security, with a specific focus on targeted digital threats against civil society, digital authoritarianism, and digital transnational repression.

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