Digital warfare: Pro-Palestine social media users counterattack Meta's 'biased' algorithms

Aya Salah , Monday 23 Oct 2023

Many pro-Palestine activists on social media are encountering obstacles when it comes to freely expressing and sharing content about the Israeli war on Palestine's Gaza Strip, but this doesn’t stop them from coming up with tactics to outsmart biased algorithms.

People attending a pro-Palestine demonstration wave a flag between the metal fence of the White Hous
People attending a pro-Palestine demonstration wave a flag between the metal fence of the White House, in Washington. AP

 

According to Palestine's Representative in the UN, Riyadh Mansour, as many as 3,500 Palestinian civilians, including at least 1,000 children, have been killed and 12,605 injured since Israel began its war on Gaza on 7 October.

The appalling atrocities that Israeli forces commit daily against the Palestinian civilians in Gaza have drawn widespread condemnation, prompting many worldwide to show solidarity with the Palestinians and document Israel’s crimes.  

Social media algorithms and community guidelines have hobbled the online activities of Palestine supporters.  

Many users on Instagram and Facebook have complained that their stories and posts are getting shadowbanned and no longer receive engagement or reach from their followers.

"My social media accounts on Instagram have been significantly restricted due to what is known as shadow banning because of my recent posts about what is happening in Gaza,” says Mohammad Abo Shukur, an active supporter of Palestine on social media.

He added that his posts' reach has been significantly reduced and that some friends cannot find him in the search results when they look up his name, even though his account is active. 

Another Facebook user also noted that the reach of posts supporting Palestine significantly decreases 5 or 10 minutes after publication.

Since the beginning of Israel’s aggression on Gaza, Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has introduced a series of measures for addressing its apps, denying the "suggestion" that it is "deliberately suppressing voice".

It confessed, however, that errors may happen and offered “an appeal process for people".

The company said Meta designated Hamas as a "Dangerous Organization".

"Hamas is banned from our platforms, and we remove praise and substantive support of them when we become aware of it while continuing to allow social and political discourse — such as news reporting, human rights related issues, or academic, neutral and condemning discussion," Meta said.

On Thursday, Meta announced deleting 795,000 Arabic and Hebrew posts across its various platforms in the first three days of the conflict.

 It also banned several hashtags on Instagram, including #طوفان_الأقصى (Al-Aqsa Flood).

The company has not defined what constitutes "substantive support" of Hamas. Instead, it keeps censoring many Facebook and Instagram accounts or suspending them, thus depriving users of posting content.

Therefore, many users now complain that Meta is biased and suppresses their pro-Palestine voices by decreasing the reach of their posts even if they do not break the platforms’ rules.

According to an article published Monday in the New York Times, many Palestine supporters have had to flock “to other platforms to get their messages out while criticizing Meta’s content moderation.”

The New York-based newspaper also reported that to bypass Meta's censorship, users resort to posting content in the comments section of posts by widely followed Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Facebook responded by restricting comments on some posts on public pages and allowing only those who have been followers for more than 24 hours to post comments.   

According to Sada Social, a monitoring and documenting centre for digital violations against Palestinian content, since the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, social media platforms have responded to 4,450 requests by the Israeli Public Prosecution to remove Palestinian content.  

The centre cited statements such as “From Sea to River” as an example of what Meta platforms view as “antisemitism.”

 

It reported that social media platforms have over 8,000 posts in Hebrew and foreign languages – including 138 death threats in Hebrew to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank –  encouraging violence against Palestinians and the blockade and deprivation of necessities in Gaza.

In a post on X platform, formerly Twitter, Hampton Institute, a think tank, wrote on Sunday: “Instagram and Facebook are actively blocking posts about the factual history of Israel/Palestine, sometimes cloaking it as ‘technical difficulty.”

Playing it smart to trick algorithms

Despite the restrictions, users have found ways to circumvent the algorithmic bias of social media apps. 

One of these tactics is encoding certain words by inserting English letters in the middle of Arabic words. 

For example, instead of writing فلسطين (Palestine), users write it as (fلسطين)

Users also resort to Tajawaz to encode Arabic sentences.

They also remove dots from Arabic letters.

 

Meanwhile, many social media users avoid being shadowbanned by inserting random content that disrupts the continuity of the stories they post.

Silencing Palestinian narratives 

An Institute for Palestine Studies report affirmed that digital violations against Palestinian content have significantly increased. 

In 2016, around 200 Palestinian pages and accounts were targeted, especially during stabbing operations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. 

Violations rose in 2017 to 280 on YouTube and Facebook, including banning publications, closing accounts, and deleting pages.

By 2018, the centre documented 500 violations against Palestinian content, especially that posted by journalists on Facebook.

In 2019, the violations increased to over 1,000, 950 of which were on Facebook. These included removing, suspending, or banning pages and personal accounts, often using specific terms like "Hamas," "Jihad," "Martyr," and others as pretexts for censorship. 

The Arab Centre for Social Media Advancement (7amleh) documented in 2021 1,200 violations, including account closures, post and livestream restrictions, and limitations on post reach and account following. 

These violations notably increased during the events in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in May 2021, with 500 reports recorded between 6 and 19 May.

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