The Meta-Israel nexus: Silencing Palestinian voices in the digital landscape

Meta is complicit in the oppression, and now plausible genocide, of the Palestinian people. Even casual observers have likely noticed how, since the commencement of the latest war on Gaza, Meta has actively silenced and censored Palestinian voices and narratives. Social media users have witnessed prominent accounts being taken down simply for sharing information about the horrendous situation in Gaza. The Wall Street Journal reported on leaked internal documents outlining Meta’s policies to suppress Palestinian speech, while The Guardian highlighted how AI-driven dehumanisation on Meta’s platforms has fuelled anti-Palestinian racism.

Meta’s response to the war on Gaza and the ongoing genocidal campaign has been extremely poor. In October 2023, 7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media documented the highest level of digital rights violations against Palestinians ever recorded up to that point. Independent Palestinian journalism outlets were deplatformed, and disinformation campaigns aimed at justifying the collective punishment of all Palestinians spread widely across Meta’s platforms.

With over 30,000 Palestinians killed, much of Gaza’s infrastructure destroyed, and the threat of widespread famine looming, Meta’s platforms played a role in creating the digital space that led to this real-world catastrophe. By suppressing content of on-the-ground documentation of rights violations while simultaneously taking insufficient action against the spread of disinformation and incitement to violence against Palestinians, Meta participated, inadvertently or otherwise, in attempts to conceal crimes against humanity and pacify global outrage. However, this disastrous response by Meta is not an isolated incident; it’s part of a decade-plus history that created the conditions for such actions.

To understand this history, 2015 is a crucial year to examine. That year, 20,000 Israeli citizens sued what was then called Facebook for USD1 billion, claiming that Meta was “facilitating and encouraging” Palestinian terrorists. Within a year, the case was dropped, and Israel established a new policing unit to combat “online terrorism”, and Israel officials agreed to partner with Facebook to fight online incitement.

The Israeli government’s constitution of its Cyber Unit marked a new chapter in Israeli/Meta cooperation. Framed as a means to police extremist content online, the unit’s actual implications were to suppress Palestinian speech. Through this Cyber Unit, the state of Israel sends voluntary takedown request orders. Meta has no legal obligation to comply with such requests. However, the social media giant does oblige most of the time. In a report released by the Cyber Unit, by 2019, Meta had received nearly 20,000 requests from the Cyber Unit, and complied with 90% of the requests. Significantly, within mere weeks into October 2023, the Cyber Unit issued 2,150 requests, and Meta once again complied with 90%.

Israel’s special relationship with Meta extends beyond the Cyber Unit. Over the last decade, former high-level Israeli government officials have assumed positions of power within Meta. For instance, Meta’s director of public policy for Israel and the Jewish diaspora is a former advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, when Meta established its independent Oversight Board, a former head of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, who led the ministry during the creation of the Cyber Unit, was chosen to sit on the board.

Additionally, there have been coordinated efforts by Israeli citizens themselves to crack down on Palestinian speech. Organised through what Palestinian digital rights advocates have referred to as Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations, or GONGOs, these efforts, supported by the state, utilise networks of individual volunteers to flag content for takedown on Meta’s platforms, aiming to control what Palestinians can discuss on social media. One prominent example, the Act-IL Initiative claims to have over 26,000 activists from 73 countries working in favour of Israel.

These factors, among others, have led to severe silencing and censoring of Palestinian voices and narratives on Meta’s platforms. An independent human rights due diligence report, by the sustainable business organisation BSR, found bias against Palestinian content posted in Arabic during the May 2021 uprising, leading to its over-moderation, while there was likely under-moderation of Israeli content posted in Hebrew.

The context of May 2021, which prompted calls for an independent human rights due diligence review, witnessed the largest single sustained event of suppression of Palestinian speech online up to that point. However, the censorship following the war on Gaza and ongoing genocide has far surpassed the level seen in 2021. Mainstream media outlets have consistently shown extreme bias against the Palestinian cause for freedom and justice, leaving social media as one of the last avenues for Palestinians to share their experiences with the world.

The widespread censoring and silencing of Palestinians and their allies have only served to ensure that Palestinians suffer in obscurity, while the world is exposed to biased and “complicated” narratives by the mainstream media. The state of Israel is not the sole reason for higher levels of censorship against Palestinians, but it is a critical factor in understanding the larger picture.

 

Image: Snap Rally for Palestine: Stand with Jenin by Matt Hrkac via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED) 

Eric Sype is a community organiser and advocate for Palestinian human rights. He is 7amleh’s National Organiser in the United States and works to build a broad base of support for Palestinian digital rights there. 

 

Members involved: 
7amleh-The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement
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