Last Saturday, March 24, Facebook shut down Gaza-based news outlet Safa Palestinian Press Agency without warning over claims of incitement to violence. While Safa is allegedly linked to Hamas, its employees have denied the accusations, calling the agency a legitimate news organization. Facebook disabled the outlet’s page for violating community guidelines after it labeled Ahmad Jarrar, the man behind the murder of an Israeli rabbi, a martyr; Jarrar’s father was a Hamas leader.
For two years, Israel focused on shutting down online speech advocating for Palestinian rights – which it has rebranded as “hate speech.” Since February, over 100 pro-Palestinian pages and 70 personal Facebook accounts have been suspended by the company. This unprecedented crackdown represents a decision on Facebook’s part to participate in Israel’s censorship of pro-Palestine content, and sets a dangerous precedent for corporate attacks against dissent and digital advocacy.
On March 20, Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Minister of Justice, led an international conference to combat online incitement. Together with Justice Ministers from Greece, Italy, and Malta, she released a statement on countering so-called hate speech and incitement to violence and terrorism. During a speech at the conference, Shaked specifically highlighted the role social media companies should have in these efforts:
“This incitement, which is unfortunately also shared by the Palestinian Authority, requires our unique efforts together with the social networks to sterilize this despicable discourse. With a real understanding of the connection between incitement and terrorism, the Justice Ministry, under my leadership, is making considerable efforts to deal with illegal content on the Internet. ”
Delphine Reye, Facebook’s Policy Director for the Southern Africa, Middle East, and Africa Region, also attended the conference.
In September 2016, Shaked and Gilad Erdan, Israel’s Interior Minister, met with Facebook officials and subsequently announced a joint effort to monitor content deemed inflammatory by Israel. At the Palestinian Digital Activism Forum in January 2017, Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Palestine Director Omar Shakir expressed concern about the repressive tactics used by Israel, as well as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA), to stifle speech on online platforms in the occupied territories. He described Israel’s work with Facebook in this regard as “making it more difficult for individuals to organize, to exchange ideas, to criticize.”
Legally, Facebook is allowed to block user content without providing a reason, giving the website broad leeway to adopt Israel’s definitions of hate speech and incitement. As Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept has stated, terms such as “hate speech,” “incitement,” and “terrorism” are notoriously malleable and subject to significant manipulation.
In recent years, Facebook has been criticized by journalists and activists who say the company is censoring Palestinian content based on biased reports of hate speech and violence. Many activists have noted and questioned why provocative Israeli publications and anti-Palestinian content have not been held to the same standards and processes. In early March, Palestinian journalists demonstrated outside the UNESCO office in Gaza City against Facebook’s discriminatory practices, using the hashtag #FBfightspalestine.
7amela – The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media and the Association for Progressive Communications recently submitted a statement to the 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council about Israel and the PA’s increasing violation of Palestinian digital rights. The statement expressed grave concerns over dubious algorithms used by Israel to target “suspicious” profiles on Facebook. As VICE reported earlier this year, Israel uses these algorithms to detain and arrest Palestinians posting on Facebook.
Facebook has yet to meet with Palestinian leaders, journalists, and activists to address their grievances. In the meantime, many activists have turned to Twitter, instead, to express their views. Recognizing Twitter’s growing role as a site for Palestine activism, Shaked has stated that Israel would consider legal action against the company if Israeli requests to remove “terrorism content” are not met, leaving the quest for an online space for Palestinian journalists and activists under threat.