Meta ‘stifling’ pro-Palestine voices on social media, rights group says

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‘Censorship’ of hundreds of posts on Facebook, Instagram during Gaza war furthers ‘erasure of Palestinians’ suffering’.

Published On 21 Dec 2023

Social media giant Meta has systematically censored pro-Palestine voices during the current Israel-Palestinian conflict, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The report alleges that Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, has pulled down or suppressed hundreds of pro-Palestine posts due to flawed content moderation policies, poor implementation, and “undue government influence”.

“Meta’s censorship of content in support of Palestine adds insult to injury at a time of unspeakable atrocities and repression already stifling Palestinians’ expression,” said Deborah Brown, HRW’s acting associate technology and human rights director.

“Social media is an essential platform for people to bear witness and speak out against abuses while Meta’s censorship is furthering the erasure of Palestinians’ suffering.”

HRW said it went through more than 1,000 cases of Meta censorship in 60 countries, documenting a pervasive “pattern of undue removal and suppression of protected speech, including peaceful expression in support of Palestine and public debate about Palestinian human rights”.

In dozens of cases, Meta took down newsworthy posts documenting Palestinian suffering or death. It justified these decisions by referencing its restrictions on “violent and graphic content, violence and incitement, hate speech, and nudity and sexual activity”.

For hundreds of other posts, Meta applied its “Dangerous Organizations and Individuals” (DOI) policy, which aims to stop “organisations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission” from having a presence on the platform. HRW said Meta had misused this policy to broadly “restrict legitimate speech around hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups”.

In other cases, Meta deleted or suspended users’ accounts, limited users’ engagement, or “shadow banned” them, making their posts less visible without telling them, HRW added.

Nearly a third of censored posts could not be appealed because of glitches in the appeals system, leaving users without access to redress, HRW said.

‘Empty promises’

HRW’s concern with Meta’s content policies tracks with previous independent investigations and rulings from the company’s oversight body.

In 2021, a Meta-commissioned report found that the company’s flawed content moderation policies had stopped Palestinians from sharing “information and insights about their experiences as they occurred”, having a negative “human rights impact”.

On Tuesday, Meta’s independent oversight board criticised the company for removing posts that showed human suffering in the ongoing Gaza war. It restored two such posts, including an Instagram video of the aftermath of a strike on or near al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

The board’s co-chair Michael McConnel said it was important for the platform to keep such posts up because they provide “timely and diverse information about ground-breaking events”.

These posts may even constitute “important evidence of potential grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,”, McConnel said.

In 2022, Meta said it would make changes to its content moderation policies based on recommendations from its oversight board, but it has failed to follow through, HRW alleges.

“Instead of tired apologies and empty promises, Meta should demonstrate that it is serious about addressing Palestine-related censorship once and for all by taking concrete steps toward transparency and remediation,” Brown said.

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