New platform to document digital censorship of Palestinians | Israeli-Palestinian conflict News

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – A new open source online platform has been launched to centralize digital rights violations and censorship by social media companies against Palestinians and Palestinian-related content.

At a press conference in Ramallah on Monday, the Arab Center for Social Media Development (7amleh), which built the website, said the tool will allow more detailed and effective documentation of violations, and that rights groups will better follow up with relevant social networks. media companies on posts, pages or accounts that have been honored.

The group highlighted the relevance of such a tool in light of the recent mass censorship in May of Palestinian-related content during the digital mobilization on the Israeli war on Gaza and the attempts at ethnic cleansing in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem.

Entitled Palestinian Observatory for Digital Rights Violations (7or, or “free” in Arabic), the website provides users with the ability to report various actions taken against them on their posts, including account suspension and removal. contents. It also includes a searchable database of years of violations recorded by 7amleh and other local groups.

7amleh said the platform will “fill a void” faced by local institutions consisting of access to “a practical, detailed and organized database of digital rights violations against Palestinians.”

Ahmed al-Qadi, the monitoring and documentation coordinator for 7amleh, said it will be the first tool, both in Palestine and at the regional level, “to provide real-time data” on digital abuse against the Palestinians.

“This type of report and documentation does not currently exist. There is no systematic [Palestinian] are working to take on these big companies, and there aren’t many organizations working on digital rights in the country, “al-Qadi said, adding that 7amleh, along with other rights groups,” was trying to create a consortium to be able to lobby by whatever means available – to lobby, to carry out advocacy and to embarrass these companies.

“The more reports and real data we get, the more we are able to pressure these companies so that they no longer have the opportunity to deny that they are committing these violations,” he continued.

Palestinian university students attend press conference claiming their content was censored in May [Hisham Daraghmeh/Al Jazeera]

May events

Social media giant Facebook was criticized by users in May after their Palestinian-related content, including on Instagram it owns, was removed without notice or reason, while accounts were suspended or closed. Others, including influencers, reported a significant drop in the number of views on stories, or participants on lives, when posting content about Palestine or using viral hashtags such as #SaveSheikhJarrah.

In a recent report, 7amleh said between May 6 and May 19, it recorded more than 500 Palestinian digital rights abuse reports that “showed a significant increase in censorship of Palestinian political speech and online narrative” with about 50 percent complaints against Instagram, 35% against Facebook and 11% against Twitter.

Speaking to the panel on Monday, Mahmoud Alafranji, the coordinator of the Council of Palestinian Human Rights Organizations (PHROC), said that the popular explosion in May “showed how much Palestinian content, and the whole narrative, are targeted, “and such a platform is needed to help protect Palestinian freedom of expression, as well as international advocacy and mobilization.

Al-Qadi said the figures currently reported, however, “do not represent the reality” where violations are much higher against accounts inside and outside Palestine.

“This is also a key goal in creating the platform – we want to strengthen and encourage the culture of reporting violations because most people don’t report,” he said.

In June, nearly 200 Facebook employees signed an open letter urging company executives to address concerns that Palestinian and supporting voices are being suppressed.

“Our users and the community at large feel that we are not keeping our promise to protect open expression around the situation in Palestine,” the letter read.

The leak of internal company documents reported by broadcaster ABC News on Friday showed several Facebook employees raised concerns over restrictions on Instagram posts by Palestinian users in May, including stories from the Palestinian activist. Mohammed El-Kurd of Sheikh Jarrah.

“Can we investigate why publications and stories about Palestine have recently had limited reach and engagement, especially as more people than ever around the world are watching the situation unfold? an employee would have written.

Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri said in a statement to ABC News: “We are sorry to anyone who felt they could not draw attention to important events.” The company also cited a technical issue on Instagram in May.

In September, Facebook’s Supervisory Board called for an independent investigation into the censorship of Palestinian content. Last month, the company said it would allow someone to conduct “human rights due diligence of the impacts of Facebook during the May-June escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine.”

Years of censorship

Palestinian rights groups, which have engaged social media companies in recent years over censorship, say they have noticed a systematic silence in Palestinian content since 2015, and in particular after meetings between the Israeli minister of the justice of the Ayelet Shaked era and the administration of Facebook. .

The main reason given is pressure from the Israeli government – especially the Israel Cyber ​​Unit – as well as Facebook’s internal policies, including artificial intelligence tools that automatically delete content based on keywords.

After meetings in 2016, Shaked said Facebook, Google and YouTube complied with 95% of Israeli requests to remove content inciting Palestinian violence. A 2018 report from the Israel State Attorney’s Office found similar rates.

“In 2016, we noticed the closure of 200 Palestinian accounts and we started documenting digital abuse since then,” Iyad Rifai, director of digital rights group Sada Social, told Al Jazeera.

Human Rights Watch said the Israeli Cyber ​​Unit “reports and submits requests to social media companies to ‘willfully’ remove content. Instead of going through the legal process of filing a court order based on Israeli criminal law to remove online content, the Cyber ​​Unit directly appeals to platforms based on their own terms of service.

The group noted that it was not aware that Facebook has ever disputed the claims of approval of content removal requests by the Israeli government.

The company’s supervisory board also asked Facebook if it received any official or unofficial requests from the government in April and May; the company responded on a specific case but did not comment on the requests as a whole.

“Very strong communication”

Nashif, the director of 7amleh, told the press conference that they believed there was “clear cooperation and understanding” between Facebook and the Israeli government.

“Facebook is a giant company – it has connections with the Israeli market, it has technological connections with the Israeli market, as well as political connections. We are talking about a company that has two large buildings – one in Tel Aviv and one in Ramat Gan – so it is clear that there is very strong communication.

Nashif noted that while the events of May put pressure on Facebook “where they tried to balance things out,” he said, “there is a huge power imbalance – the reality on the ground is shifting. reflected on these platforms ”.

Rifai, of Sada Social, said the targeting of Palestinian content was “systematic and not random or a technical problem,” adding that they had documented 700 violations in May alone.

“Just mentioning Palestine or talking about the events that were unfolding was enough to bring down the number of users, including influencers,” he said.

Facebook officials have told several rights groups in letters and in meetings that they are following “applicable US law, including the list of foreign terrorist organizations.” The list classifies a number of Palestinian political parties, including the Hamas movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as “terrorist groups,” which local rights organizations say are used as a base. to unfairly and automatically remove content.

Rifai said that such broad policies allow Facebook and other companies “not only to restrict what we can and cannot write,” but “they fit into the structures of Palestinian discourse, deciding who we can and cannot call a martyr ”.

Tala Ghannam, a 22-year-old student at Birzeit University, told Al Jazeera that her content has been repeatedly censored by Facebook.

“On Facebook, I was getting notifications about posts from eight or 10 years ago – which I used a certain word – and on that basis the post would be removed,” Ghannam said, explaining that the posts would include words such as “resistance”. or “martyr”, or the “names of certain Palestinian martyrs”.

“In May, I noticed that the targeting was very intentional. There would be a difference in my scope from one story to another because one of them was about Palestine, ”she continued.

“It’s very clear and intentional, and it had a great negative impact on us, on our message, on us as Palestinians.

“They are waging war on us over our freedom to express ourselves. “

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