Rights group accuses Facebook of suppressing Palestinians’ posts

Human Rights Watch says social media giant unfairly removed content critical of Israel during May war with Gaza and has not fixed issue, despite restoring posts

People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)
People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)

Facebook and its Instagram platform have wrongfully removed and suppressed content by Palestinians, including about alleged abuses during Israeli-Palestinian violence this year, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

The accusation adds to pressure on the world’s largest social network after a whistleblower told US lawmakers on Tuesday that the company needs to be regulated.

Palestinians had complained publicly about alleged censorship of social networks in May, when unrest in Jerusalem escalated into a deadly military confrontation between Hamas and other terror groups firing rockets from Gaza, and Israel which launched airstrikes.

“Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine,” Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that called the action “censorship.”

The US-based watchdog urged Facebook to commission an “independent investigation into content moderation regarding Israel and Palestine, particularly in relation to any bias or discrimination in its policies, enforcement, or systems.”

HRW cited three examples in which Instagram removed posts for containing “hate speech or symbols,” yet the posts were later reinstated after complaints.

This “suggests that Instagram’s detection or reporting mechanisms are flawed,” the watchdog said.

It said one of the deleted posts featured a photograph of a building with the caption: “This is a photo of my family’s building before it was struck by Israeli missiles on Saturday May 15, 2021. We have three apartments in this building.”

In addition, digital rights monitors reported hundreds of deleted posts, suspended accounts and other restrictions.

“Human Rights Watch reviewed screenshots from people who were sharing content about the escalating violence and who reported restrictions on their accounts, including not being able to post content, live-stream videos on Instagram, post videos on Facebook, or even like a post,” the watchdog said.

“The range and volume of restrictions reported warrant an independent investigation.”

In May, Instagram blamed a “technical bug which impacted millions of people’s stories, highlights and archives globally,” including Palestinians who saw their content “disappear.”

A spokesperson for Facebook said at the time that the Arabic hash-tag Al-Aqsa was “mistakenly restricted” in an action that had since been “lifted.”

Facebook apologized “for both issues, and to all those, including our Palestinian community, who felt like their ability to have an open discussion around important matters was affected in any way,” the spokesperson said.

An Instagram meme that was reportedly shared by model Bella Hadid to her 42 million Instragram followers (Screenshot)

HRW, however, says Facebook has not meaningfully addressed issues it raised.

“Instead of respecting people’s right to speak out, Facebook is silencing many people arbitrarily and without explanation, replicating online some of the same power imbalances and rights abuses we see on the ground,” Brown said.

Pressure to tighten regulation on social media platforms has mounted with the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who said it fuels division and harms children.

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