Last week, Palestinian brand creator Aminah Musa launched a high-impact Instagram campaign to feed children in Gaza, and experienced one of the worst problems an online retailer could face—her direct communication to customers and followers was blocked.
“While we were answering direct messages…a message popped up and said: ‘This feature is unavailable due to the protection of our community,’” said Musa, who is based in Chicago.
Many people were messaging to learn more about the charity campaign launched by Paliroots, Musa’s company. “They were wondering whether we were ignoring them,” she said. “We had to constantly make Instagram stories saying, ‘Hey, we can’t message back on DM. People were reaching out to us to help them connect their friends and family in Gaza with relief kits through MECA (Paliroots’ partner on the ground). We couldn’t refer them since we weren’t able to message, which left families in Gaza with no guidance.”
“It escalated people’s thinking that the charity project was fake,” Musa added.
The fact that the block was imposed on May 15—a hugely symbolic day for Palestinians known as the “Nakba” or The Catastrophe that marks the day 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in 1948—left Musa’s team feeling particularly helpless. “We don’t know why it happened,” she said. “We hadn’t had any of our posts removed before that.”
Instagram reinstated Paliroots’ access to direct messages on Thursday, the same day the Israeli army and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire after 11 days of fighting during which 232 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 people in Israel were killed.
Other U.S. companies have also reported experiencing suppression or censorship since unrest in Gaza and Israel began on May 10.
Akram Abdullah, founder of Nominal, a jewelry company in Phoenix, Arizona, told VICE News they have seen below-average sales since posting messages of solidarity with Palestinians. “People are not seeing our posts or stories so they don’t get the engagement they typically would,” he said.
“It’s disappointing,” he added. “Instagram is a free platform. People should be able to voice their opinions and thoughts without any kind of repercussions... If anything, it makes us want to have the conversation more and more.”
Their voices add to the chorus of complaints received by Amir Rashidi, the director of internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group in New York. “Instagram often engages in very political behaviour,” he said, citing one recent image posted by an Iranian user featuring the Palestinian, Iranian, and Turkish flag. It was flagged and removed by Instagram for “violence and dangerous organizations.”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he told VICE News. “Facebook (which owns Instagram) is doing what traditionally repressive governments did or are doing. To me, there is not a big difference between the Iranian government, which has one of the biggest internet censorships, and the censorship done by Instagram. Censorship is censorship, no matter who does it.”
Facebook admitted it made an error removing content about Al-Aqsa Mosque, the site of clashes between Israeli police forces and Palestinian worshippers, after Instagram associated the site with terrorism. The company did not comment specifically on the individual accounts mentioned in this article, but several of the posts mentioned in this piece have been reinstated.
“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,” referring to mistakenly removed content about Al-Aqsa, the site of clashes between Israeli police forces and Palestinian worshippers, after Instagram associated the site with terrorism.
“While these have been fixed, they should never 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—nor do we ever want to silence a particular community or point of view,” the spokesperson said.
“Our policies are designed to give everyone a voice while keeping them safe on our apps, and we apply these policies equally, regardless of who is posting or their personal beliefs. We have a dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, closely monitoring the situation on the ground, who are focused on making sure we’re removing harmful content, while addressing any enforcement errors as quickly as possible.”
Former employees of Facebook said that complaints around a significant drop in posts related to bombings in Gaza and Jerusalem could be attributed to “deliberate throttling reach and hiding hashtags.”
Ashraf Zeitoon, who served as Facebook’s head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region from 2014 to mid-2017, points to one example from the Lovindubai digital media site who saw their Instagram post about luxury fashion chains in Dubai, including Harvey Nichols, Bloomingdale’s, and Ounass that appear to be pro-Israeli suddenly removed, without warning or explanation.
“I can confirm that this is not the first time that Facebook adopts such measures to demote content, which its content policy team believes to be borderline inciteful or unqualified spam—which is not the case in so many of these incidents,” Zeitoon said.
Mai ElMahdy, who used to work for the global escalations community operations team for Facebook from its Dublin office, explained these activities are often triggered by the platform’s automated algorithms.
“From my experience, I believe the automation that has been used and fed with specific keywords related to Palestine could be the reason behind some content being censored,” said ElMahdy.
“There is also the human factor here, which is a conscious decision made by the content policy team to remove certain types of content under direct pressure from the Israeli government.”
ElMahdy suggests creators experiencing suppression share, post, and use hashtags and stories more than before to avoid dips in traffic to their stories.
“It has always been a case of who has the louder voice internally and externally,” she added, in reference to the tech giant’s close relationship with Israeli government officials. Israeli media reported last week that the country’s Justice Minister called on Facebook and TikTok executives to commit to removing content that incites violence or spreads disinformation.
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