‘Incitement’ and ‘indecency’: How Palestinian dissent is repressed online

Censorship of Palestinian content by Israel, the PA, and Hamas is escalating at an unprecedented and dangerous speed.

A Palestinian youth points to logos of Facebook and WhatsApp on his computer in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip February 22, 2014. (Photo Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)
A Palestinian youth points to logos of Facebook and WhatsApp on his computer in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip February 22, 2014. (Photo Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90)

On Oct. 11, 2019, Facebook shut down the Palestinian Information Center, a news page with five million followers, without prior notice. Six days later, at the request of the attorney general of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Ramallah Magistrates Court ordered the blocking of 59 websites under the pretext that they were threatening “national security, public order, and public manners.”

Shortly afterward — ironically, on the morning of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists — Twitter blocked three accounts of the Quds News Network, an independent Palestinian media outlet with a large online following. Metras, another Palestinian website on the PA’s blacklist, reported that a number of their Facebook posts were flagged and deleted, and that they received a warning that their page might be taken down.

WhatsApp, the messaging app now owned by Facebook, also blocked or shut down around one hundred accounts belonging to Palestinian journalists and activists, and banned them from sharing information and updates during Israel’s military attacks on Gaza last month.

Such censorship of Palestinian online content is escalating at an unprecedented and dangerous speed. To express your political views as a Palestinian, you must now tiptoe around three different authorities: Israel, the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank, and the de facto Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, each of which suppresses political speech according to their own varying definitions of incitement and unwanted dissent.

Legal cover for repression

The crackdown on Palestinian free speech on social media began in late 2015 in the aftermath of the “knife intifada,” during which social media platforms were blamed for allowing communications that encouraged the outbreak of violence and so-called “lone-wolf attacks” by Palestinian youth. As a result, social media platforms became fresh grounds for suppression and surveillance by governing authorities.

Since then, Israel has arrested and interrogated hundreds of Palestinians for posts they wrote or shared on social media. Using “predictive policing” tools to monitor social media accounts and flag suspects of future attacks, Israel has targeted Palestinians — both citizens of Israel and residents of the occupied West Bank — for jail sentences based on broad and vague charges of “incitement to violence.”

The PA joined this repressive wave in 2017 when President Mahmoud Abbas enacted the controversial Cybercrime Law, which drew heavy criticism across the board and was reformed a year later after pressure from Palestinian civil society. The law provides legal cover for the PA’s increasing crackdown on political dissent, particularly from its political rivals, and on criticism and calls for accountability by ordinary Palestinians.

It is no wonder, then, that most of the websites targeted in the PA’s recent ban are either affiliated with Fatah’s rival Hamas, or are independent sites critical of the Palestinian leadership and which have exposed corruption within the PA. The law has also been used to prosecute Palestinian activists, journalists and, last month, a lawyer, Muhannad Karaja, for criticizing the PA’s relations with Israel on Facebook.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh (R) and President Mahmoud Abbas (L) at the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah, April 13, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh (R) and President Mahmoud Abbas (L) at the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah, April 13, 2019. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The Cybercrime Law is not the PA’s first foray into online censorship; just days before the law first emerged in 2017, the PA blocked about 20 websites, some of which re-appeared on the public prosecutor’s list this year. But its recent actions have gone much further than before.

The takedown of Metras’ Facebook content, and the deletion of all the Twitter accounts of the Quds News Network, indicates that the PA is following Israel’s direction in pressuring social media companies to remove unfavorable Palestinian content from their platforms. The head of the cybercrime division at the public prosecution’s office, Nisreen Zeina, said herself that they would contact Facebook to request the removal of such pages.

The status of freedom of expression in Gaza is equally dire. The Hamas government relies on a 2009 amendment to the penal code which criminalizes the “misuse of technology” to promote or disseminate “indecent” or “inciteful” content. These terms are so vague that they serve as catch-webs for Palestinian activists and journalists who use social media to express their views; even the charge of “indecency” effectively includes any public criticism of Hamas officials, their governance, or their policies.

Corporate complicity

A centerpiece in all this is the social media companies themselves and their policies of “content moderation.” In recent years, American social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have tightened their rules regarding hate speech and content that incites to violence, terrorism and discrimination — or, at least, that’s what they claim to have done.

These rules are opaque and only loosely relate to human rights, which leaves it to the companies to decide what does or doesn’t constitute hate speech. Indeed, there are countless examples, particularly of Facebook, the most popular platform among Palestinian internet users, deleting content or suspending Palestinian accounts only to apologize and reinstate them following public outcry.

Take the recent case of Facebook’s content removal campaign, which triggered angry calls to boycott the platform among Palestinians. According to Sada Social, a Palestinian initiative that monitors and documents cases of censorship on social media, Facebook deleted hundreds of posts and accounts, including some dating back many years, that contained any of the following words: “Hamas,” “Jihad,” “Shaheed,” “Al Qassam,” “Al Saraya,” and “Hezbollah.”

The flagging and removal of old and new content indicates the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for content moderation, meaning that these words are added to a list of content to be automatically listed and removed. If this is the case, numerous questions remained unanswered to the public: how are these rules developed? Who decides them? And how are they enforced?

In addition to all this, Facebook’s practices reveal a political bias in favor of elevating the Israeli narrative while suppressing the Palestinian one.

In policing Palestinian online spheres since 2015, Facebook accepted most requests made by the Israeli government’s cyber unit, which was set up to counter Palestinian social media content that it deems to be “inciting to violence.” This strategy of levying pressure on social media companies to regulate their own content has become common for many governments both democratic and authoritarian alike.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Cybertech Israel Conference and Exhibition, in Tel Aviv. January 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Cybertech Israel Conference and Exhibition, in Tel Aviv. January 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The asymmetric battle of narratives did not start with the social media era, but was certainly amplified by it. Some words that Facebook had censored, such as “shaheed” (martyr in Arabic), are part of expressions of Palestinian collective identity as an occupied people. In these cases, what Palestinians consider to be an exercise of their rights to freedom and self-determination is regarded by Israel as terrorism and incitement.

This is what Israeli scholar Yonatan Mendel describes as the politics of non-translation: Israeli authorities, media, and academia systematically empty the Palestinian lexicon of its contextual meaning, and fill it instead with demonizing and negative values tied to glorifying death, violence, and terrorism.

Politicized technology

Do Facebook employees in Silicon Valley or elsewhere take these aspects into consideration? It’s highly doubtful, and they cannot use ignorance as an excuse. There are far stronger economic and political incentives for Facebook and other social media companies to comply with Israeli government requests. This is in addition to the fact that the companies do not see the Palestinian “market” as significant, except for when there is occasional outcry at the companies’ discriminatory policies that garner international media attention.

There is also a general perception that AI is a neutral technology that is protected from the whims of human intervention and people’s subjective bias. The belief is that whereas in the past, an overworked and underpaid worker would have to make a quick and possibly flawed decision whether to delete, ignore, or report a flagged content on a social media platform, today an algorithm can objectively identify content that violates a platform’s rules.

This is a false and dangerous claim. Human bias and discrimination always seep into the programming of these technologies and the decisions to ban certain words. And in the Palestinian case, those decisions are political at their very core.

Palestinian cyberspace has therefore become a scary place, and the growing crackdown on Palestinian freedom of expression on the internet has had a severe chilling effect on political speech and participation. According to a new research by the organization 7amleh, two thirds of young Palestinians now refrain from airing their political views on social media for fear of reprisal and oppression.

With attacks and restrictions on free speech coming from every direction, it has become harder to defend Palestinians’ online space and fundamental rights — but it remains an urgent responsibility nonetheless. Yet instead of assuming this duty, the PA, like Israel and Hamas, is learning how to better censor its own people’s voices. If it genuinely wants to safeguard “national security, public order, and public manners,” as it claims, the PA should start by taking its eyes (and its hands) off the screens of ordinary Palestinians.