Advocates for Sheikh Jarrah ‘censored’ on social media

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AMMAN — An Israeli police officer with his knee on a Palestinian protester’s face; a video of stun grenades blasting inside Al-Aqsa Mosque as protesters scatter; an Israeli settler with a machine gun. In the past week, social media platforms have been flooded with scenes of violence and protest in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah over the pending evictions of Palestinian families from their homes. اضافة اعلان

But many users have reported that their posts about Sheikh Jarrah have been taken down in what amounts to censorship by social media platforms.

“This is clearly a systematic crackdown and censorship of Palestinian content,” said Dima Samaro, a lawyer and digital rights expert and activist, in an interview with Jordan News.

One Palestinian-Jordanian living abroad, for instance, posted several infographics related to Sheikh Jarrah to his Instagram story on Friday night. But eleven hours later, they disappeared, he said in a message to Jordan News.

AccessNow, an international NGO working to defend digital rights and protect online freedom of expression, alongside 7amleh, a Palestine-based organization advocating for digital rights, and a variety of other organizations released a statement on Friday stating that both Facebook and Twitter are “systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem.” AccessNow claimed that hundreds of posts documenting the use of violence by Israeli police and settlers against Palestinian activists protesting the imminent threat of eviction have been taken down on the platforms.

According to Samaro, this kind of censorship is not uncommon. “This is not the first incident,” the activist said in an interview with Jordan News. “There have been many other incidents, not only in Palestine, but across the region, where it seems there is a certain bias against the Arabic content. Facebook, for example, does not have content moderators in Arabic who can also understand the context”, leading to the removal of content that does not violate Facebook’s policies.

Likewise, Raya Sharbain, program coordinator at the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA), told Jordan News that even before protests erupted in Sheikh Jarrah, “pages that talk about the Palestinian cause, that try to show the police violence or even settler violence, get removed very quickly.” In other instances, she said that while the content was not deleted, the posts received unusually low engagement, indicating that the platform altered the post’s visibility.

For Sharbain, the censorship of content related to Sheikh Jarrah exemplifies an ongoing form of discrimination against Palestinian activists. “When Sheikh Jarrah happened, (censorship) was almost immediate,” she said. “I’m very glad that it happened because it just proved the point, what everyone has been saying for years: that Palestinian voices are continually erased on social media.”

She pointed out that social media is a vital tool for human rights advocates in the Arab region and beyond. “Social media, it’s not specific to only the Palestinian diaspora,” she said, linking the posts documenting violence against Palestinians to posts documenting police brutality against Black people in the United States, particularly George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer.

“If it wasn’t for that specific video of George Floyd being killed by the policeman, the whole uproar that happened and even the trial against the policeman wouldn’t have happened,” Sharbain said.

“In the Arab world we don’t have any other form of expression or media expression,” Sharbain said. “These policies affect us a lot.”

Samaro linked the usage of social media by advocates for Palestinian human rights, those both from Palestine and from across the world, to the usage of social media during the 2011 Arab Spring. Social media platforms weren’t “created for people to organize themselves and mobilize. But this is how people in the region, and especially countries where the Arab Spring happened, Tunisia, Egypt, even in Palestine” utilized them, the attorney explained.

But activists now face the double burden of censorship from their governments and the social media platforms they once used to advocate. “There is no way left for you to express your opinion,” said Samaro. “I think this is clearly discrimination and a way to silence them.”

Both Samaro and Sharbain noted that the Arabic Instagram hashtag for Al-Aqsa was restricted, just as on Friday night Israeli police entered Al-Aqsa Mosque and fired rubber bullets and stun grenades at Palestinian protesters, according to Reuters.

One concern for activists is transparency. Most users whose content about Sheikh Jarrah was removed received no information about why it was removed. “As a starting point, they have to be transparent about when they take the content down,” said Samaro. She called for platforms to publish “transparency reports about the number of accounts taken down, the reasons why.”

Instagram acknowledged some issues with the Stories function, which allows users to post an image that is only available for 24 hours. In a tweet, Instagram’s communications team wrote that, “this is a widespread global technical issue not related to any particular topic and we’re fixing it right now.” Twitter did not comment.

Some efforts have been made by social media platforms to produce standards in line with international human rights guidelines and prevent censorship: Sharbain, for instance, highlighted Facebook’s much-discussed Facebook Oversight Board which will make content moderation decisions.

“Facebook has locked users in their products, and there’s no other medium to effectively share what’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah and reach a wide audience,” said Sharbain.

“We have to get our rights back,” Samaro added. “I think social media is the only way or platform left to us so we can continue our battle in getting back our freedoms.”

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