Meta faces criticism for persistent censorship of Palestinian voices

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NEW YORK – On Wednesday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) shed light on Meta’s content moderation policies that have increasingly silenced voices in support of Palestine on Instagram and Facebook in the wake of the war on Gaza. The HRW reported this through its release of a 51-page analysis, “Meta’s Broken Promises: Systemic Censorship of Palestine Content on Instagram and Facebook.” اضافة اعلان

Within the past two months, the HRW documented over 1,050 post suspensions over Instagram and Facebook, as well as the suppression of other content supporting of Palestinian human rights and calling out the ongoing human rights violations. The findings show that over 60 countries face censorship of said content.

This stems from flawed Meta policies and their inconsistent implementation, overreliance on automated tools to moderate content, and undue government influence over content removals.

“Meta’s censorship of content in support of Palestine adds insult to injury at a time of unspeakable atrocities and repression already stifling Palestinians’ expression,” said Deborah Brown, a senior researcher on digital rights at the HRW. “Social media is an essential platform for people to bear witness and speak out against abuses while Meta’s censorship is furthering the erasure of Palestinians’ suffering.”

The HRW identified six key patterns of Meta’s censorship: the removal of posts, stories, and comments, suspension or permanent disabling of accounts, restrictions on the ability to engage with content such as liking, commenting, sharing, and reposting on stories, restrictions to follow or tag accounts, preventing the use of Instagram/Facebook Live and monetization features, and “shadow-banning” a term meaning a significant decrease in the visibility of an individual’s posts, stories, or account without notification due to a reduction in the distribution of content or disabling searches for accounts.

The silencing of pro-Palestinian content and accounts is justified by Meta’s algorithm as “a violation of Community Guidelines,” misapplying its policies on violent and graphic content, violence and incitement, hate speech, and nudity and sexual activity. It has also inconsistently applied its “newsworthy allowance” policy, removing dozens of pieces of content documenting Palestinian injury and death that has news value.

Meta reported that it is aware of its flawed enforcement of these policies. However, this is not the first time the company has turned a blind eye against its human rights negligence. For years, the company has apologized for such crackdowns and promised to address it. In 2021, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem was attacked by the Israeli occupation, which triggered protests and violence along with censorship of pro-Palestine content on Facebook and Instagram. The HRW documented Meta’s censorship at the time and warned that the company was “silencing many people arbitrarily and without explanation.”

An independent investigation conducted by Business for Social Responsibility and commissioned by Meta found that the company’s content moderation in 2021 “appear[s] to have had an adverse human rights impact on the rights of Palestinian users,” adversely affecting “the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.”

In 2022, in response to the investigation’s recommendations as well as guidance by Meta’s Oversight Board, Meta made a commitment to make a series of changes to its policies and their enforcement in content moderation. However, almost two years later, Meta has not carried out its commitments, and the company has failed to meet its human rights responsibilities and replicated past patterns of abuse.

The HRW shared its findings with Meta and in response Meta cited its human rights responsibility and core human rights principles as guiding its “immediate crisis response measures” since October 7.

Meta should permit protected expression on its platforms, including documentation of human rights abuses and political movements, the HRW reiterated. It should begin by overhauling its “dangerous organizations and individuals” policy to make it consistent with international human rights standards, ensuring that it does not remove content that is in the public interest. The company should improve transparency around requests by governments’ internet referral units, including Israel’s Cyber Unit, to remove content “voluntarily” - that is without a court or administrative order to do so.

“Instead of tired apologies and empty promises, Meta should demonstrate that it is serious about addressing Palestine-related censorship once and for all by taking concrete steps toward transparency and remediation,” Brown said.