Meta-censorship of post on Palestine: Human Rights Watch investigation

An investigation by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that the social media platforms Instagram and Facebook, both part of Meta, have systematically censored and obscured posts about Palestine . The investigation was published in a HRW report. The NGO received 1,050 reports from Palestinian or Palestinian-supporting users regarding posts on Instagram and Facebook before closing the investigation. The analysis of each report confirmed that in 1049 cases pro-Palestinian content was deleted or obscured without valid reason . This investigation is part of a line of investigations by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, which in recent years have demonstrated Meta's incorrect behavior towards posts on Palestine and have highlighted the critical issues of Meta's policies on content to be censored or obscured.

The Human Rights Watch investigation

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch denounced Meta's systematic censorship of content posted by Palestinian or pro-Palestine users. After the Hamas attack on 7 October 2023 , the NGO published several posts on its channels in which it asked users to report censorship of posts on Palestine that they deemed unjustified. In less than two months, HRW received 1,050 reports before closing the investigation. The 1050 reports were analyzed individually. In 1049 cases, censorship of content posted by Palestinian or pro-Palestinian users was found . The censorship was deemed unjustified, as none of the posts incited violence and contained violent content.

HRW also reported that its post, in which users were invited to report incorrect behavior by Meta, was repeatedly obscured by social platforms and indicated as "spam". Even the comments of users who shared the email address to which reports were sent were repeatedly obscured. The NGO denounced several recurring ways in which Instagram and Facebook have censored posts on Palestine, the most frequent of which are: removal of posts, stories and comments, suspension or removal of accounts , restrictions on account interactions and shadow banning. Furthermore, the report reveals that, in hundreds of cases, users who received censorship were not given the opportunity to appeal the decision or were not given clear biased reasons by Meta.

Post on Palestine. Human Rights Watch Meta
Source. Human Rights Watch

Meta's policies towards posts on Palestine

In its report , HRW traced the schematic censorship of Instagram and Facebook to some unclear or unfair policies of Meta . In cases where the removal of the post was accompanied by a reason, Meta stated that the post did not follow the guidelines regarding “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals (DOI)”. This policy prevents the publication of content that “advocates violent intentions or incites violence”. Meta rightly has an obligation to prevent the spread of violent content on its platforms. However, HRW pointed out that the policy in question uses terms that are too vague, such as “praise”, “support” and “dangerous organizations”. The NGO also reiterates that to define "dangerous organizations" Meta relies solely on the list of dangerous and terrorist organizations released by the US government , which also includes many Palestinian organizations, and which cannot be adopted as the sole source.

HRW's analysis highlighted that Meta's ambiguous policy led to the deletion of posts that commented neutrally on actions by Hamas or other Palestinian political organizations . The same policy has repeatedly indicated posts critical of the actions of Israel and Netanyahu as "hate language" and "dangerous" , regardless of the tone used, with the consequent removal of the content. HRW reiterated that the critical issues of the DOI policy have been notified to Meta several times, including in the past. Although the company has committed to improving its policies, no results have yet emerged.

Relevant news and requests from the Israeli government

The investigation also revealed other ambiguities, regarding content considered "relevant" from an information point of view and requests for removal of content by government bodies. In the first case, HRW denounced the lack of clarity of Meta's policy in defining "relevant" content , and therefore allowing its publication even if it violates other policies (such as the DOI). This has led to cases of censorship of news and posts about Palestine, while posts with a similar tone on other topics have not been blacked out.

Meta has also granted most requests for voluntary deletion of posts by Israel's Cyber ​​Unit , an Israeli government cybersecurity body. According to HRW's investigation, Meta accepted the request to voluntarily censor content in 94% of cases. In total, Israel's Cyber ​​Unit reportedly requested the removal of nearly 6,000 posts and content on Instagram and Facebook . NGOs denounce Meta's lack of transparency, which has never clarified the procedure for complying with a government body's request for the voluntary removal of content.

Journalists in the Gaza Strip. Post on Palestine
Journalists in the Gaza Strip document Israel's bombing, December 2023. Source Time Magazine – Mohammed Al-Zanoun.

Repeated and systematic censorship of posts about Palestine

It is not the first time that Meta has been caught in acts of censorship against Palestinian or pro-Palestine users. It had already happened in 2021, when the Israeli authorities' plan to take over homes of Palestinian citizens in East Jerusalem caused protests and violent demonstrations . In that case, HRW had documented the censorship of the debate, which had opened on Facebook, on the choice of the Israeli government. The NGO had denounced that Meta was "silencing many people in a completely arbitrary way and without explanation, replicating online the power imbalances and abuses present in the field" .

After the accusations, Meta launched an independent internal investigation and announced that it would reevaluate its policies and improve its guidelines. However, even today Meta's progress is limited; freedom of expression on its social networks is not fully guaranteed, although Meta allows the publication of thousands of news items and posts criticizing Israel's actions.

Freedom of information in the Palestinian conflict

Human Rights Watch underlines that Meta's attitude fits into a broader context of aversion towards an open and free debate on the Palestinian issue . On November 23, 2023, at a hearing at the United Nations, experts highlighted the growing global climate of hostility and criminalization aimed at those who show solidarity with Palestinian victims or the Palestinian cause . Furthermore, the free flow of information has been hindered several times since the beginning of the crisis in the Gaza Strip, with repeated interruptions of the internet networks in the area, which prevented the dissemination of news, in many cases concerning the violation of human rights. Finally, the HRW report reports the investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) into the safety conditions of journalists in the Gaza Strip. According to CPJ, at least 64 journalists have died in the conflict since October 7 , including 57 Palestinians, 4 Israelis and 7 Lebanese.

The article Meta censorship post on Palestine: Human Rights Watch investigation was written on: Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .