Why is Facebook silencing Palestinian voices for Israel?


Nighat Dad

Facebook wanted to usher in a brave new world. The free flow of information between people would challenge the ossified power of traditional media. Yet Facebook now finds itself creating a world it aimed to challenge, but with it now on top.

News broke in December last year suggesting that Facebook was removing content, pages and profiles of Palestinian activists and news outlets at the behest of the Israeli and US governments. One would imagine that news showing the world’s largest social networking platform operating as a mere puppet of a government would spell trouble to their business model similar to Susan Fowler’s blog post which brought about change at Uber last year.

Yet, the only scandal Facebook is dealing with is for being an alleged, unwilling, puppet of Russia. However, the story of Palestinian voices being silenced, didn’t make it to the public realm, it was barely circulated or covered.

It appears that geopolitics and soft power play an unfortunately devastating role as the deciding factor for news outlets and advocacy firms who selectively choose to give more prominence to some stories over others.

Recently, Facebook found itself in the midst of another controversy which entailed a data breach exposing the profiles of 50 million Facebook users. The data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, who in turn harvested these profiles to develop campaigns for Pres-ident Trump’s electoral run. Mark Zuckerberg has since apologised and blamed the breach on rogue applications, rather than taking responsibility for the fact that Facebook failed to inform its users when it found out about the breach in 2015.

Not the first time: These instances are not, however, the first time that Facebook has undermined the trust of its users. Earlier in 2016, reports suggested that Facebook executives were meeting Israeli governmental officials to decide whether Palestinian content should be removed and labelled under “incitement.”

Facebok was reportedly threatened by the Israeli government to play along or deal with legislation or fines. The cost of silencing the voices of a historically victimised people for calling of what can rightfully be called an occupying state is confirmation of the influence that some governments have on Silicon Valley tech giants.

The voices Facebook can’t afford to ignore: When it comes to this particular story, the company has avoided responding to the concerns. When a writer in India contacted Facebook concerning a new policy requiring its Indian users to provide their official names as they appeared on their national identification cards, in an obvious breach of privacy, the company was not only quick to respond but also reversed policy. Nevertheless, when the company was contacted for its silencing of Palestinian voices there was no denial, no acknowledgement, just silence.The hardline illegal settlement proponent, Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, boasted last year that since the government met with Facebook, the private tech firm had received 158 requests over a period of four months to remove content it deemed incitement and Facebook complied with 95 percent of requests.

Indeed, for those who are unaware, this has become a kind of a blanket censorship scheme that outdoes authoritarian regimes. In the case of Palestinian people, activists and journalists, Facebook has become the authoritarian government itself. Lacking a government or a strong global position that could force companies to do their bidding or threaten them with fines, Palestinian activists and common users are left at the mercy of those they are fighting against.

While Israel can get Facebook and others (YouTube has also been reported to comply with the country’s requests) to take down content it deems hateful, Palestinians can’t do the same to the hateful content shared by the Israelis – even when it comes directly from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If Facebook’s real aim was to keep its platform free of hate speech, as it claims, it would also meet with Palestinian leaders to discuss their concerns. By not meeting with Palestinians, Facebook is turning into a collaborator with a state that systematically denies Palestinians their basic rights.

According to the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms, the pages and people affected by Facebook’s censorship on behalf of Israel in 2016 is an ongoing issue. They include activists such as Qassam Bedier and Mohammed Ghannam, online radio accounts of  “Orient Radio Network” and the “Palestinian Dialogue Network”. An extensive list of more than 20 journalists, activists and media platforms who have had their accounts suppressed by Facebook.

They were being followed by millions of people – Palestinians and non-Palestinians. When they were removed by the Israeli government with the acquiescence of Facebook – it halted the free flow of information of those who looked at these outlets for unfiltered information on Israel.

Given the size and reach Facebook has, it essentially controls information for over a billion people.

In light of these concerns, several governments have called on the company to start considering itself as a publishing platform.

When this kind of censorship is allowed to occur what exactly is the point of Facebook, one might ask?

A recently published Wired piece details how Facebook went through a “hellish” two years. While this piece focus on how the company suppressed conservative news in the US, it goes on to say that Mark Zuckerberg is trying to fix it all. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has exposed the extent of the power that Facebook wields and the influence that it has on democracies worldwide.

But as we see the company routinely silencing Palestinian voices while Israelis continue to have free rein over how they paint Palestinians – including inciting violence against them – it will be interesting to see how future solutions will be any different. There is no precedent to show that Silicon Valley will work towards helping the marginalized or give a voice to the unheard. It remains unclear if the Facebook board has a pro-Israel policy considering the platform is largely left-leaning. There are also those who believe that Zuckerburg is eyeing the US presidency against this backdrop.

Israel has a powerful lobby in AIPAC and few presidential candidates can resist its appeal or refuse its endorsement. Silencing Palestinians is a small price to pay for many would-be presidential candidates. It could also very well be that the company is simply doing this to avoid legislation in Israel, however, experts argue that Facebook is capable of fighting any problematic legislation and is simply not willing to fight this battle.

But, in a world where one platform is replaced by another every few years, Facebook will have to decide who it wants to be. Do they wish to be a platform for users to connect, share and consume news, or will it continue to be an extension of a powerful government that uses the platform to suppress speech and actively undermine activism without any care for free expression.