Council for the National Interest

Facebook ‘deliberately targeting’ Palestinian accounts after meeting with Israeli government, rights groups say

Oct 26 2016 / 12:03 pm

Social media giant accused of disabling accounts of activists and journalists following talks with Israeli ministers last month… Israel created unit to control what’s on the Internet 

By Bethan McKernan Beirut, UK Independent

A new report from a Palestinian rights organisation has found that the number of incidents in which people – including many journalists – have been arrested for social media posts has drastically increased in the last year, leading to worries over an Israeli crackdown on the right to freedom of expression.

“Social media sites are… an efficient window to empower journalists and Palestinians in general to express their opinions freely,” Mousa Rimawi, author of the report and Director of the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (Mada) said.

“[But] systematic surveillance and observation by Israeli Occupation Authorities [means they have become] an open platform for persecution and oppression relating to users’ opinions.”

While there is no legal precedent in Israeli law for charging people with criminal offenses related to online posts, the state, worried that inflammatory content online has fuelled a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the last 12 months, created a cybercrime unit in October 2015 to monitor and control what is published on the internet. [In the violence far more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis – more info here.]

In addition, Israeli authorities are also pressuring social media companies to do more to remove posts which could incite violence, including drafting laws – which digital rights groups say would be unworkable – to compel platforms to take down content that could incite violence.

A delegation from Facebook met with government officials in September for what were were described as “successful” talks by Interior Minister Gilad Erdan’s office. “Online extremism can only be tackled with a strong partnership between policymakers, civil society, academia and companies, and this is true everywhere,” a representative for Facebook said, adding that the company meets with governments all over the world to combat hate speech and incitement to violence.

This week, the activist collective Palestinian Information Centre (Pic) reported that at least 10 of their administrators’ accounts for their Arabic and English Facebook pages – followed by more than two million people – have been suspended, seven of them permanently, which they say is a result of new measures put in place in the wake of Facebook’s meeting with Israel.

Facebook gave no explanation why other than that members had violated Facebook’s ‘Community Standards’, Pic member Rami Salaam told The Independent. The move was about “preventing our voice from reaching out to the world,” rather than incitement, he said.

One video Mr Salaam said was taken down, of a college graduate in Gaza starting a small business, was removed because it contained nudity – even though it didn’t.  “Seemingly the video was reported by Israelis and Facebook did not even bother to check,” he added. A representative from Facebook told The Independent it was looking into the claims made by Pic.

“We care about the voices, opinion and rights of all the different communities on Facebook,” he added. “Palestinian voices will be as safe on Facebook as every other community on our platform.”

A 2015 report found that 96 per cent of Palestinians said their primary use of Facebook was for following news. Mada says that this shows the extreme importance of social media platforms and thus the potential impact disabling activists’ and journalists’ accounts could have for the dissemination of information relevent to Palestinian interests.

Since last October at least 150 arrests have been made on charges of ‘incitement’, but Palestinians and digital rights monitors say that in many cases posts are not relevant, or critical of Israeli government policy, rather than direct calls to violence.

Since 2014, 61 Palestinian journalists and nine Israeli journalists have been prosecuted for online posts, the new report from Mada found.

In August, five journalists at Hebron start-up Sanabel Radio were also arrested in a dawn raid during what an Israeli army spokesperson said was an “ongoing effort against incitement.”

Last month, several senior journalists from Shehab and Quds news agencies in the West Bank reported their Facebook accounts – used to update professional pages which reach millions of people – had been temporarily suspended, in a move Facebook later said had been an error.

Facebook ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ have also been submitted as evidence in military trials for incitement, West Bank legal charity Addameer told The Independent, as was reported in the sentencing of a Palestinian astrophysics professor supportive of militant group Hamas earlier this month.

“Prosecutors use the numbers of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ of specified posts, while failing to connect these posts or these individuals, to acts of violence. The trend is an alarming one,”  Addameer director Sahar Francis told The Independent at the time. The Israeli Defence Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many Palestinians have called for boycotts of the company for perceived collusion with the Israeli authorities and worries over the fact Facebook activity could be used to target activists.

Mr Salaam of Pic said that Facebook was too important a platform for the group to leave.

“While we feel frustrated and distracted, we’re more determined to continue our activism for Palestine… We utilise all available platforms, even those trying to silence us, to make sure Palestine’s voice is heard loud and clear,” he said.

Related story :

…Israel was represented in this meeting with Facebook by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, an extremist by all measures who has previously said she does not believe in a Palestinian state. Shaked has “proposed legislation that seeks to force social networks to remove content that Israel considers to be incitement,” and recently boasted that Facebook is already extremely compliant with Israeli censorship demands: “Over the past four months Israel submitted 158 requests to Facebook to remove inciting content,” she said, and Facebook has accepted those requests in 95 percent of the cases.

While the focus here is on Palestinians’ “incitement,” it’s actually very common for Israelis to use Facebook to urge violence against Palestinians, including settlers urging “vengeance” when there is an attack on an Israeli. Indeed, as the Washington Post recently noted, “Palestinians have also taken issue with social-media platforms, saying they incite violence and foster an Israeli discourse of hatred, racism and discriminatory attitudes against Palestinians.”

In 2014, thousands of Israelis used Facebook to post messages “calling for the murder of Palestinians.” When an IDF occupying soldier was arrested for shooting and killing a wounded Palestinian point blank in the head last year,IDF soldiers used Facebook to praise the killing and justify that violence, with online Israeli mobs gathering in support. Indeed, Justice Minister Shaked herself — now part of the government team helping Facebook determine what to censor — has used Facebook to post astonishingly extremist and violence-inducing rhetoric against Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his other top ministers have done the same. As Al Jazeera America detailed in 2014:

The hate speech against Arabs that gathered momentum on Facebook and Twitter soon spilled out onto the streets of Jerusalem as extremist Israelis kicked up violence and caused chaos. This violence then made its way back online: YouTube and Facebook videos show hundreds of angry Israeli mobs running around chanting, “Death to Arabs,” and looking for Palestinians to attack. A video of an Israeli Jew attacking a Palestinian on a public bus shouting, “Filthy Arabs, filthy Arab murderers of children,” emerged from Tel Aviv. And more videofootage showing Israeli security forces using excessive force on a handcuffed Palestinian-American boy further called into question who was really inciting this chaos.

Can anyone imagine Facebook deleting the posts of prominent Israelis calling for increased violence or oppression against Palestinians? Indeed, is it even possible to imagine Facebook deleting the posts of Americans or western Europeans who call for aggressive wars or other forms of violenceagainst predominantly Muslim countries, or against critics of the West? To ask the question is to answer it. Facebook is a private company, with a legal obligation to maximize profit, and so it will interpret very slippery concepts such as “hate speech” and “inciting violence” to please those who wield the greatest power.

……Facebook, at this point, is far and away the most dominant force in journalism.

Posted by on Oct 26 2016 . Filed under Commentary & Analysis, Featured articles . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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