Palestinians criticise social media censorship over Sheikh Jarrah

Social media users sharing content from Sheikh Jarrah complain their accounts have been censored, limited or shut down.

A Palestinian youth is pinned down by Israeli police at a protest against the forcible eviction of Palestinian families [Maya Alleruzzo/AP]

Palestinians have slammed social media companies for shutting down their personal accounts and censoring content about attacks on residents and activists by Israeli forces and settlers in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Over the past week, residents of Sheikh Jarrah, as well as Palestinian and international solidarity activists, have attended nightly vigils to support the Palestinian families under threat of forced displacement.

Israeli border police and forces have attacked the sit-ins using skunk water, tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and shock grenades. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested.

Social media users from the ground and around the world have uploaded and shared video content and images about the attacks, using the hashtag in both English and Arabic #SaveSheikhJarrah.

Yet many have complained that their accounts have been censored, limited, or shut down altogether.

“Social media companies are silencing Palestinian voices while they’re fighting for their survival on the ground,” Marwa Fatafta, a policy member of the think tank Al Shabaka, told Al Jazeera.

“This is not a one-off incident, it’s a sequel to wider systematic censorship and discrimination targeting mainly those who are marginalised and oppressed, often at the behest of oppressive regimes.”

A communications officer from Instagram told Al Jazeera the content related to Sheikh Jarrah was impacted as result of a “widespread global technical issue” affecting the social media platform.

The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, acknowledged the technical bug had impacted millions of people’s stories, highlights and archives around the world.

“Many people thought we were removing their content because of what they posted or what hashtag they used, but this bug wasn’t related to the content itself, but rather a widespread issue that has now been fixed,” Mosseri tweeted.

However, Mona Shtaya, the local advocacy manager at 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, said Mosseri’s statement is not credible.

“We are still receiving reports on content takedowns and account suspensions on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter,” she told Al Jazeera.

“The excuses that have been used by the companies, such as ‘global technical bug’ are neither logical nor convincing.”

On Thursday night, at least 30 people were wounded and 15 arrested. Videos emerged showing Israeli settlers deliberately provoking a Palestinian communal Iftar meal set up outside one of the houses, including using pepper spray. Palestinians responded by throwing chairs at the settlers.

Later on, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Arieh King, is recorded addressing a physically disabled Palestinian man.

“Did they take the bullet out of your a**?” he says, standing next to far-right Israeli member of Knesset Itamar Ben Gvir. “It’s a pity it didn’t go in here,” he adds, pointing to his forehead.

Social media collusion

The complicity between Israel and social media companies in regulating and censoring Palestinian content and accounts is well documented. Following a visit by a Facebook delegation in 2016, Israel’s justice minister at the time stated that Facebook, Google and YouTube were “complying with up to 95 percent of Israeli requests to delete content” – almost all of it Palestinian.

In 2020, 7amleh found that Facebook has complied with 81 percent of Israel’s requests to take down content.

“This is not the first time that Palestinians’ voices have been silenced, and it is clear that it is not the last,” Shtaya said.

“What social media companies do affects the Palestinian narrative, whether the content takedown is via algorithms or voluntary takedown. Both affect the Palestinian narration through which activists try to document what is happening on the ground.”

Palestinians have also highlighted in addition to cracking down on freedom of expression, the acquiescence of these social media companies to Israeli government requests of revealing users’ data have led to the arrests of hundreds of Palestinians in the past several years, mainly for their posts on Facebook. In contrast, Israelis do not face the same treatment.

7amleh published a study in 2017 that found every 46 seconds Israelis post a racist or inciting comment against Palestinians and Arabs. Yet there has been little action taken against these accounts.

7amleh also offered to help users whose accounts have been affected and raised the issue to the social media companies, succeeding in reverting some of the content back online.

Fatafta called on Facebook to “immediately stop this content carnage” and give an explanation to its users and the public for why it has taken down content.

Sada Social, a Palestinian digital rights organisation, condemned Twitter’s administration for shutting down dozens of activists’ accounts.

“Sada Social considers the closure of these accounts as a punishment for activists and collusion between the Twitter administration and the Israeli security services, in order to reduce interaction with the Sheikh Jarrah cause,” a statement said.

Sada Social called for the need to reactivate the suspended accounts and provide a free space for all website users to express their views without discrimination.

Expulsion of Palestinian families

The Sheikh Jarrah cause has escalated over the past week despite the issue running for decades.

Jewish settler organisations filed a lawsuit in the 1970s claiming the area belonged to Jews originally, and seeking the expulsion of Palestinian families living there since 1956.

These families, refugees from the 1948 Nakba, eventually settled in Sheikh Jarrah under an agreement between Jordan and the UN refugee agency.

The Israeli district court ruled that four familes – al-Kurd, Iskafi, Qassim and Jaouni – must leave their homes for settlers to take over, or reach an agreement with these settler organisations by paying rent and recognising them as landlords.

The families refused and the court postponed their final verdict to May 10.

Several US lawmakers, including Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Marie Newman have spoken out against the attacks and imminent forced displacement in Sheikh Jarrah.

Source: Al Jazeera