Mazen Rashad was surprised that he was banned from posting any content on his personal account on the social media platform Facebook after he published some posts in which he expressed his sympathy for the victims of the Israeli war on the Palestinian Gaza Strip. He says in his interview with “Khuyut” that Facebook removed his first post, which contained an image of the Palestinian flag accompanied by prayers for the victims of the war in Gaza, and he was surprised by this act, especially since he did not post any violent content or call for hate speech.
With the acceleration of events and the increase in the frequency of violence and war against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the previous days, Rashad was trying to publish some of the war events on his page, but the platform was deleting some posts and blocking others from reaching users. Days later, his account was restricted for a full month, and he was warned to permanently delete his page if he did not stop publishing content that Facebook said violates publishing standards.
In fact, users of social media sites—those who publish in Arabic—suffer from extensive censorship and great and frequent harassment by the social media platforms, especially the Facebook and Instagram platforms of the American company “Meta”, which are the largest and most extreme platforms in dealing with users, not only Yemenis but Arabs and everyone who has a different opinion about the Israeli war on Gaza and the wide American and Western support for it, in addition to what they publish, especially with regard to their opinions and views towards the Palestinian cause. The issue does not stop at personal accounts only; the same thing is practiced on the accounts of the media and civil and international organizations in many cases.
“Any content that is exposed to a large campaign of reports on the "Meta" platforms is removed, but the strange thing is that the Palestinian content is removed just because there are reports, albeit a few.”
Systematic Blocking and Disinformation and Strict Algorithms
On October 13, "Meta" said in a statement published on its official website that it had outlined a series of measures it had put in place to manage the harmful content on its platforms during the ongoing Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip following the attacks carried out by Hamas on the seventh of the same month.
The strange thing is that the statement gave a false picture of reality by stripping the October 7 attacks out of their general context, describing them as “shocking” and “terrifying” acts of terrorism, in line with blatant bias, misinformation, and inaccurate exaggerations that devoid of ethics and professional values used and standardized in Western media coverage of events in Israel and Palestine. Meta, in its statement, relied on explicit rhetoric in its bias against the Palestinians, as it refers to the events of October 7 as “the brutal terrorist attacks launched by Hamas,” while it uses euphemistic and measured expressions in its speech about “Israel’s reaction to Gaza.”
In this context, Majed Abu Salama, an engineer specialized in information security management, explains to "Khuyut" that "Meta" relies on more than one means in order to combat or delete Palestinian content on its platforms; the most famous of which is its reliance on the platforms' algorithm that works automatically, where specialists insert many keywords and samples of some images or videos into the system, which in turn deletes and blocks any content similar to them. In addition to that, there is a new mechanism that Meta platforms are working on that blocks the visibility of content to members. This measure is recent and only specific to content that is against the Israeli occupation and sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Further, Meta also confirmed that it has removed more than 795,000 content items, which it considers annoying and violate the platform's posting policy during the first three days of the war alone. The statement pointed out that during those three days, seven times more content items were removed per day because of violating the policy of dangerous organizations and individuals in Hebrew and Arabic only. However, reality indicates that the content in Hebrew is not removed to that extent.
Actually, Meta relies on user reports to remove content on its platforms. In this regard, Abu Salama points out that any content that is exposed to a large campaign of reports on the Meta platforms is removed, but the strange thing is that Palestinian content is removed just because there are reports, albeit a few. Abu Salama confirms that there is a large electronic army affiliated with the Israeli cyber unit, which carefully monitors the published Arabic content and handles the processes of reporting it as violent content or incitement to violence, and thus the content is removed on this basis.
Censorship Accompanied by Violations
Meta has a proven track record of suppressing Arabic content, particularly related to the Palestinian cause. Since 2016, it has been implementing a strict publishing policy towards content published in Arabic after concluding an agreement with the Israeli occupation authorities under the pretext of removing hate speech or confronting anti-Semitism, which reached its peak after the events of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in 2021. This led several organizations to protest against these practices and call on them to conduct an independent audit of the way they manage content.
“Israel established the Cyber Unit, a special unit dedicated to monitoring content published on the Internet and combating anti-Israeli content. The following year, it signed a partnership with “Meta” in order to combat what it called anti-Semitic speech, which Israel exploited in order to fight Palestinian content within “Meta” platforms and pressure Meta to remove it.”
Later in 2022, the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) network published a report containing the United Nations Guiding Principles and Recommendations on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). These recommendations addressed several problems related to Meta's controversial and criticized performance in 2021, from the implementation of its policy regarding dangerous organizations and individuals (DOI list) to the language restrictions it imposed in light of this turbulent situation. The network published its recommendations to Meta exactly one year ago, but Meta did not commit to anything, and those recommendations have not been implemented yet.
Additionally, Meta also owns one of the company's largest branches in Israel, whereas it has had a close relationship with the Israeli government for years, in addition to the appointment of a former female employee of the Israeli Ministry of Justice to the Meta Supervisory Board.
In 2015, Israel established the Cyber Unit, a special unit dedicated to monitoring content published on the Internet and combating anti-Israeli content. The following year, it signed a partnership with “Meta” in order to combat what it called anti-Semitic speech, which Israel exploited in order to fight Palestinian content within “Meta” platforms and pressure Meta to remove it
Incursion and Feasibility of Circumvention Methods
In this context, an investigative report published by the Al Jazeera channel showed the extent of censorship imposed by Meta on its platforms on users who publish in Arabic. The report's author had created two pages on Facebook, one in Arabic and the other in Hebrew, that publish the same events but each from a different perspective. As a result, Meta closed the Arabic page despite its compliance with Meta's publishing rules, and no action was taken for the Hebrew page, despite the investigation team's deliberate dissemination of misleading news and violent and hate speech against Palestinians, according to the investigation.
The investigation revealed the incursion of Israeli individuals within Meta’s management and in sensitive positions that control the company’s management, in addition to the company’s relationship with the Israeli cyber unit, which sends a set of content published on its platforms by certain individuals or entities that are monitored, and Meta removes that content immediately, and this has been done for years.
Accordingly, users resort to using a language other than Arabic or writing in crosswords and symbols in order to avoid removing content on Meta platforms; however, this is sometimes not successful; if it is not removed, it may be blocked from others.