LONDON: An investigation by Human Rights Watch has found that social media giant Facebook wrongfully silenced Palestinian content, including documentation of Israeli human rights violations, during the flare-up in violence that occurred in May this year.
“Facebook has wrongfully removed and suppressed content by Palestinians and their supporters, including about human rights abuses carried out in Israel and Palestine during the May 2021 hostilities,” HRW said on Friday.
During the fierce escalation in fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops, many Palestinians took to Facebook and other social media platforms, such as Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — to document what they viewed as violations of human rights by Israeli forces.
But soon, observers noticed that engagement on their content was low, and in some cases, posts were removed entirely from the networks.
In one instance, HRW said, Instagram deleted a photograph of a destroyed building, which was captioned: “This is a photo of my family’s building before it was struck by Israeli missiles on Saturday May 15, 2021. We have three apartments in this building.”
In another case, Instagram “removed the reposting of a political cartoon whose message was that Palestinians are oppressed and not fighting a religious war with Israel.”
Following an internal investigation, Facebook admitted that it made errors in some of its decisions, but HRW said the “company’s acknowledgment of errors and attempts to correct some of them are insufficient and do not address the scale and scope of reported content restrictions.”
Nor do they “adequately explain why they occurred in the first place,” HRW added.
In one perplexing instance, Instagram removed a screenshot of headlines and photos from three New York Times opinion articles for which the Instagram user added commentary that urged Palestinians to “never concede” their rights.
HRW said that the post “did not transform the material in any way that could reasonably be construed as incitement to violence or hatred.”
All those uploads were removed for containing hate speech or symbols of hate speech. “These removals suggest that Instagram is restricting freedom of expression on matters of public interest,” HRW said.
In other instances, Facebook attached warnings of “upsetting” content to some posts that raised awareness of human rights issues and did not include violence or racism.
Some seemingly well-intentioned filtering tools ultimately contributed to the silencing of Palestinian voices. According to Buzzfeed News, some posts were censored for mentioning “Al-Aqsa mosque” — one of the holiest sites in Islam and the most revered place for Muslims in Jerusalem — because there is a terrorist group named the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
“This kind of automatic content removal hampers journalism and other writing, and jeopardizes the future ability of judicial mechanisms to provide remedy for victims and accountability for perpetrators of serious crimes,” said HRW.
Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at HRW, said: “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine.
“With the space for such advocacy under threat in many parts of the world, Facebook censorship threatens to restrict a critical platform for learning and engaging on these issues.”
HRW suggested that Facebook conducts an independent investigation into the censorship during the conflict, and said that the social media company must make the findings of any investigation available to the public.