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Digital rights for dummies: How geopolitics affect your social media feeds

Jerusalem24 – Who or what exactly decides what does or doesn’t appear in our feeds on social media?

There’s more to it than just algorithms based on personal browsing habits and content consumption, with local dynamics and international politics both coming into play.

Content deemed political may find itself not only being filtered out from consumers’ feeds, but also being reported or removed altogether. This content removal is usually explained away by a “breach” of community standards.

But when state actors are actively involved in this process of reporting and requesting the censorship of certain materials (with sometimes staggering rates of success) can social media platforms really claim to be “neutral“?

Mona Shtaya, Advocacy and Communications Manager at 7amleh—The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, helps us break down some of the complexities you may have never known existed as you scroll down through your feed.

Contents

  1. 7amleh: Monitoring violations, and advocating for a more just digital world
  2. More than just social media
  3. Have we always been censored?
  4. Social media policies: Aligned with state interests?
  5. Double standards
  6. Israel’s “war on information”
  7. Due diligence to the rescue?
  8. Light(s) at the end of the tunnel
  9. What should I be aware of as a content consumer and/or producer?

1. 7amleh: Monitoring violations, and advocating for a more just digital world

Evidence-based advocacy

Established in 2013, non-profit organization 7amleh advocates for Palestinian digital rights, a mission that manifests across three main areas of specialization and focus.

The organization works to build the capacity of civil society, human rights organizations, and activists (as well as “anyone who uses social media platforms”, Shtaya tells Jerusalem24) on topics like digital advocacy, digital safety, and digital presence.

Perhaps what the NGO is best known for in Palestine is its monitoring and reporting of digital rights violations – not just on social media but across other digital and technological platforms, such as in the areas of monetization or surveillance.

“But the most important thing is we do multi-layered, evidence-based advocacy against social media companies,” she says, “to hold them accountable, force them or pressure them to comply with international human rights law or business and human rights principles, as well as to end the digital discrimination against Palestinians on those tech platforms.”

2. More than just social media

“It’s bigger than that.”

“When we’re talking about digital discrimination, we’re not only talking about social media platforms,” says Shtaya. “It’s bigger than that. We are talking about systematic discrimination and deliberate discrimination that Palestinians are facing with different tech companies.”

One little thought-of example is Google Maps, which “doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground”. The maps don’t indicate military checkpoints or that a road is designated for Israeli settler use only. “If Palestinians take this road, they might be shot by Israelis or they might be attacked,” Shtaya explains, emphasizing that this particular form of discrimination “puts people’s lives at risk”.

And economical platforms don’t fare much better, in her opinion: “We can talk about PayPal for hours.”

7amleh and other partners have been leading an international campaign since 2016. PayPal and Venmo are both accessible inside illegal Israeli settlements but not available to Palestinians living in the same territory. This means Palestinians are denied their right to work remotely, says Shtaya, because most employers want to pay for services via a trusted international platform.

“This means a lack of opportunity and chances for different organizations and individuals to work online and to get donations from around the world. That’s a huge problem.”

Various monetization platforms have offered various reasons for this discrimination. “Some platforms might say, ‘It’s not tested yet’, ‘It takes time’. It’s a ‘risk area’.”

“But for example with PayPal, they’ve been claiming since 2016 that the Palestinian monetary system is not adapted with international standards. So the PA and the Monetary Authority in Palestine, they worked hard alongside the World Bank to ensure that the Palestinian monetary system is adapted with international standards.”

Palestinians have yet to be able to access either Venmo or PayPal services from inside the occupied West Bank.

3. Have we always been censored?

“It’s everyone who lives under an oppressive regime.”

Shtaya reminds us that the advent of social media platforms was seen as a new kind of democracy, especially with the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011. “People were using them to mobilize and organize themselves. They thought, as Arab activists, that this was going to be a new democratic space where we can say whatever we want, we can put everything out there.”

Very quickly though, these platforms which activists had pinned such high hopes on took on a kind of function of “authority” in themselves, says Shtaya, “because in many cases they are collaborating with the governments”.

In the Palestinian case, Meta (the parent company of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) receives “tens of thousands of requests” from the Israeli government cyber unit annually to remove content it deems pro-Palestinian.

And even though social media companies themselves are not forthcoming with these figures, Israel’s cyber unit says 90% of the 20,000 requests it submitted to Meta in 2019 were responded to positively.

Shtaya points out that a single request doesn’t necessarily relate to one piece of content but rather to one communication – which itself may designate hundreds or thousands of posts. “So just imagine the quantity of the posts they are receiving.”

The Palestinian Authority also submits requests for content removal to Meta, though these constitute a fraction of the Israeli requests – maybe partly due to the fact that the PA’s relationship with Meta is quite recent, Shtaya says, who attended the first meeting between the Prime Minister and Facebook on behalf of 7amleh in May 2021.

Of course, Palestinian content isn’t the only political content that gets pushed down on social media. Artists, musicians, and news organizations around the globe may find themselves facing the same restrictions for various reasons.

In fact, Shtaya says, it’s “literally everyone – especially people in the global south, more particularly people living under oppressive regimes, colonial governments, such as Palestine, Kashmir, Myanmar, Western Sahara.”

Marginalized communities, such as women or LGBTQI communities, are also struggling with content-moderation policies because the policies are “not strict enough” to create a space for everyone to be able to use social media safely. “As a result, everyone suffers from Meta’s content moderation policies.”

And these marginalized and oppressed communities, Palestinians included, suffer a “double effect”, Shtaya says. “Our causes are not covered by the international mainstream media, so we usually see social media platforms as an open space to spread an alternative narrative. So when they censor our voices, this means they’re not giving us the space to share this story – while they are giving the space to Israelis to spread their disinformation and their propaganda.”

4. Social media policies: Aligned with state interests?

The US-centric policy doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground.

7amleh has been documenting in detail for years the phenomenon of Palestinian social media users and content creators having their accounts or posts reported, removed, or “buried” across social media platforms.

7amleh’s biannual report for 2021-2022 records a total of 2,262 violations against Palestinian content across all major social media platforms, with account suspension and content take-down accounting for the overwhelming majority of violations. Just under half of the individuals targeted describe themselves as activists, journalists, or human rights defenders.

“Meta, among other social media platforms, claim that they are an open space for all users around the world to spread their narrative,” explains Shtaya. “But let’s keep in mind that at the end of the day those are companies, that have political-economic interests. So at the end of the day, their business model is serving this political-economic interest.”

And even companies such as China’s TikTok, which qualify themselves as an “entertainment platform” and therefore claim that they have “nothing to do” with political content, end up over-moderating (without being transparent about their policy) when such political content inevitably appears on their platform.

“Recently an ex-TikTok employee said they are censoring Palestinian voices,” she says. “The company said it wasn’t true. But who knows? We can see how Palestinians are always, always, always complaining about such cases.”

Biannual breakdown of digital rights violations 2021-2022, The Palestinian Observatory of Digital Rights Violations (7or.7amleh.org)

As far as US-based Meta is concerned, this reality is reflected in their adoption of a “List of dangerous organizations and individuals” (DOI). The mere mention (as opposed to active endorsement) of any of the listed names may qualify a post for removal.

Shtaya says the list is “basically built upon the US Department of State terrorist list. It’s a US-centric list that doesn’t really reflect the situation in certain countries – especially in the global south and more particularly in Palestine, a country under military occupation for decades now.”

7amleh was demanding “for years” that Meta release the list, but “they never did.” But when it was leaked by The Intercept in 2021, 7amleh was able to examine the names of the persons and entities deemed dangerous by the social media giant.

“It’s really disproportionate,” says Shtaya. “Most of the names are from the Global South, especially the Arab and Islamic countries. And when we zoom in more to Israel-Palestine we can see 48 names of Palestinian individuals and organizations.”

Israel, by contrast, only appears twice, with one organization listed as well as one individual (who is a co-founder of the listed organization.)

Shtaya says this discrepancy omits the power play and reality on the ground, resulting in a large number of Palestinian political parties being listed, while Israeli militarized groups leading violence against Palestinians – whom even the Israeli Minister of Defense has called to designate “terrorist groups” – are exempt.

Biannual breakdown of digital rights violations 2021-2022, The Palestinian Observatory of Digital Rights Violations (7or.7amleh.org)

Facebook confirmed that their list is “built on” the US terror list, even if it differs slightly.

“Their claim is because they’re a US-registered company, so they follow US law,” explains Shtaya. “But keep in mind that the US law to fight against terrorism was not designed to serve social media platforms: it was designed to serve other purposes, and so it doesn’t reflect really how it should be utilized.”

Shtaya charges that Meta and others “are going beyond the law”, and should have instead “done more work to investigate how they should have adapted within the frame of the law.”

5. Double standards

“These are for-profit companies.”

The result of this deference to local and geopolitics is “double standards” in the treatment of content, says Shtaya.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Meta announced within 48 hours that they were taking measures “to protect Ukrainians as an occupied people”. Some of these measures were safety measures, such as end-to-end encryption and privacy – but others concerned allowing or turning a blind eye to violent or inciting speech against Russian politicians or the military.

This means, says Shtaya, that “a certain type of content” is allowed during specific times and only for specific communities: “For years, Russia was bombing Syria, but Syrians were never allowed to spread such speech against Russian political personalities.”

With the invasion of Ukraine, she says, it became apparent how the world’s superpowers’ support of Ukraine was reflected in Meta’s policies. A trend that was followed by other platforms as well, such as Twitter or PayPal. “They even banned all [Russian] state-owned media. At the beginning they labeled it – but now we cannot see Russia Today on Twitter, for example.”

Shtaya argues this proves both that the companies have the capacity to implement sweeping changes “when they have the will”, and that they are adopting the policies of the big countries’ politics – despite their claims to the contrary.

“Again, these are [for-profit] companies that are registered in the US,” Shtaya reiterates. “So at the end of the day, they are following US regulations and political positions.”

6. Israel’s “war on information”

“There’s an extra level of censorship.”

Palestine and Israel of course embody a prime example of double standards being applied through content moderation. 7amleh’s annual Index of Racism and Incitement reports show hate speech, violent speech, and incitement are “going up every year”.

Times of particular turmoil, such as Israel’s frequent bombing assaults on the Gaza Strip or the so-called “Unity Intifada” of May 2021, give rise to a peak in racist incitement, with nearly 250,000 instances of violent or racist speech against Palestinians recorded by 7amleh in May 2021.

In addition to incitement against Palestinians, which is frequently left unaddressed by social media companies, Palestinians themselves witness a rise in digital rights violations and their own content being censored for “incitement”.

Shtaya frames this as “a war on information” waged by Israel: “They don’t want this [Palestinian] narrative to be shared.”

Index of Racism and Incitement on Israeli Social Media in 2021, 7amleh

She says this war is waged not only by attacking media infrastructure and physically bombing Al Jazeera or AP offices in Gaza, but also ensuring Palestinians “don’t have affordable, accessible, quality internet”: Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are only permitted by Israel to access 3G, while Palestinians in Gaza still rely on 2G – despite a promise by US President Biden during his visit in July 2022 to ensure 4G access for Palestinians by the end of the year.

The final nail in the censorship coffin is hammered in by the Israeli cyber unit which pressures tech companies into taking down Palestinian content, says Shtaya. “That’s an extra level of censorship.”

The companies are also failing to address disinformation from Israel, she says, quoting the case of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper in Jenin in May 2022. When her death triggered an international uproar, Israel immediately began spreading claims that she had been shot by a Palestinian gunman.

Palestinians were then forced into “a reaction mood”, says Shtaya, and to deny the claim. Even once several independent media and human rights organizations’ investigations concluded that she had been shot by a sniper, “the original disinformation stayed online. It hasn’t been removed till now.”

7amleh brought up a handful of specific elements for review by Meta, who eventually told Shtaya in a meeting that these “didn’t constitute disinformation”.

“So this kind of propaganda is still online and they’re not interfering with it, they’re not labeling it – even as ‘might be’ disinformation.”

And this is what leads to a power asymmetry. “We’re talking here about political-economic interests, because certain governments are supporting certain governments, and as a result of that, companies are also taking sides.”

7. Due diligence to the rescue?

Over-moderating Palestinians, under-moderating Israelis.

Following the killing of Abu Akleh and the Unity Intifada, Meta commissioned in September 2021 global non-profit BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) to review the human rights impacts of Meta’s policies and activities surrounding Palestinian and Israeli content throughout May 2021.

Meta decided the due diligence should be conducted based on civil societies’ recommendations, to which 7amleh contributed.

The “long-awaited” Human Rights Due Diligence of Meta’s Impacts in Israel and Palestine in May 2021 report, released in September 2022, confirmed what 7amleh had claimed, says Shtaya. Meta is over-moderating Palestinian and Arabic content, and severely under-moderating Israeli content – meaning Israeli hate speech targeting Palestinians is still widely available on those same platforms.

What were BSR’s main findings?

“BSR identified a variety of adverse human rights impacts for Meta to address, including impacts on the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression and related rights, the prevalence of anti-Semitic content on Meta platforms, and instances of both over-enforcement (erroneously removed content and erroneous account penalties) and under-enforcement (failure to remove violating content and failure to apply penalties to offending accounts).

BSR did not identify intentional bias at Meta, but did identify various instances of unintentional bias where Meta policy and practice (such as insufficient routing of Arabic content by dialect or regional expertise), combined with broader external dynamics (such as efforts to comply with US law), leads to different human rights impacts on Palestinian and Arabic-speaking users.”

Source: BSR, Human Rights Due Diligence of Meta’s Impacts in Israel and Palestine

BSR issued a list of 21 recommendations to Meta to address the issues identified.

All but one of the recommendations were accepted, announces Shtaya. In their response to the report, Meta laid out how they would respond to the recommendations, and they have already started implementing a number of them while others remain under consideration.

7amleh demanded “a clear and transparent timeframe” to “know when the discrimination would end”, but Meta has not yet offered a response.

8. Light(s) at the end of the tunnel

Restoring content that was wrongly taken down.

While international legislation and tech companies catch up to the challenges posed by politics, evolving trends, and algorithms, in tandem with human behavior on social media platforms, 7amleh is taking concrete steps to address (and redress where possible) violations both collectively and individually.

The organization launched the Digital Rights Observatory Platform Al-7or in 2021 to monitor and document all types of violations against Palestinian digital rights, such as arrests related to online activity, social media censorship, digital surveillance, or online smear campaigns.

7amleh doesn’t only document the cases, but uses those cases to press for accountability with partner social media companies and to rectify violations, for example by restoring content that was wrongly taken down.

The team were able to successfully restore around a third of censored posts reported in 2022 – a significant success, in 7amleh’s eyes. “And we’re still waiting for companies’ responses on a number of other cases,” says Shtaya. “So we’re talking about a huge amount of posts that were restored.”

But restoring content isn’t the only thing at stake. “It’s more about policies, and how those policies should be more inclusive and more transparent when it comes to cases like Palestine and other communities around the world.”

And 7amleh is still facing an uphill battle where PayPal is concerned. According to the Palestinian Monetary Authority, they now operate in line with international standards. But 7amleh is still pursuing its seven-year-long campaign to secure an end to discrimination against Palestinians’ right to access digital monetization services.

9. What should I be aware of as a content consumer and/or producer?

Keeping one step ahead of the algorithms.

The short answer to the above question, says Shtaya, is “everything”.

In addition to location-specific challenges faced by social media users in Palestine, universal themes around digital security and privacy also apply here, Shtaya reminds us. “We in Palestine are still not talking about users’ rights to privacy on social media platforms. Those social media platforms are trading people’s data. It’s like the new oil.”

She suggests the lack of privacy and net protection laws in Palestine – such as the GDPR in Europe – can actually be used as an advantage for content producers, who can work with and around these rules in order to target their own audience more effectively.

But we still have to “use the right platform. If your Facebook is just for your family then don’t post so much news there, try other platforms.” And while Twitter right now “is really bad”, there are plenty of other platforms to choose from in order to communicate a message effectively.

Shtaya encourages anyone – private individuals, artists, news agencies, activists – who has experienced censorship not to give up. For human rights defenders and organizations, “It’s a new battleground,” she says, “we should be there despite all the challenges that we are facing.”

While digital rights defenders such as 7amleh are focusing on the root causes of discrimination and working to change the policies which enable it, Shtaya suggests individual users should “keep in mind what kind of policies may affect their content, and they should adapt to that.”

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t present “the narrative as it is”, she says. But they should keep in mind which vocabulary might be specifically slated for censorship.

Palestinian activists (and Arabic speakers in general) have developed several tactics to evade automated moderation, by for example changing the spelling of a word or adding punctuation or extra letters. “Or they use a sticker instead of a word,” offers Shtaya. “If they want to say Palestine they might use an image of a watermelon or a flag.”

This remains problematic however, as Arabic speakers in the diaspora may not be able to search for or find Palestine-related content when keywords have been altered to avoid detection and censorship. “So on one side, it’s smart, in order to keep the content online. But on the other side, we should keep in mind that certain people around the world who have the language, they might not be able to access it.”

Shtaya cautions that we should bear in mind the increasing number of smear campaigns that have been targeting Palestinian or pro-Palestinian activists, and remember anyone can find themselves targeted at one point or another. Still, she says, “we shouldn’t censor ourselves”.

And of course, if the worst happens, documentation is key. “If you are censored, please do report to 7or.7amleh.org,” she says again. “I know it’s annoying, I know it’s disappointing. But at the end of the day, we are there. We should stay there.”

Watch the full interview on Vibes.

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