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Facebook just set up an emergency response center to handle the fallout from the Israel-Gaza conflict, but activists aren’t impressed. They say it’s just a “PR exercise” covering over the platform’s systematic censorship of Palestinian voices.
Activists have been trying to call out this censorship for years, and they say it’s gotten worse in recent weeks, with social media users reporting an exponential increase in Palestinian accounts being banned and posts being deleted.
On the call this week announcing the new unit, Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert told reporters: "We've actually set up a special operations center that has 24-hour capabilities with native speakers of Arabic and Hebrew, so that we can stay on top of trends, make sure that we are identifying content that violates our policies and remove that quickly.”
But when pushed for most specifics—like when it was set up, how many people are involved, and what data was available about the work being done—Bickert didn’t have an answer.
When such special operation centers were set up in the past, for the U.S. elections in November, for example, they’re typically large rooms in Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters with lots of desks and computer screens crammed into them.
But in this instance, with most Facebook staff working remotely, the “special operation center” is a purely virtual creation. Facebook told VICE News that the center “functions the exact same way it would in person” with members of different teams like engineering, content review, and policy, as well as representatives from Instagram and WhatsApp, working together remotely—which sounds a lot like what they would have been doing anyway.
Activists dismiss the special operations center as a facade to cover up what they view as a systematic silencing of Palestinian voices—a trend that’s been happening for years but ramped up significantly in recent weeks, leading one critic to call the social media censorship “digital repression.”
Facebook has faced criticism for censorship on its own platform as well as Instagram, where it’s accused of removing posts and deleting accounts who posted about the protests by Palestinians against evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem. And the Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp was used by Israeli extremists to create 100 new groups in recent days to orchestrate targeted attacks.
Facebook’s response has been to deflect criticism by blaming technical glitches, announce the creation of the special operations center—that may not actually exist—and remain silent when confronted by groups who say the company has for years systematically silencing protesters and deleting evidence of war crimes posted on social media..
“None of Facebook’s statements so far address the egregious censorship their users across the world have experienced over the past two weeks,” Marwa Fatafta, Middle East policy manager with human rights advocacy group Access Now, told VICE News. “People in the region are angry and frustrated for being actively censored while Facebook continues to brush off the issue and pin it on 'technical errors'.”
Access Now was among a group of 30 human rights groups and NGOs who sent a letter to Facebook this week seeking an explanation for “systematically silencing users protesting and documenting the evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem.”
Facebook has yet to respond publicly to the letter but says it has been in contact with Access Now about the issue. It has also apologized for the technical errors that led to Paesitanian content being censored.
“We know there have been several issues that have impacted people’s ability to share on our apps, including a technical bug that affected Stories around the world, and an error that temporarily restricted content from being viewed on the Al Aqsa mosque hashtag page,” Facebook said in an emailed statement to VICE News. “While both issues have been fixed, they never should have happened in the first place. We’re so sorry to everyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events, or who felt this was a deliberate suppression of their voice. This was never our intention.”
Activists have dismissed Facebook’s response.
“They have also failed to provide any clarity on how they plan to uphold their users' rights despite their previous public commitments to respect human rights,” Fatafta said.
Many activists, journalists, and regular users of social media have been calling out censorship of Palestinian voices for years.
A group called 7amleh, the Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, last week released a report called Hashtag Palestine 2020, which documents digital rights abuses of Palestinians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report concluded that Facebook, and other social media platforms, “continued to collaborate with Israeli security units, and Palestinian content online continued to be censored indiscriminately as a result of the policies of platforms.”
The report pointed out that Facebook accepted 81% of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to remove content it deemed problematic.
A number of activists have said Israel’s ability to influence Facebook’s decision-making process is no longer limited to external pressure, pointing out that the former director-general of the Israeli ministry of justice, Emi Palmor, who also personally managed Israel’s Cyber Unit in the past, is currently sitting on the Facebook Oversight Board, a quasi-independent group tasked with deciding which content should be allowed on the platform.
But according to Fatafta, what’s happened in Palestine in recent weeks is on a whole other level or censorship.
“I’ve been writing about this topic for a long time, and I have not seen anything of this scale,” Fatafta said during a recent panel discussion on Al Jazeera. “It’s so brazen and so incredible, it’s beyond censorship—it’s digital repression. They are actively suppressing the narrative of Palestinians or those who are documenting these war crimes.”
Fatafta’s group Access Now says it has received hundreds of reports that social platforms are suppressing Palestinian protest hashtags, blocking livestreams, and removing posts and accounts. It says the censorship appears systematic.
Critics of Facebook’s actions in Palestine and Israel in recent weeks say there will ultimately be a reckoning for the company.
“Facebook can say all it wants. When the time for accountability comes, they will be remembered for what they have done in censorship and violating the digital rights of the world,” Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian-America writer, told VICE News. “They will be remembered for what they have not done as well: maintaining transparency.”
This story has been updated to reflect Facebook’s response.