Twitter under fire for censoring Palestinian public figures

Digital rights groups say social media giants have restricted, suspended the accounts of Palestinian journalists and activists.

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – On December 15, Twitter owner Elon Musk suspended the accounts of some journalists, including reporters from newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Defending his decision, Musk claimed the journalists had breached the company’s new rule about revealing people’s locations.

Chaos ensued.

The suspensions were condemned by the journalists’ newspapers and other media organisations – even the European Union and the United Nations weighed in, saying the move set a dangerous precedent. A day later, Musk lifted the suspensions after running a poll in which respondents went against his preferred outcome.

But there had been no such global outrage two weeks earlier about the suspension of the account of Said Arikat, a veteran Palestinian journalist based in Washington, DC, on December 3.

He is the Washington bureau chief for the Jerusalem-based al-Quds, one of the most widely read Palestinian daily newspapers, and a mainstay of Department of State news briefings with his fiery questions about Palestine and the Arab region.

Asked whether he thought his suspension from Twitter was related to him being outspoken about Palestine, Arikat told Al Jazeera: “I believe it does. I can’t think of any other reason.

“I was hacked before the suspension, but that’s about it,” he said, adding that Twitter had cited that as the reason for suspending his account.

Noura Erakat, a renowned Palestinian human rights advocate and lawyer, had her account suspended on January 8, days after Arikat got his back. Palestinian activist circles, in which Erakat was a prominent figure, took up her cause and the resulting outrage saw her account reinstated the next day.

Erekat had also received a notification from Twitter that her account was being suspended because it had been hacked. Both she and Arikat messaged Twitter to inquire about the decision to suspend their accounts but received no replies.

Arikat has been the subject of several articles by right-wing pro-Israel outlets, which claim that his questions to State Department spokesman Ned Price about issues regarding Palestinians were antagonistic and aimed to demonise Israel.

After nearly a month, his account was reinstated on December 29, but Arikat never got a response from Twitter about why it had been suspended, aside from the initial notification. Before his suspension, Arikat’s account was verified and had thousands of followers.

“After four weeks of being suspended on Twitter, for reasons still unknown to me, my account was reinstated this afternoon,” he said at the time.

On the heels of his account’s suspension, Facebook removed Arikat’s newspaper al-Quds, which has more than nine million followers, from the platform.

Translation: #Urgent | #Facebook closes al-Quds newspaper’s page without any explanation other than it was based on an Israeli request to close the biggest #Palestinian media page, which has about 10 million followers and which presents news that harms Israel’s image in the world; there has been #Arab and #Palestinian condemnation of this.

That account was reinstated two days later. However, freedom of digital speech advocates have detailed many instances in which social media giants like Facebook or Twitter have restricted or blocked pages belonging to Palestinian journalists, activists and others on its platforms.

“Recently we witnessed some cases where Palestinian academics and journalists are censored on Twitter for different reasons,” said Mona Shtaya, advocacy and communications manager at 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, a Palestinian digital rights organisation.

Among the reasons offered by the platform were “violating community standards”, and some accounts were said to have been suspended “by mistake” or as a result of technical glitches, Shtaya said. But she believes that the unspoken reasons include a general increase in hate speech and incitement against Arabs, including Palestinians.

“Whatever the reasons behind this censorship, the result remains the same: imposing higher censorship over digital freedoms and rights, especially on oppressed people,” she told Al Jazeera.

In 2021, “social media platforms increased censorship of Palestinian content … 7amleh documented more than 1,000 violations across different platforms, with Facebook and Instagram atop the list of the most violating platforms”, said a report published by 7amleh.

In September 2022, a separate report produced by an independent consulting firm commissioned by Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – acknowledged there was bias in the platforms’ moderation practices, with significantly disproportionate consequences for the digital rights of Palestinians and Arabic-speaking users.

The report found that Meta’s practices violated Palestinians’ right to freedom of expression and assembly, political participation and non-discrimination.

“Elon Musk has wreaked havoc on Twitter since he took over the platform. It’s now gutted,” said Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian digital rights expert and policy analyst at al-Shabaka, a think tank.

“With less staff and attention to content moderation and user safety, people are more susceptible to online attacks, censorship and hacking attempts. And as usual, Palestinians are the canary in the coal mine,” she told Al Jazeera.

Since Musk took over Twitter, he has repeatedly been accused of suspending the accounts of journalists and others for arbitrary reasons or based on personal vendettas.

Digital rights experts say he has destroyed the platform and dismissed many staff members, including employees from third-party companies that help Twitter moderate content.

“For us Palestinians, we already come from a disadvantaged point: We have been systematically censored, and subject to arbitrary and non-transparent account suspensions and content takedowns,” Fatafta told Al Jazeera.

“We have been calling for companies to dedicate more resources to especially vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed communities where the risk of censorship is higher, like what happened to Noura,” she said, referring to Erakat, the Palestinian human rights lawyer.

“I don’t think Palestinian activists and journalists are as safe as they should be on Twitter,” Fatafta said. “The situation wasn’t exactly rosy, but it’s getting worse now under Musk’s leadership.”

Source: Al Jazeera