Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 
Hundreds of social media users have accused Instagram and Facebook of removing content and accounts reporting on the Sheikh Jarrah violence.
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Updated 11 May 2021

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 

Facebook, Instagram accused of bias by censoring Palestinian content 
  • Director of 7amleh said the censorship of Palestinians happened through two channels
  • The organization was able to restore some content and pages of users who reported removals to them

DUBAI: Imagine the pain of being kicked out of your own home. Then imagine being unable to let the world know what is happening to you.

This is the reality for Palestinians living in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, which houses 28 families from the 1948 Nakba. Under international law, East Jerusalem is considered part of the Palestinian Territories.

Earlier this year, the Israeli Central Court in East Jerusalem approved a decision to evict four Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood. 

The court was scheduled to issue a ruling on the evictions on May 6 amid heated demonstrations and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, but the decision was delayed until May 10.

Hundreds of social media users have accused Instagram and Facebook of removing content and accounts reporting on the Sheikh Jarrah violence.

One of the videos that was deleted from the story archives of Palestinian journalist Maha Rezeq was about Israeli settler Jacob, who took over the house of Muna El-Kurd in 2009. He told her that if he did not steal her house then someone else would.

“What I’ve been sharing is raw footage, videos, testimonies of people on the ground, some are actually coming from the mouth of an Israeli, the mouth of a settler, why is that controversial? Everything was self-explanatory, there is no blood or graphic footage that violates the community standard,” Rezeq said.

Rezeq told Arab News that only her content on Sheikh Jarrah was removed.

“The only thing that was removed from my archive were stories and posts related to exposing Israeli crimes against Palestinians.”

Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer from Jerusalem, was posting videos and stories on violence in Sheikh Jarrah when he received a warning that his account might be deleted.

“Some of your previous posts didn’t follow our Community Guidelines,” the message read. “If you post something that goes against our guidelines again, your account may be deleted, including your posts, archive, messages and followers.”

Facebook also removed “57 pieces of content” from his page because they went against the guidelines.

Yasmin Dabat said her stories with the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, dated to May 3, were “removed by Instagram without any warnings or updates.”

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, tweeted it was facing technical issues on May 6, after hundreds of people began reporting the censorship.

“We know that some people are experiencing issues uploading and viewing stories. This is a widespread global technical issue not related to any particular topic and we’re fixing it right now. We’ll provide an update as soon as we can.”

Nadim Nashif, the director of a nonprofit organization called 7amleh that advocates for Palestinian digital rights, said the explanation did not make sense to them.

“(It) is very weird, like you know, to compare what happened in a certain neighborhood in Jerusalem, with huge countries like Canada, the US and Colombia, doesn’t sound logical to us, doesn’t sound like it’s really explaining, because in Canada and the US they were taking down stories that are about various topics, (but) here (it was) about (a) certain hashtag, specifically about Sheikh Jarrah,” he said.

Nashif said the censorship of Palestinians happened through two channels.

“One factor is what the Israelis are doing, they are basically trying to push the social media platforms to adopt their own standards of what should be there and what shouldn’t be there. There’s strong cooperation between them and Facebook mainly.”

According to Nashif, this leads to what’s called “voluntary takedowns,” where Israeli cyber units send requests to social media platforms to take down specific content without a court order.

Another way that Palestinian content was pushed out of social media was through “armies of trolls and applications called Act.IL organizing people to report in a massive way,” he added.

Act.IL is an app that describes itself as “the place where all pro-Israeli advocates, communities and organizations meet to work together to fight back against the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state.”

According to the app, users “will be able to remove inciting content from social media, fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism, influence the online narrative regarding Israel, and take part in special pro-Israel campaigns and efforts.”

Palestinians are also being silenced on social media through the use of Artificial Intelligence by those platforms to identify what content violates their user guidelines.

“Social media platforms are (using) artificial intelligence for takedowns and there is lots of use of keywords, mainly around what the US government consider(s) as terrorist organizations,” Nashif explained.

Some of those who reported content takedowns and account removals to 7amleh were able to restore their content after the organization reached out to Facebook.

“We managed to restore tens or hundreds of them in this struggle, because we are (a) trusted partner of Facebook,” Nashif added.

Dabat was able to recover her stories around 12 hours later after getting in touch with Instagram.

“I emailed Instagram directly mentioning this and applied pressure on them to put them back. They then put them back without replying to me,” she said.

Nashif said the system was still biased despite the restoration of content and accounts.

“We (haven’t) managed to get a transparent, clear system of content moderation. The keyword here is transparency and equality, because this is not happening in the Israeli side.”

Instagram hid the hashtag #الأقصى (Al-Aqsa in Arabic) two days ago, when Israeli police in riot gear were deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslims held Tarawih prayers. Medics said over 200 Palestinians were wounded that night.

“Part of the escalation that happened is that they were even taking down hashtags, I mean they were hiding hashtags like Al-Aqsa, which is something new,” Nashif said.

He advised social media users to continue reporting instances of censorship through their platforms and contact organizations that handled these issues to raise awareness and correct such behavior.

Instagram sent a clarification on May 11 to Arab News about the removals of accounts and posts related to Sheikh Jarrah.
“Earlier this week, many of our Instagram users faced significant issues accessing certain hashtags and content - including our Palestinian community. We sincerely apologize for the frustration this has caused and assure you that we were in no way trying to limit anyone’s ability to freely express themselves,” the statement read.

On Thursday, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Tor Wennesland urged Israel to cease demolitions and evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law.

On Sunday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel rejected pressure not to build in Jerusalem, after days of unrest and growing international condemnation of planned evictions of Palestinians from homes in the city claimed by Jewish settlers.

“We firmly reject the pressure not to build in Jerusalem. To my regret, this pressure has been increasing of late.”

Last week, the Red Cross reported that 22 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli police in annexed East Jerusalem.


Anti-Arab speech surges on social media during Gaza clashes, survey shows

Anti-Arab speech surges on social media during Gaza clashes, survey shows
Updated 15 June 2021

Anti-Arab speech surges on social media during Gaza clashes, survey shows

Anti-Arab speech surges on social media during Gaza clashes, survey shows
  • Between May 6 and May 21, when clashes with Israel were most severe, hate speech against Palestinians rose dramatically in comparison with the same period in 2020
  • The same period also witnessed widespread censorship of Palestinian posts on social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

LONDON: Violent speech directed against Arabs and Palestinians on social media increased 15-fold during the recent hostilities in Gaza, a report has found. 

Between May 6 and May 21 when clashes with Israel were most severe, hate speech against Palestinians rose dramatically in comparison with the same period in 2020, according to the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, or 7amleh.

The center recorded 1.09 million posts on social media platforms, with 16.8 percent containing racism, slurs or incitement against Arabs. 

Among tweets shared widely, one reads: “A good Arab is a dead Arab,” while another reads: “Death to all Arabs.”

Most violent speech (58 percent) took place on Twitter, compared with only 8 percent on Facebook and 1 percent on Instagram.

The same period also witnessed widespread censorship of Palestinian posts on social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

7amleh documented 500 cases of digital rights violations of Palestinians, which included content being taken down and accounts being removed.

Tech giants have been the targets of strong criticism from users for censoring Palestinian content.

Facebook was the target of a coordinated social media campaign launched by pro-Palestine activists in an attempt to push down the app’s ranking on Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play.

While Instagram changed the way it displays content after claims of blocking Palestine-related content, other social media giants have been reluctant to take similar steps. 

Instagram said that the “stories” feature was built according to an algorithm that favors original content as opposed to existing and reshared posts. As a result, any Palestine-related content that was reshared from other accounts was pushed lower in the Instagram feed. 

Social media has been crucial for people in the Middle East to document and spread information on destruction of homes, forced displacement and violence. 


UK backlash prompts WhatsApp privacy campaign

The campaign comes as the messaging platform faces pressure from other encrypted messaging services. (File/AFP)
The campaign comes as the messaging platform faces pressure from other encrypted messaging services. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 June 2021

UK backlash prompts WhatsApp privacy campaign

The campaign comes as the messaging platform faces pressure from other encrypted messaging services. (File/AFP)
  • WhatsApp announced on Monday the launch of a privacy-centered advertisement campaign in the UK aimed at combatting pressure from governments.
  • The campaign is intended to promote benefits of its end-to-end encryption feature.

LONDON: WhatsApp announced on Monday the launch of a privacy-centered advertisement campaign in the UK aimed at combatting pressure from governments to change the way the platform encrypts messages.

The campaign follows customer criticism against changes to its terms and conditions, announced in early 2021, and is intended to promote benefits of its end-to-end encryption feature.

WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, meaning that messages can only be read on the device which sends one and the device which receives it. The platform itself, and its parent company Facebook, cannot view or intercept them. 

In January, WhatsApp announced changes to its terms and conditions which sparked concern from thousands of users who wrongly thought the messaging app would start sharing encrypted messages with Facebook.

The changes, however, were mainly related to enabling companies to accept payments via WhatsApp. 

At the time, WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart took personal responsibility for the confusion the announcement had created.

Since then, however, the end-to-end encryption feature received criticism from the UK government, with Home Secretary Priti Patel describing the use of end-to-end encryption as “not acceptable.”

Patel argued that this feature puts children at risk and offers a hiding place for child-abusers and other criminals.

The campaign comes as the messaging platform faces pressure from other encrypted messaging services, with many users switching away from WhatsApp in the wake of the policy update confusion.


First NFT digital Islamic art agency to launch in Middle East

First NFT digital Islamic art agency to launch in Middle East
Updated 15 June 2021

First NFT digital Islamic art agency to launch in Middle East

First NFT digital Islamic art agency to launch in Middle East
  • A NFT is essentially a unique digital unit that cannot be replicated

DUBAI: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are all the rage in the art world.

A NFT is essentially a unique digital unit that cannot be replicated. While the high prices that NFT art has commanded have perplexed some, others take pride in owning a unique digital asset that gives them exclusive and permanent rights.

The NFT art market has grown more than 800 percent in just the first four months of 2021, from $52 million in January to a whopping $490 million by the end of April, according to a Business Insider report.

As a result, more artists are looking to create NFT artworks with several agencies and galleries launching specialized divisions to manage digital art.

Dubai-based Behnoode Foundation is due to launch the first-ever NFT digital Islamic art agency in the Middle East, Behnoode Art.

In 2016, Behnood Javaherpour, founder and creative director at Behnoode, launched the foundation, which supports charities in Nepal and Iran. Behnoode Art will partner with the foundation to donate a portion of all auctioned digital artwork to help out-of-school children.

The new agency aims to modernize the artworks of talented Middle Eastern artists and sell its unique digital footprints through live auctions to fine art collectors around the world, Javaherpour told Arab News.

“Art is universal, and my agency allows Middle Eastern, European, and Asian artists to showcase their work all around the world and to shine a spotlight on their incredible talent,” he said.

Behnoode Art is currently working with more than 100 artists who are creating NFT artwork. Its ambition is to make NFT art easy to understand and promote for artists.

“Most of the artists under my current project are not into digital technology, but they have the best talents in the world,” Javaherpour added.

Behnoode Art will serve as a platform for artists who want to make their art available digitally and participate in the agency’s activities throughout the year such as private auctions, collaboration projects, gala events, and other gatherings to sell and promote artwork.

Javaherpour said the agency was working to set up links with Islamic banks and other financial institutions in the region to “create a community that values fine art while integrating modern technology.”

Behnoode Art was expected to officially launch in July.


EU court backs national data watchdog powers in blow to Facebook, big tech

EU court backs national data watchdog powers in blow to Facebook, big tech
Updated 15 June 2021

EU court backs national data watchdog powers in blow to Facebook, big tech

EU court backs national data watchdog powers in blow to Facebook, big tech
  • EU court supports national data watchdogs to pursue big tech firms.
  • The ruling could encourage national agencies to act against US tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Apple.

BRUSSELS: Europe’s top court on Tuesday endorsed the power of national data watchdogs to pursue big tech firms even if they are not their lead regulators, in a setback for Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook.

The EU Court of Justice (CJEU) ruling could encourage national agencies to act against US tech companies such as Google, Twitter and Apple, which all have their European Union headquarters in Ireland.

Many national watchdogs in the 27-member European Union have long complained about their Irish counterpart, saying that it takes too long to decide on cases.

Ireland has dismissed this, saying it has to be extra meticulous in dealing with powerful and well-funded tech giants.

The CJEU got involved after a Belgian court sought guidance on Facebook’s challenge against the territorial competence of the Belgian data watchdog’s bid to stop it from tracking users in Belgium through cookies stored in the company’s social plug-ins, regardless of whether they have an account or not.

“Under certain conditions, a national supervisory authority may exercise its power to bring any alleged infringement of the GDPR before a court of a member state, even though that authority is not the lead supervisory authority with regard to that processing,” the EU Court of Justice (CJEU) said.

Under landmark EU privacy rules known as GDPR, Facebook faces oversight by the Irish privacy authority because it has its European head office in Ireland.

The case is C-645/19 Facebook Ireland & Others.


YouTube bans masthead ads for politics, alcohol and bets

YouTube said the change built on its move last year to retire all full-day masthead ads. (File/AFP)
YouTube said the change built on its move last year to retire all full-day masthead ads. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 June 2021

YouTube bans masthead ads for politics, alcohol and bets

YouTube said the change built on its move last year to retire all full-day masthead ads. (File/AFP)
  • Youtube will no longer allow political, election, alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs ads at the top of the site's homepage.
  • The change to its most prominent ad unit was effective immediately, said Google.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube will no longer allow political or election ads in its coveted masthead spot at the top of the site’s homepage nor ads for alcohol, gambling and prescription drugs, it said on Monday.

In an email to advertisers, seen by Reuters, YouTube said the change built on its move last year to retire all full-day masthead ads. It said it has retired these full-day reservations, like the one then-President Donald Trump reserved to dominate its homepage on Election Day 2020, and replaced them with more targeted formats.

“We regularly review our advertising requirements to ensure they balance the needs of both advertisers and users,” a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We believe this update will build on changes we made last year to the masthead reservation process and will lead to a better experience for users,” they added.

Google said that the change to its most prominent ad unit, which was first reported by Axios, was effective immediately.

Google paused political ads altogether around the US presidential election and again ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January this year, citing its policy over sensitive events.