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Social media, conflict and censorship in Palestine

The violence in May in Israel and Palestine followed a month of rising tensions in Jerusalem sparked by the threatened eviction of Palestinian families. To understand the situation better and to get a sense of the role social media plays in the ongoing conflict, I spoke to Fadi Quran, campaigns director at Avaaz, a social movement that empowers people to take action on issues from corruption and poverty to conflict and climate change. Fadi has worked on tech policy issues including disinformation. He spoke to me from his home in Ramallah, in Palestine in the occupied territories.

Justin Hendrix:

Tell me what your experience has been like over the last month. What has happened in your life and in your neighborhood?

Fadi Quran:

I don’t know where to start because the last month feels like a decade. To try put it together, essentially, what we faced across both the West Bank and Gaza was just an expansion of violence that started in Jerusalem because there’s an effort to essentially dispossess- ethnically cleanse- a neighborhood called Sheikh Jarrah, which is where many Palestinian families live. And protests began erupting in Jerusalem and then spread in my neighborhood, just a few hundred meters away from where I am. Three young men were killed in the last month at a protest. They were shot by the Israeli army. In Gaza, of course, the situation was much worse than in the West Bank. And there was significant bombing. Over 240 people have been killed. At night, we would see the rockets and Israel’s Iron Dome clash in the sky and all over the hills.

And so it’s been a… I would say, a very, very significant crisis, but the key thing to add is it’s still continuing. And as we speak, today there were settler attacks near where I live on specific communities. Dozens of my activist friends have been arrested. Human Rights Watch just recently called the situation apartheid. So for those familiar to what was happening in South Africa, it’s kind of similar here.

Justin Hendrix:

So in your work, in your research, you look at a variety of topics, but one of them is social media and technology. And I want to talk today a little bit about the relationship between tech and what’s happened on social networks and what you’ve experienced there. So maybe first, just for the listeners’ little background on your prior work on social platforms and their relationship to society.

Fadi Quran:

Interestingly enough, in this kind of moment, part of the struggle of what happened in Israel-Palestine was on social media. And specifically what you saw is that within Palestine, the majority of the population are youth. You’re talking between 70 to 75% are under the age of 30. And so a lot of the activism, a lot of the organizing, a lot of the mobilization that happens, happens on social media- and it’s a defense mechanism for Palestinians. And I think this is important to mention where people feel that the more we bring global attention to what we’re facing, the less violent the Israeli military occupation would be against us.

So you have people documenting everything that’s happening. You have people organizing protests and sharing them. You have people putting up petitions. And what happened, especially as the violence escalated in Jerusalem was suddenly- especially on Facebook and Instagram but also on other platforms- you saw huge amounts of censorship. Certain mechanisms came into play where tens of thousands of Palestinian posts just began being taken down for very unclear reasons, including when there were protests that the Israeli forces went into the Aqsa mosque, which is considered holy ground for Muslims and for other religions. The term Al-Aqsa, the hashtag- something happened on Instagram where anyone using that term of that location, the posts were taken down or covered. And Facebook later said that it was a glitch- but throughout this period, throughout these months, these types of glitches kept happening where Palestinian content was taken down.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, on the Israeli side, and what we saw was that the Israeli far-right, the settler movements in particular, especially when there were kind of certain lynchings and violence on the streets, were using a social media platform, mainly WhatsApp in this case, but also Facebook to organize some of this violence. And so long story short, you can think about what happened during the insurrection in the US. And you can think about Facebook’s failures throughout the 2020 elections. And you can, I would say, to some extent multiply that by five in terms of the type of failures that happened on the ground here during this moment. 

And because there’s a polarization and I think this is what the expert audience listening to us will care about. Essentially, there’s cyber unit within the Israeli government, within the Israeli official structure. One of the goals- and this is public knowledge- is that they monitor Palestinian content and report it consistently to Facebook. And the former Israeli justice minister kind of proudly said that Facebook takes down about 95% of the stuff that the Israeli government shares with them. And Facebook is feeding this data- based on what the Israeli government thinks is problematic- to its AI systems. And you can imagine what happens when these machine learning systems are learning based on biased data of what the Israeli government thinks is okay or not okay. Whereas on the Palestinian side, there is no capacity . So you see the complete imbalance of power, and that leads to an unjust information ecosystem.

Justin Hendrix:

So you’re giving us a sense of not just a sort of set of choices that the platform is making, but also the way that the asymmetric nature of the resources that the governments in this case have leads to a differential outcome. Is there any organized effort among the Palestinians to work with Facebook or to counter this particular activity?

Fadi Quran:

I mean- especially in this last month, of course- those efforts came into play. So there are a bunch of human rights organizations and local digital rights organizations that are kind of now engaging with Facebook to fix these problems. The core issue though, is that there’s real little transparency at Facebook and at large. What this means is, for example, a key figure when it comes to content decisions and policy decisions on Israel-Palestine is a woman named Jordana Cutler that works at Facebook. She leads Facebook’s policy team as it relates to Israel and the Jewish diaspora. She was on Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign. She is a former strategic communications person within the Israeli government. And so you can see how somebody like that having significant power in a company like Facebook dwarfs the type of influence that, let’s say, Palestinian civil society can have on the conversation.

And it remains unclear for us exactly how Facebook is making its decisions on these issues. So is it based on pressure from the Israeli government? Is it based on internal relations? Is it based on the fact that their moderators are not experts in the conflict and so don’t know how to make decisions on what to keep up and what not to keep on? There are all these gaps, and so Facebook has been trying to cooperate more with Palestinian civil society. They have a good team on that front, but it’s just the level of engagement is completely dwarfed when it comes to the type of influence Israel has on the company.

Justin Hendrix:

So one of the things I’m aware of is that Facebook set up a kind of special operations center to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this past month. And we know that Nick Clegg, Facebook’s Vice President of Public Policy and Joel Kaplan, another executive there, met with the Israeli government and reportedly with the Palestinian authorities as well. Are you aware of those meetings or what outcomes might have come out of them? Was there any local reporting on it?

Fadi Quran:

Yeah. There were some local reporting on it and it seemed Facebook mostly repeated its kind of tried-and-tested promises of saying sorry for any mistakes that we committed, we’re doing our best, this is how our moderation policies work. There was no kind of significant outcomes I would say from the meetings on the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side, I have less clarity on that front, but what I would like to point out here is that the problems are continuing. So yes, the media wave has disappeared in the U S particularly, but the type of violations happening on the ground here, including by Facebook.

Just two days ago, a Palestinian politician’s account was removed off of Facebook and a well-respected Palestinian news source- it’s called The Quds News Network- on Instagram was taken down. And it was reinstated after a Palestinian civil society complaint that went to Facebook. But what that showed us was that the same underlying dynamics that led to the… it’s gone beyond censorship, honestly, to becoming digital oppression of this content have not changed. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s important also, like Facebook has some very important decisions that should be coming up, right? So decisions on the term Zionism or Zionists specifically- and how the platform moderates content around that? And this is a very complicated issue, right? Someone in the US can use the term Zionist, for example, to push anti-semitic slurs on one hand. But in Palestine, when I say something like ‘the Zionist forces have stolen the water resources from my home,’ and that’s the truth. Like that’s literally what’s happening. There’s a settlement next to me. They claimed this and they’re taking water and shooting at us.

And so you can see how if The Proud Boys post something about Zionists, it could be anti-semitism. For Palestinian to post exact same content in Arabic, speaking about their daily experience, it’s not anti-semitism, it’s life experience. How’s Facebook going to deal with this? And this is an issue that is kind of on their agenda right now. And the same thing with other terms. 

Where I’m going with this conversation though is the bigger picture, which is in the US, people, when they talk about Palestine-Israel for many, it’s seen as a topic that’s maybe complicated or something that they don’t want to touch, but the kind of discussion around the two rights and the types of decisions Facebook is making here, how it impacts information ecosystem equally apply to things related to, for example, African-American and white relations in the US apply to Muslims in India and other minorities in India and the Modi government, apply to dozens of contexts around the world that in the end, this company is literally defining the political discourse and how loud the political discourse is in one direction or another based on arbitrary measures as they currently stand. And no matter how much Facebook claims to be professional about it, what we saw in the last conflict is that they’re still far from doing a good job at dealing with the situation.

Justin Hendrix:

In a recent congressional testimony, a Facebook executive admitted as much that when it uses these break the glass measures, as it’s referred to it in the United States, that typically what happens is unanticipated or unintended censorship, or the effort that restricts free expression. So to some extent, the company is aware that when it goes into overdrive from its perspective, attempting to enforce its terms of service against violent content or other infractions against its rules, that typically what happens is that things get taken down that shouldn’t. What do you think it should do? I mean what would you have Facebook do in this situation, or Twitter or YouTube for that matter or TikToK, which played a significant role in this last month?

Fadi Quran:

I think the first step that I would do for all these companies and it’s more urgent now than ever is conduct an independent human rights audit on how the platform engages with key priority conflict zones across the world and hot zones across the world, but then do it expansively. I would put a significant amount of resources in doing that because without having an independent, deep audit done by professionals, by experts outside the company with full transparency and access to how the algorithms function, we will not know. And this is from conversations I’ve had with individuals at Facebook and Twitter and YouTube- they say the right things. They’re intelligent people, but oftentimes when you get to the crux of the matter, they do not understand how their platforms are engaging and harming and playing with public discourse at this moment. So I would start with that step.

The second step after the audit would be hiring a specific broader teams that can execute on the recommendations. But last but not least, I would say that these platforms should not have this amount of power on discourse and the political narrative, whether that’s in the US or whether that’s in the Middle East. And so I think regulation is key. And fortunately the EU is now moving on some smart regulation in this direction. I hope the US can move as well. The investigation of the insurrection, I think, can open a door and getting traction on that direction and figuring out what regulation is needed to protect individuals around the world.

Justin Hendrix:

You and I have written together on the importance of the January 6th investigation. Maybe just explain it a little bit more about why you see such a parallel between what your concerns are there in the West Bank and your concerns about January 6th. Why is that a parallel in your mind?

Fadi Quran:

Here are at the core, what these platforms allow for and what they weaponize towards is extremists and politicians with significant financial resources who are populist, whether that’s Netanyahu or Trump or the far-right. These platforms create the fertile soil and the networking paths for these actors to move society towards violence and particularly violence targeting the most vulnerable communities in our societies. So the Proud Boys, the way they organized on social media and for about a year- I was monitoring these actors with our team at Avaaz ahead of the US selections. The way they were functioning and acting online is almost an exact replica of the way the Israeli far-right and other extremist actors here were functioning online during this escalation and before then. 

Same type of posting tactics, same types of memes, same types of language around dehumanization and so forth. And where I see the parallels here is that these platforms are an infrastructure for radicalization and democratic destruction, that’s, that’s how they function today. And if we don’t fix that quickly, we will keep going in that downward spiral towards this kind of democratic failure and towards these systems of segregation and apartheid and oppression that are starting to take hold in some places around the world. If you look at Brazil today, if you look at India, if you look at Israel, if you look bunch of different nations, you see how social media is playing a role in the consolidation. 

And the last thing I will add is- this is so crucial because we’re speaking here to mostly American audience in the US- during these elections, the amount of resources that civil society, that brave journalists, and academics like yourself and others put to defend the US election from these threats of disinformation, there were huge resources. I’d say tens of thousands of people were fighting this battle. These resources don’t exist in Palestine where I am now. There’s no New York Times journalist focused on disinformation be 24/7, find to fight this information here at the same way there wasn’t the US. There are no journalists here doing that. Civil society organizations, there are very few functioning here. So even if in the US, through the civil society efforts and also through other kinds of government efforts and so forth, we managed to avoid the worst- even though the insurrection was bad- avoid something worse than the insurrection by pushing back, other places around the world just don’t have those resources. And that’s why I think even though there are similarities, the US is actually well ahead of other countries in terms of how to deal with tech platforms, at least in terms of civil society and kind of figuring out and learning from the insurrection and figuring out solutions to the problems within tech platforms in the US will help us solve these problems elsewhere.

Justin Hendrix:

Fadi, thank you so much.

Fadi Quran:

No. Thank you, Justin. It’s a pleasure always.

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