Digital threats to press freedom during the conflict in Gaza

Gaza on November 2, 2023
Image credit
Abed Zagout / Anadolu

Israel’s military offensive in Gaza has become the deadliest and most destructive in the long history of this conflict. While the war is being waged on the ground with no real perspective of a ceasefire, a parallel war is being fought online where we see a disproportionate silencing of Palestinian voices. In these times, access to reliable and independent information is more important than ever.

Online disinformation has taken an alarming propensity, with numerous examples of fake news, sometimes spread by political leaders. The increased use of artificial intelligence has contributed to further distorting the truth during this time of conflict. Unverified and false news pose a serious risk by skewing the narrative around the events on the ground, while also fueling existing hate speech including both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. The current conflict  shines a spotlight on the increasing normalization of online hate, amplifying for example far-right and extremist content in the United States. In this narrative battle there is an overwhelming tide of disinformation and hate speech fueling further dehumanization and stereotyping of Palestinians. 

Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Director for Access Now illustrated the situation: “The war on Gaza has turned online spaces into a battlefield over facts and narratives. Over the past two months, we witnessed an explosion of hate speech, doxxing campaigns, calls to violence, and state-sponsored war propaganda and disinformation that aim to dehumanize Palestinians and justify the brutal violence unleashed against them. Instead of protecting Palestinian users in the face of these relentless attacks, tech companies responded by further suppressing their voices. Meta, in particular, comes top in the stack for its systematic and heavy-handed censorship of Palestinian voices. The discriminatory approach to content moderation shatters any remaining pretense about tech companies' neutrality in times of crisis. They do take sides, and it's often against the side of the oppressed.”

Between 7 October and 14 November 2023, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, 7amleh, has documented over one million instances of hate speech and/or incitement to violence in Hebrew targeting Palestinians and Palestinian rights advocates on social media platforms, mainly on X. The substantial increase of hate speech against Palestinians has free reign. Incitement to violence against Palestinians and calls for collective punishment are even encouraged by high-ranking Israeli officials. According to Sada Social monitoring, more than 27,000 items of inciting content against Palestinians in Hebrew and foreign languages have been disseminated by Israeli settlers and supporters in the framework of the Gaza war. This inciting content explicitly includes calls for the killing and extermination of Palestinians, besieging them, and denying them access to water, food, and medicine in Gaza and the West Bank. Another investigation has highlighted Meta’s content moderation’s inability to prohibit hate speech against Palestinians in paid advertisements.

The restriction of Palestinian voices on social media is a serious blow to balanced reporting and access to information. In the wake of October 7th, Meta actively suspended pro-Palestinian accounts and disproportionality removed their content on its social media platforms. Among them, the popular account "eye.on.palestine," with over 6 million followers, became unavailable in October, along with its backup account. The accounts, known for sharing images and videos from Gaza, have been instrumental in depicting the Palestinian experience during Israel's bombardment. Furthermore, Meta and TikTok have carried out 94% of 8,000 requests made by Israeli authorities to remove content, alleging that these publications violate the companies’ policies. According to a recent investigation by Human Rights Watch, the censorship of content related to Palestine on Instagram and Facebook is systemic and global. These actions have severely restricted freedom of expression and access to information, and have particularly targeted journalists and human rights defenders. 

After posting a number of articles and videos with stories about children being killed in Gaza, the struggle of mothers to protect their babies, and the collapse of health care, we have received more than 11 messages from someone claiming to be from the Meta business page, said Tala Al-Sharif, the founder of the platform. She continues ''Our page would be temporarily suspended for alleged violations of community guidelines. This matter is more problematic than ever, especially now, in this context. It affects all of Palestine's content creators''. Free Press Unlimited is extremely concerned about the effect of censorship of Palestinian voices on reliable information for the outside world.

So far, social media companies have failed to address the alarming levels of disinformation and online violence on their platforms, which are contributing to offline violence, dehumanization, and could contribute to the justification of attacks against civilians. In order to ensure equal access to information, social media platforms must be more inclusive and should more actively protect their users from hate speech.

According to Marwa Fatafta, “Social media users and civil society have a role in countering tech platforms' hegemony over online speech. Exposing and reporting instances of censorship is a crucial first step to debunk the myth of technical glitches hurled by companies. As every crisis shows, the censorship of Palestinian voices is a feature and not a bug. Companies have a responsibility to protect users and mitigate human rights risks. We should all hold them accountable to their claims.”

In view of the above, Free Press Unlimited calls on tech companies to prevent the circulation and amplification of online hate speech by moderating in a fair and balanced way.

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