Palestinian activist Mona el-Kurd talks on the phone at home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem after being released from an Israeli police station, on June 6, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Erasing Palestine: Meta Must Act to Redress its Censorship of Palestinian Voices

Facebook’s and Instagram’s policies violated the fundamental human rights of Palestinians, according to a due diligence report commissioned by the platforms’ parent company, Meta, and published in September 2022.

The long-awaited report, which came after much delay and anticipation from civil society, was conducted by the independent consulting company Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). It assessed the human rights impact of Meta’s policies and activities on Arabic and Hebrew content in May 2021 amid mass Palestinian uprising following the forced eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem and the brutal Israeli war on the Gaza Strip.

During the 2021 events, there were hundreds of documented cases of deleted posts, suspended or restricted accounts, disabled groups, shadowbans, and blocked hashtags affecting accounts or posts documenting violence and crimes against Palestinians by the Israeli occupation forces and settlers or even statements from those who spoke on Meta’s platforms in solidarity with Palestinians. As a result, 18 civil society organizations and more than 50 artists, journalists, and human rights defenders launched the #StopSilencingPalestine campaign to demand an end to Meta’s censorship of Palestinian voices and called for an independent review of the company’s content moderation policies. Facebook’s Oversight Board echoed civil society calls and recommended that Meta engage an external, independent entity to conduct a thorough examination to determine whether or not the company had applied its content moderation in Arabic and Hebrew without bias.

The BSR report key findings confirm what Palestinian digital rights group, advocates, and their allies have documented and denounced for years: Meta’s actions “appear to have had an adverse human rights impact on the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination, and therefore on the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.”

Data reviewed by BSR indicated over-enforcement of Arabic content compared to Hebrew content with erroneous content removal and account penalties, and under-enforcement of content moderation policies on Hebrew language content with failure to remove violating content and failure to apply penalties to offending accounts. This was, according to BSR, largely due a lack of expertise or adequate technical and human resources namely the lack of content reviewers who speak or understand Palestinian dialects, the lack of a “Hebrew hostile speech classifier,” and Meta’s biased Dangerous Individuals and Organizations (DIO) policy and list.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Meta’s lists of dangerous individuals and organizations is “self-designated” and “subject to the policy that it does not share with users” and “evidently includes US-designated foreign terrorist organizations.” A “secret blacklist” that was leaked to the Intercept in October 2021 showed that it disproportionately discriminates against Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim individuals and groups. The report cited Meta’s legal obligations surrounding U.S. designations of foreign terrorist organizations as a potential cause of bias in content moderation concluding that “Meta’s DIO policy and the list are more likely to impact Palestinian and Arabic-speaking users, both based upon Meta’s interpretation of legal obligations, and in error.”

BSR concluded their report with a list of 21 recommendations for Meta to address its adverse human rights impacts. In response, the social media giant announced it will commit to implement only 10, partly implement four, and “assess the feasibility of another six,” but it has not provided any specific timeline to how it plans to implement them. The company rejected one recommendation, to “fund public research into the optimal relationship between legally required counterterrorism obligations and the policies and practices of social media platforms”.

Meta’s negligence of non-English speaking regions and systematic discriminatory enforcement of content moderation policies on Arabic content is no secret. It has long been denounced by Palestinian digital rights advocates with the growing body of evidence based on years and years of documentation and advocacy by digital rights organizations like 7amleh, a non-profit organization that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, Sada Social, an organization for the defense of the Palestinian digital rights, and the international digital rights non-profit organization Access Now, as well as leaked documents to the press.

The insights of the BSR report indeed add to this body of evidence condemning the social media giant’s moderation practices silencing Palestinians across its three platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp). However, it states that it only found evidence of “unintentional” bias against Palestinians. Seventy-four Palestinian, regional, and international organizations issued a joint statement in response to the report, stating that while the report is a welcomed outcome for transparency and accountability, “even if the bias started out as unintentional, after knowing about the issues for years and not taking appropriate action, the unintentional became intentional.”

Mona Shtaya, Advocacy Advisor at 7amleh, said to TIMEP “the censorship of Palestinian voices by Meta is deliberate and systematic. After years of trying to attract Meta’s attention to the impact of their policies in Palestine among other communities in the MENA region, it is now clear the bias could not be unintentional [and] that they don’t care about us, especially after seeing how they took strict measures when it came to the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s important to remember that Palestinian human rights defenders live under a mix of digital authoritarianism and censorship by the different authorities.

The joint statement also highlighted that the report completely leaves out the role of Israel’s Cyber Unit. Founded in 2015, the unit sends thousands of requests to Meta to remove content the government says violates Israeli law or the social media companies’ terms of service. According to a 2018 report by Israel’s State Attorney’s office, Meta’s compliance rate has been extremely high, accepting around 90 percent of these voluntary requests.

Whereas Meta claims in its Corporate Human Rights Policy that it is driven by its commitment to respecting human rights as set out under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the company’s historic and ongoing track record shatters the glossy PR image with its negligence of the rights of the global non-Western majority. This happened in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Yemen to Palestine and beyond.

It is important to mention that Meta was the latest big tech company to articulate its commitment to human rights when it published its Corporate Human Rights Policy in March 2021 for the first time in its 17-year history after years of outcry from civil society groups and digital rights advocates worldwide for the company’s failure in respecting their users privacy, free expression, and protecting those most vulnerable.

Putting profit over people is the main concern for anyone hoping for positive structural and systematic change toward effectively protecting users’ fundamental rights on Meta’s platforms, especially those most vulnerable in the Global South. The 2021 document leak dubbed “the Facebook Papers” and released by whistleblower Frances Haugen exposed that the company was fully aware of harmful societal effects from its platforms. According to the leak, its leaders “have repeatedly and knowingly put the company’s image and profitability ahead of the public good—even at the risk of violence and other harm.”

Following the backlash to the whistleblower’s revelations, Meta has been engaging in controversial efforts of rebranding, while it continues to conceal its profit-seeking behavior as a leading surveillance capitalism corporation in false pretenses about the very human rights it threatens. Meta has also been largely criticized by Indian and international civil society for its treatment of the India human rights impact assessment (HRIA). Meta commissioned it in 2019 but never publicly released it. MENA civil society organizations published a joint letter in solidarity demanding that Meta’s publish the full and unedited HRIA report and at the time having been waiting for long, to publish the much delayed Palestine HRIA. In an interview with Team CommUNITY, Dia Kayyali, the Associate Director for Advocacy at Mnemonic criticized Meta’s “divide and conquer tactics, where they hold different levels of release for different HRIAs.” Meaning, “when there’s media attention, they’ll do a more thorough HRIA,” and “that’s how they got away with not releasing the India assessment,” due to a lack of media coverage.

“Marginalized communities sometimes have the idea that we are small groups, but from my point of view, this is a very intersectional kind of struggle; feminists, queers, Palestinians, and other people facing systemic discrimination in the Global South should join forces, stand shoulder by shoulder so we can put more pressure on Meta to change such policies. Whenever we have bigger coalitions and joint campaigns, we have better advocacy, we can have a bigger impact toward achieving our demands,” said Shtaya from 7amleh on crucial south-south solidarity.

7amleh has recently just launched the “Meta, Let Palestine Speak” campaign to demand that Meta commits to implementing the BSR report recommendations seriously, within a clear and specific timeframe and a co-design process with civil society.

“One key outcome of the BSR report is that Meta can no longer hide its censorship of Palestinian voices behind the veil of technical glitches. The report outlined in clear terms where Meta has erred and what needs to be done to address this systematic problem. It is incumbent upon Meta now to act. As digital rights advocates, we are demanding that Meta puts its commitment to action and share a clear timeline,” explained Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Lead at Access Now.

 

Rima Sghaier is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on power and technology in the Middle East and North Africa region.