When content moderation is selective

This is part of a series on platforms and the press published jointly by CJR and the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy.

In his book Custodians of the Internet, Tarleton Gillespie argues that “a platform is not a platform without moderation.” The question, however, is how the content moderation policies imposed by the platforms affect the news. How do these policies affect the self-censorship of journalists and media outlets when writing news, especially in communities like Palestine, where people and journalists are exposed to more censorship on the platforms?

In May 2021, the Israeli authorities were forcibly displacing Palestinians from their homes in some neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where Palestinians rose up in what they called the May uprising, which was followed by an attack on the Gaza Strip. During the two weeks of the uprising, my organization, 7amleh—The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, documented five hundred content censorship cases on the social media platforms, 85 percent of which were on Meta’s platforms, in cases involving journalists and activists, as well as organizations and individuals. Ultimately, 7amleh was able to restore many of those cases, as they weren’t violating Meta’s community standards. 

During the same time period, an Egyptian journalist shared a post via the Al Jazeera Arabic page and was censored based on Meta’s “dangerous organizations and individuals” policy (DOI). Later on, the issue was escalated to Meta’s Oversight Board, which after reviewing the case recommended that “the content did not violate its rules.” Based on this case, the Oversight Board recommended Meta adopt a set of recommendations, including that it “conduct a thorough examination (by an independent third-party institution) to determine whether Facebook’s content moderation in Arabic and Hebrew, including its use of automation, have been applied without bias.”

The Business Social Responsibility Network (BSR) report proved that Meta’s policies are biased against Palestinians and that company practices over-enforce its content moderation policies on Palestinian Arabic content and under-enforce Israeli Hebrew content. The report pointed out that this affects the right to freedom of expression in Palestine, among many other rights, while allowing hate speech and incitement against Palestinians to remain on the platform, which often leads to real-world harm. Another report by 7amleh confirmed a fifteen-fold increase in incitement, hate speech, and violent discourse in Hebrew during the May uprising, compared with the same period of the previous year.

The biased content moderation policies against Palestinians raise the rate of self-censorship and have a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Two-thirds of Palestinian youth refrain from political participation on social media platforms because of censorship, according to 7amleh. Self-censorship also prompted them, in many cases, to circumvent the platform’s policies by changing some keywords, such as the names of some Palestinian political parties, many of which are included in Meta’s DOI list, to avoid the imposed censorship.

According to a leak of the list published by The Intercept, forty-eight Palestinian individuals and organizations were designated, many of them factions and political parties in Palestine. The list included only two Israeli names, one for an organization and the other for an individual who is considered the founder of the organization. Although there are calls within the Israeli government to designate more militarized groups as terrorist organizations, Meta does not take this into consideration. Journalists have to think carefully about how to frame news pieces to avoid censorship. Sometimes, when writing the names of some Palestinian political parties, these media organizations write them in an encrypted way by entering some letters in English between the Arabic letters, or via the use of some symbols, to minimize content censorship. This affects the form of the final news that is transmitted through the platforms of Arabic-speaking media organizations.

The Egyptian journalist had the courage, time, and effort to escalate his case to Meta’s Oversight Board. Most Palestinian journalists and news organizations don’t have the same privilege.

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Mona Shtaya is the advocacy and communications manager at 7amleh—The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.