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EXPLAINER: What Did Al Jazeera Arabic Investigation Reveal about Facebook Censorship of Palestine

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Tamer al-Mishal, Al Jazeera’s investigative journalist, whose Facebook profile has been shut down. (Image: AJA)

Al Jazeera Arabic popular investigative program ‘What is Hidden is Greater’, exposed the troubling relationship between the social media giant, Facebook, and the Israeli government.

The program aired on Friday, September 8, under the title ‘Closed Space’. Its main premise was predicated on the establishment of two separate accounts: one in Arabic and the other in Hebrew.

Facebook responded to both accounts in entirely different ways. More on this below.

Why is Facebook Biased against Palestine? 

Human rights defenders and former Facebook officials who spoke to the program acknowledged the targeting of Arab and Palestinian content on social media platforms.

Deborah Brown, a digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, stressed that Meta – the mother company that owns Facebook – and its platforms do not do enough to support human rights around the world.

She said that while, for example, Facebook responded very quickly to the invasion of Ukraine last year, allowing Ukrainians to condemn the violence committed by Russian forces and calling for their denunciation, they do the opposite in the case of Palestine.

American rights activist Gillian York asserts that Arabic content on social media platforms is much more censored than content published in Hebrew.

What is Israel’s Law of Censorship

Ashraf Zeitoun, Facebook’s former director of Middle East and North Africa policy, revealed to the program that, at the end of 2016, Israel fashioned a law that punished, with heavy financial penalties, companies that don’t cooperate with requests from the Israeli government to remove Palestinian content they consider ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘hateful’.

The former director of the Israeli Cyber UnitEric Barbing, acknowledges the work done by Israel, as it officially asks Meta to delete words or phrases that Tel Aviv deems offensive.

This includes pictures of Palestinians killed by Israel. The former Israeli official said that Facebook quickly responds and, indeed, removes the majority of the content that violates Israel’s expectations.

Same Content, Two Reactions 

The program team directly and independently verified Facebook’s policies, bias and professionalism, launching two pages on Facebook, one in Arabic “Palestinian Lamma” and the other in Hebrew “Ancestral Land”.

Over the course of months, the program producers carefully monitored the way the social media network treated the content of the two pages.

One of its findings is that on July 26, 2023, the team published on the Arabic page  news and photos of Palestinians killed in the city of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank. Those Palestinians were killed in a raid carried out by the Israeli occupation army.

The content was immediately deleted, and the page received a warning that it would be permanently blocked.

The same news was published simultaneously in the Hebrew page, but with more shocking and graphic images along with an inflammatory text. The Facebook administration, however, neither deleted the post nor warned the page.

Digital rights expert Marlena Wisniak acknowledges that there is excessive restriction of Arabic and Palestinian content. She said that there are many documented cases that indicate that Palestinian or Arabic content has been removed or restricted unlike Hebrew content.

How Did Meta Respond? 

Julie Awano, a member of the supervisory board of Meta, revealed in her testimony that the board is aware of the existence of excessive application of Facebook and Instagram rules on Arabic content.

Yet two days after the program was aired, the personal, and verified account of the host, Tamer Al-Mishal, who is also a well-regarded Palestinian journalist, was shut down.

The closure of the account took place without the customary 24 hours notice, thus, once more highlighting the power of Israel over Facebook.

The Israeli Lobby 

The program also touched on the role played by Israeli lobbies in pressuring Facebook’s management.

Facebook’s former director of Middle East and North Africa policy asserts that Israel was able to create a very strong system of pressure and influence on the management of the Meta platform.

This goes as far as designing Israeli policy to affect even the rules governing the work of algorithms on the platform.

He spoke of an entire ‘reporting army’ prepared by Israeli authorities, and one pro-Israel Jewish organization in the United States that launched an app which encourages users and subscribers to report anti-Israel content.

The program also found that “hundreds of Meta employees hold Israeli citizenship, including managers, supervisors and technicians in various departments at its headquarters in Israel and the United States, some of whom had previous ties to the Israeli army and government,” Al Jazeera Net reported.

“Among the most influential employees are Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, David Fischer, director of financial revenue at Facebook, as well as former director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Amy Palmor, who is responsible for the cyber unit that fights Palestinian content. Curiously, this woman was appointed to Facebook’s oversight board, which raises questions about the independence of this board.”


Is the Palestine Chronicle Censored? 

The Palestine Chronicle and its editors have been censored on Facebook for years. The network’s president, Ramzy Baroud was denied access to several of his own pages, and was only given the option to shut them down.

He was later banned from accessing any of the Palestine Chronicle pages on Facebook.

The page managing editor was also banned for various periods of time, warned repeatedly for posting news about Palestine, on her personal or Palestine Chronicle profiles.

A shadow ban has also been imposed on all Palestine Chronicle pages – in English, French and Italian – almost completely freezing the expansion of the page followers, and reducing its outreach by over 95 percent if compared to is previous performance.