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A Palestinian man protests against Facebook censorship on September 29, 2016 in Gaza City, Palestine. (Photo: Mohammed Talatene/Andalou Agency via Getty Images)

A Palestinian man protests against Facebook censorship on September 29, 2016 in Gaza City, Palestine. (Photo: Mohammed Talatene/Andalou Agency via Getty Images)

47 Advocacy Groups Urge Facebook to Explain, Cease Censorship of Israel Critics

The groups called on the social media giant to "repair this mistrust with our communities and ensure that we can count on Facebook and Instagram as free civic spaces and tools for holding governments accountable."

Brett Wilkins

Citing the need for "urgent action" by Facebook to explain and stop "blatant censorship of Palestinian political content" on the world's largest social media site, 47 advocacy groups on Wednesday sent a letter to company chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg urging her to take a series of "crucial steps" to "repair mistrust" in the platform. 

 "The fact that since May 6 there has been widespread removal of Palestinians' content... indicates that Facebook is perhaps voluntarily agreeing to takedowns recommended by the Israeli cyber unit."
—groups' letter 

"At this moment, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are often Palestinian protestors' and residents' only tools to share information to keep each other safe in the face of repression by the Israeli government and police, and during attacks on civilians," the letter states.

"These platforms also play a key role [for] Palestinian users and their allies in documenting Israeli government human rights violations, and sharing the images, videos, and accounts of the murder and violent dispossession of Palestinians being perpetrated by the Israeli government and Zionist Israeli settlers," the letter says.

It further states that "as Palestinian residents defend their homes in Jerusalem from forced dispossession by the Israeli government and state-sanctioned Zionist settler groups, their calls for support have received widespread international attention—inspiring social media campaigns and mass protests around the world." 

The letter continues:

Facebook executives' decision at this moment to directly collaborate with Israeli Defense and Justice Minister Gantz on content moderation, without appropriate parity of government engagement until prompted by civil society, is beyond outrageous. Facebook may need to consult governments on various content and policy issues in its work; however, to coordinate with the Israeli government—which the United Nations and multiple human rights organizations have called an apartheid state—publicly in the middle of a military assault on Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, attacks on Palestinian citizens in Israel, and forcible displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is dangerous overreach at best.

In addition, the numerous reports of removal or chilling of political speech that several of our organizations have received over the past two weeks, combined with the report released by [the Palestinian social media advocacy group] 7amleh last week that includes 429 reported incidents from Instagram and Facebook, raise concerns about Facebook's relationship with the Israeli Ministry of Justice's extra-legal cyber unit. The fact that since May 6 there has been widespread removal of Palestinians' content... indicates that Facebook is perhaps voluntarily agreeing to takedowns recommended by the Israeli cyber unit. This unclear relationship between Facebook and the Israeli cyber unit is concerning, as it is not subject to any formal governmental or legal process.

The letter urges Facebook to "take the following urgent and crucial steps to repair this mistrust with our communities and ensure that we can count on Facebook and Instagram as free civic spaces and tools for holding governments accountable":

  • Uphold your own commitment to respect human rights and "to be a place for equality, safety, dignity, and free speech" as set in your corporate human rights policy, engage with human rights organizations and civil society groups to immediately address the concerns we have raised, and stop censoring Palestinians on your platforms.
  • Provide transparency on how Facebook is applying content policies, such as those around hate speech and incitement of violence, as it relates to the following ethnic and religious identities and political ideologies: Palestinians, Jews, Israelis, and Zionists.
  • Evaluate Facebook's relationship with the Israeli government across ministries and sever ties with Israel's cyber unit, which may be directing the takedown of content that does not violate any community standards and, therefore, may be leading to the censorship or chilling of political speech.
  • Preserve and share all data on content removals. This includes, but is not limited to, information about which takedowns did not receive human review, whether users tried to appeal the takedown, and reported incidents from Facebook and Instagram users that were not acted upon.
  • Allow independent researchers and stakeholders to review blocked or removed content and all data related to such content removals, subject to data protection and privacy requirements. 

Nadim Nashif, the executive director of 7amleh, one of the letter's signers, told The Guardian that "this censorship has been happening before this most recent crisis, and will continue to happen. We are asking for more transparency in content moderation."

Alia Taqieddin, whose event on Facebook promoting a Palestine solidarity rally in her hometown of Seattle was removed without warning or explanation last week, added that "it feels very obvious that there is targeted censorship of Palestinian voices and experiences."

"It is especially frustrating because Instagram and Twitter are serving as the main platforms where Palestinians experiencing violence in Palestine are sharing what is happening on the ground."
—Alia Taqieddin, activist

"It is especially frustrating because Instagram and Twitter are serving as the main platforms where Palestinians experiencing violence in Palestine are sharing what is happening on the ground," she said. "It makes me very concerned how we will get accurate, firsthand information in a crisis."

The groups' letter comes a week after Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—the first Palestinian woman elected to U.S. Congress—sent a letter (pdf) to leaders of Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok asking them to explain their companies' policies regarding the censorship of content critical of Israel, and to stop such actions. 

"With reporting in the mainstream media often ignoring and silencing Palestinian voices, social media has become a crucial source for information, pictures, and videos documenting the injustices that Palestinians face," Tlaib wrote.

"Social media accounts have been some of the only places for Americans to access first-hand accounts of the occupation and violence from Palestinians on the ground," Tlaib continued. "That is why these reports are particularly troubling—Palestinians often have nowhere else to turn to make their voices heard other than social media."

"I cannot understand how Facebook can justify censoring peaceful Palestinian voices while providing an organizing platform for extremist hate," she added. 


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