Ancient Arabic and bad reviews: Users hit back against Facebook censorship on Palestine

Zeinab El-Gundy , Wednesday 19 May 2021

Users are attempting to circumvent the algorithm of some social media outlets, which have been reportedly censoring posts supporting the Palestinian cause

Palestinian Youth and Facebook
A file photo of Palestinian youths check their facebook accounts at an internet cafe in the West Bank city in 2012 (Photo:Getty Images)

In an attempt to avoid censorship on social media platforms, young Arabs have resorted to making posts in the Arabic language without the use of dots, a form of Arabic writing not used since the 7th century.

These users are attempting to circumvent the algorithm of some social media outlets, which have been reportedly censoring posts supporting the Palestinian cause or condemning the recent Israeli actions in East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Tensions came to a head two weeks ago in East Jerusalem when Palestinians protested the planned evictions by Israeli authorities of Palestinian residents in the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in favour of Jewish settlers. Shortly after, Israeli forces raided Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem, which is considered the third holiest site in Islam.

Many social media users took to platforms like Instagram and Facebook to spread awareness about Sheikh Jarrah.

Supermodel Bella Hadid, an American of Palestinian origin, published a series of posts to millions of her followers about Sheikh Jarrah residents’ struggle and the injustice faced by Palestinians. Many followed suit, but shortly after, hashtags including terms like “Aqsa” were restricted on Facebook.

Facebook said that hashtags including Al-Aqsa had been mistakenly restricted, and that restriction had been lifted.

Many Facebook users in Egypt and other Arab countries reported that their comments and posts had been removed, and some users said their accounts had been suspended for 24 hours due to their pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli posts.

On Instagram, posts, stories and livestreaming from Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque disappeared, which the company blamed on a technical bug.

Sites pledge to censor ‘misinformation’ on behalf of Israel

Shortly after the escalations in East Jerusalem, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz held a zoom meeting with executives from Facebook and TikTok, where he urged them to remove “misinformation” and “content inciting to violence” from their sites.

In an unprecedent public move by a defence minister, he asked them to proactively remove undesirable content and respond quickly to appeals from the Israeli cyber bureau.

From their side, the executives expressed their commitment to quickly prevent “incitement” on their social networks.

On the same day, Palestinian ambassador to London Husam Zomlot met Facebook's director of Public Policy for MENA Ebele Okobi to issue an official complaint about the censorship of Palestinian content on the platforms owned by Facebook Inc.

Zomlot stated that there was no monitoring or removal of “Israeli incitement” on Facebook, particularly in Hebrew-language posts.

On Sunday, the Palestinian embassy in the UK received a letter of intent from Facebook to resolve serious issues following an official complaint by the mission.

Creative measures

In the middle ages, Arab poet and grammarian Abu al-Aswad al-Du’ali, dubbed the Father of Arabic grammar, incorporation the use of dots in the Arabic alphabet to make it easier for non-Arabs to read the Holy Quran.

For native Arabic speakers, it is not much of a challenge to read pre-medieval, dot-less Arabic, and there are currently a number of websites and apps that turn modern Arabic text into this archaic form.

A simple test using Old Arabic on Google Translate reveals that the algorithm fails to recognise most undotted words.

Besides using Old Arabic to get around the algorithm, some users have resorted to “review bombing” the mobile apps for Facebook, i.e. flooding the app store page with negative reviews as a way of expressing grievance.

On the Android store, the ratings for the Facebook app have dropped to 2.9 out of 5 stars.

Many reviewers who gave the popular app a one-star review over the past few days have Arab or Muslim usernames.

Some reviewers mentioned technical reasons like bugs in the recent updates for the Facebook app, while others complained of privacy issues and that the app “eavesdrops” on users for sake of advertising.

Others explicitly cited political censorship.

“There has been a notable crackdown on any opinion that is contrary to a certain body,” said one reviewer.

“I don't feel free to write what I want… when it comes to defending the weak and disarmed Palestinians or expressing my discontent with some of the Israeli actions, I am banned,” said another.

On Apple’s app store, the Facebook app went from 2.6 to a 1.7 rating on Tuesday.

“You support Israel, and we support Palestine, we may not be able to physically defend Palestine, but we can speak, raise awareness, exert pressure until the days come when Palestinian families can sleep safely in their home, we will never forget,” said one reviewer on the Apple app store.

Another way users are protesting Facebook’s policies towards the supporters of the Palestinian cause is to spam posts by its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg with hashtags including “#Save_Sheikh_Jarrah” and “#Palestine_Under_Attack”.

On 14 May, Zuckerberg published a personal photo for him while surfing, where he restricted comments on his profile.

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