Pro-Palestine activists fight the algorithm

phone social media
Social media users say they have begun noticing that their posts on Palestine have been receiving less reach, and they suspect social media companies are to blame (Photo: Unsplash)
AMMAN — Jouman Barakat, a woman living in Amman, was used to getting 20,000 views on her Instagram story. But when the influencer started posting content in support of Palestine, she noticed that her views dropped to only 4,000, a fifth of what she had before.اضافة اعلان

Hoping to increase viewership, Barakat, (who has 60,000 followers on Instagram and 100,000 on TikTok), initiated a new strategy: censoring her words, writing “P.lestine” instead of “Palestine” or “Isr@el” instead of “Israel” for instance. Soon her views shot back up to 16,000.

“It was truly appalling to see how easy it was for organizations like Facebook and Instagram to censor Palestinians all over the world,” she said in a message to Jordan News.

Several Jordanian social media users similarly told Jordan News about having their viewership drop after posting pro-Palestine content. One said that her views occasionally dropped to just 20 when she posted Palestinian content; another said that his viewership had dropped by three quarters.

Across social media, posts have circulated advising activists on how to best use their platforms to avoid censorship. A creative consultancy based in Amman called Loop, for example, posted a list of tips on Instagram titled “How to Stop Getting Censored on Social.”

The list includes asking followers to interact with your posts, using alternative spellings, and taking breaks from the content facing censorship (like interspersing screenshots of casualties in Gaza with cat photos, as some creative users have done).

The censorship these users describe is less direct than a post simply being removed or an account banned: instead, they are “shadowbanned.” Shadowbanning describes “either your account being suspended or features restricted, or engagement tampered with, without receiving a notification about it,” according to Raya Sharbain, program coordinator at the Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA). So while the user is able to post normally, their pro-Palestine posts might be hidden from other users’ feeds, she told Jordan News.

The reason Instagram or Facebook might shadowban a user instead of just banning them is simple, according to Dima Samaro, a lawyer and digital rights expert and activist. “When these platforms keep banning all the content and users that violate their community standards, this is harmful for their business model,” she told Jordan News during an interview, explaining that social media companies rely on high numbers of users and level of engagement to sell ads.

“Shadowbanning is a kind of leeway for them to escape any accountability or criticism from organizations and activists from different stakeholders and actors,” she added.

Shahed Jallad, a choreographer, dancer, and Palestinian social media activist living in Amman, told Jordan News that she had never heard of shadowbanning until she saw friends posting tips on how to trick Instagram’s content moderation algorithms.

She noticed that when she posted heavily about Palestine, views on her Instagram story, where she has over 2,000 followers, dropped from 800-1,000 to only 200.

“I haven’t seen this strategy used before,” said Samaro. “This is the first time.”

Jallad pointed out that the domination of Facebook and Instagram makes it impossible to avoid them despite their censorship. “Boycotting Instagram and Facebook would backfire because we are getting 99 percent of the news through those platforms unfortunately,” she said. “They are giving us the chance to stay informed and watch actual footage of or taken by people in Palestine.”

“So we had to find ways to take advantage (of the fact) that for once Palestine’s reality and truth can be seen by the whole world.”

Sharbain explained that the content moderation policies at social media platforms are an opaque “black box.” There is no way to know which posts come first in your Instagram feed, for instance. Sharbain said that social media platforms use a combination of machine moderation which processes posts automatically and human content moderation. “So it’s not always the algorithm, it’s a mix of everything,” she said.

According to Sharbain, it is not unusual for governments to request social media content be censored or shadowbanned. In 2020, 7amleh, a Haifa-based organization advocating for digital rights, found that Facebook complied with 81 percent of the Israeli government’s requests to remove content, including content related to Palestine.

Both Barakat and Sharbain brought up recent meetings between the Israeli government and the leadership at Facebook, Twitter, and Tiktok. “Lobbyists and executives from these social media platforms prioritized meeting with (officials) to address the situation and delayed meeting with Palestinian authorities for a week,” said Barakat.

“What else do we expect from platforms like these when the people who head them cannot be trusted?”

There are other links between content moderation and the Israeli government; Samaro told Jordan News that Emi Palmor, one member of Facebook’s Oversight Board, oft-called the company’s “Supreme Court”, used to lead Israel’s cyber unit.

“Shadowbanning” is just one of a toolbox of methods used to censor pro-Palestinian social media content. Recently, the Intercept leaked a secret Facebook policy for moderating the term “Zionist.” While the policy was originally designed to censor only speech that used anti-Zionism as a proxy for anti-Semitism, according to Sharbain, in reality it was used to suppress any criticism of Israel and documentation of Israeli aggression towards Palestinians.

“This is a social media war. Israel is being exposed worldwide for the atrocious crimes it’s doing against Palestinians and humanity. The truth is finally coming out and it is all thanks to the power that the camera and social media equally hold,” said Barakat, the influencer and activist.

Social media platforms “must be held accountable,” said Sharbain. “This is a fight for liberation that’s being tampered with. When you’re talking about a population mostly in the diaspora, they rely on specifically these channels to express what they’re going through.”

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