The Gaza conflict on social media

Bassem Aly , Thursday 20 May 2021

Israel’s bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip has given rise to a parallel conflict on social media

The Gaza conflict on social media

For Instagram blogger Kirsty Rutherford, many media outlets are deliberately using the wrong words to describe Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and its aerial bombing campaign against the Gaza Strip. She advocates using different words to change global perceptions about the 70-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Gaza conflict on social media

Instead of using terms such as “eviction,” “conflict,” “war,” and “clash,” she has been replacing them with others to describe Israel’s actions such as “apartheid,” “colonialism,” “state-sanctioned violence,” “ethnic cleansing,” “illegal settlements,” and “occupation”.

Hundreds of Palestinians have thus far been injured or killed in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. But this is not the only battle they are fighting, for another one is taking place on social media.

The Gaza conflict on social media

Palestinians are using social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to produce visual and written documentation explaining the Palestinian cause to the world. The Israelis are also doing the same thing in presenting their actions.

Facebook and Instagram have reportedly removed content and blocked the accounts of people reporting on Israel’s violent campaign against the people of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, many of whom will likely be kicked out of their homes by Israel, as well as attacks on them by Israeli settlers.

The Gaza conflict on social media

Instagram’s public relations team made an attempt on 6 May to justify its position. “We know that some people are experiencing issues uploading and viewing stories. This is a widespread global technical issue not related to any particular topic and we’re fixing it right now. We’ll provide an update as soon as we can,” it said in a statement.

Some Palestinians whose accounts were deleted by Instagram posted screenshots of the messages they received. “Post removed for hate speech or symbols,” the messages read.

The Gaza conflict on social media

They received a warning ahead of the deletion of their accounts. “Some of your previous posts didn’t follow our community guidelines. If you post something that goes against our guidelines again, your account may be deleted, including your posts, archive, messages and followers,” it said.

The Palestinians believe they are being treated unfairly by the social media giants. Dina Matar, chair of the Centre for Global Media and Communications at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, told Al-Ahram Weekly that social media had helped Palestinians by providing them with platforms to “tell their story in their own words.”

However, these platforms were now being closed to them in some cases.

“Facebook, in particular, has blocked accounts of Palestinian spokespeople and actors under the guise of hate speech. However, Facebook’s procedures to block accounts is based on a Western-centric view of activism that sees any support for Palestine as being anti-Semitic or as equated with hate speech. The logic used has no scientific basis, but is related to generalised rules that link particular terms and language to what the US and its allies have termed to be ‘terrorist’ organisations,” Matar explained.

“What we need to understand is that language cannot be taken out of context and that these media companies continue to focus on language without linking it to its production and use in different contexts.”

Matar believes that the Palestinian use of social media may not lead to a “definitive shift” in international policies, which “continue to be dictated by long-term strategic imperatives that go beyond Palestinian needs and legitimate demands.”

The Palestinian Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology has been asking people on Facebook to unify hashtags to make sure they trend around the world, including #GazaUnderAttack, #GenocideinGaza and #savesheikhjarrah.

The ministry has also urged people to change the privacy settings of posts and make them public ones. The aim is to make sure that as many people as possible can see them, not only those present in a person’s list of friends.

The Palestinians have also been using TikTok, a Chinese social media site which almost 750 million people actively visit each month. This has been a successful move as millions of viewers have watched Palestinian content on it.

A video that shows Gazan people running from an Israeli airstrike has been viewed more than 44 million times on TikTok. “You guys know what to do,” Sabrina Abukhedir, a Tiktoker, said in a video in which Palestinian children were shown crying as a building was destroyed. About two million people have watched the video.

Palestinian content exists on Facebook and Instagram, but the companies’ attempts to block it have raised serious questions about the ability of Palestinians to post freely. 

Ahlam Muhtaseb, a professor of communication studies at California State University in the US, said that Palestinian bloggers and influencers could group their followers using Instagram Live, as the group Muna Hawwa has done. They have been livestreaming in coordination with famous Arab bloggers and even American bloggers and influencers.

“Israel has so much power in the decision-making process of these two giant platforms and probably others as well. The evidence in the case of Facebook and Instagram is hard to refute or ignore. Israel reached an agreement back in 2016 to censor any comment that ‘incites violence’ against Israel and the Israelis. But the rules are very loose when it comes to defining what constitutes inciting violence – would a comment about Israeli violations or war crimes in Gaza, for example, constitute incitement,” Muhtaseb asked.

“There is the war on the ground, and there is the war in cyberspace. Money and influence tilt the power dynamics in favour of Israel in general, but the dedication of Palestinian cyber-activists and their supporters, motivated by their strong belief in the justice of their cause, manages to break through. A look at the mainstream media coverage shows the dent they have been able to make. The change is happening incrementally and slowly, but steadily.”

Israel cannot be excluded from the equation, as it is doing its best to play down its devastating air strikes on Gaza, the destruction of Palestinian homes and the use of violence against protesters in Jerusalem.

Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the US Associated Press (AP), called for an investigation into Israel’s airstrikes on many media outlets in Gaza. Among those affected were the Al-Jalaa offices of AP. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that the building contained an intelligence office for Hamas, but AP doubts the claim.

“We are in a conflict situation,” Buzbee said. “We do not take sides in that conflict. We heard Israelis say they have evidence; we don’t know what that evidence is. We think it’s appropriate at this point for there to be an independent look at what happened and an independent investigation.”

In a letter sent to the International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor, Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a France-based media watchdog, said that the offices of 23 Palestinian and international media organisations had been destroyed by Israeli airstrikes.

RSF wants the ICC to launch a probe into the incidents and deal with them as possible war crimes.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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