Tech platforms’ treatment of pro-Palestinian content raises allegations of bias
A visitor to the Arabic-speaking corners of Facebook or Instagram in recent days may have encountered a strange anachronism: millennial Arabic writing taken from the past to deceive modern algorithms.
Over the past week, like Israeli planes rained missiles and bombs on Gaza The gang and Hamas fighters based there have launched rockets In Israeli cities, social media users have reverted to classic letter forms in an effort to bypass what they describe as a wave of censorship and over-moderation affecting Palestinian and pro-Palestinian voices on the internet.
Calling it archaic is the lack of dots and marks – called diacritics – which were originally added to make the Quran easier to read for Muslims in North Africa, Spain and India, said Mohamed Gaber, a Cairo-born student pursuing a Masters in Arabic Typography. Diacritics help readers distinguish between words that would otherwise appear the same.
Its users believe that the ambiguity of Arabic without diacritics is a way to outsmart the humans and software charged with enforcing the content policies of networks, which they see as silencing legitimate political discourse.
“The machine can’t really break that,” Gaber said. “You just need to have a perfect familiarity with the shapes of the letters, and even the jargon of who is writing.”
The revival of centuries-old writing styles is one of the many tactics Palestinians and their allies use to prevent their publications from being blocked or suppressed.
Some users have intentionally misspelled keywords such as “Palestine” or “Israel”; others began to intersperse articles about the conflict with more mundane images of their daily lives. On Instagram, some users are advising their followers that adding a COVID-19 themed “Get Vaccine” or “Stay Home” sticker to a pro-Palestine post will make it more visible.
For the Palestinians, the struggle with Israel has always felt unbalanced – a poor displaced and refugee population opposed to one of the world’s most advanced armies, backed by the American superpower.
But the latest outbreak in this long-standing conflict is marked by a widespread feeling that the United States-based communication platforms that people use to read and talk about what is going on are putting their thumbs up on the scale. in a way that resonates with longtime Americans. Politics.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” said a social media user, a recent college graduate, who asked that her name not be disclosed to avoid harassment online. “On the one hand, our social media help spread the word, but we’re also limited.”
Companies deny prejudice, highlighting technical issues and good faith efforts to enforce their own policies on issues such as hate speech and incitement to violence, as well as U.S. and international law, on a scale and at a rate that makes some error rate inevitable. .
But those who have been affected are reluctant to take such assurances at face value or trust the platforms to get it right. On Venmo, the social payment service, activists have started counseling each other to obscure the true purpose of their donations to Palestinian relief efforts. amid a platform crackdown on related keywords. “Label it like lunch, coffee, nails or something mundane,” one Twitter user advised.
The most recent wave of accusations that the platforms enacted blanket bans and so-called phantom bans against pro-Palestinian users began in early May, shortly after an Israeli court ruled in favor of the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. After the video capture of stun grenades erupting inside Al Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – on the last Friday of Ramadan, a wave of posts, images and videos with hashtags such as #saveSheikJarrah and #HandsoffAlaqsa swept through Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.
On May 5, the Institute for Middle East Understanding attempted to post a version of an informational slideshow that the organization shared in February on Instagram. The new cover image read: “Israeli Politicians Embolden Anti-Palestinian Violence.” It was removed for violating Instagram’s community standards for hate speech and hate symbols.
LandPalestine Instagram account, which has 167,000 subscribers, removed a comic strip criticizing Israeli settlements for hate speech. Account owner Nour Elbash then received a notice that her account was in danger of being deleted for the message.
A Facebook Save Sheikh Jarrah group started by openly Palestinian activist Mohammed El-Kurd with 132,000 followers has been temporarily suppressed. A pro-Palestinian account with 43,000 subscribers, Majid96e, has seen several posts deleted for violating community standards and has repeatedly posted that he believes his account is banned by the shadows. (The Times confirmed that when searching for the account, even following it, it only appeared if the full name of the account was spelled out, and then appeared to be much lower than other accounts with fewer followers.)
Twitter has also suspended several pro-Palestinian accounts, which it attributed to algorithmic error.
And Palestinian American hijabi influencer Maria Alia posted on Instagram that several pro-Palestinian Instagram stories she shared and added to her highlights were deleted even after she re-added them.
Nadim Nashif, executive director and co-founder of 7amleh – the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, said the organization has collected and received 500 reports of censorship on social media. Fifty percent of these complaints were about Facebook, and 35% mentioned Instagram. Other organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and MPower Change – both of which work closely with 7amleh – say they have also received hundreds of censorship reports on these platforms.
The group said Facebook deleted tens of thousands of posts from its platform at the request of Unit 8200, the IDF cyber unit. In 2016, Unit 8200 reported some 2,241 positions; that number rose to 14,238 in 2018. Facebook complied with 90% of those requests, 7amleh says.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Israel’s state attorney’s office said Facebook and Instagram complied with takedown requests less frequently than TikTok and Twitter.
In a statement, Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever acknowledged that “there had been several issues that affected the ability of people to share on” enterprise applications, “including a technical bug that affected Stories worldwide, and an error that temporarily prevented content from being viewed on the Al Aqsa Mosque hashtag page. “
“Although these have been fixed, they should never have happened in the first place,” Lever said via email. “We are sorry for anyone who felt that they could not draw attention to important events, or who felt it was a deliberate suppression of their voice. That was never our intention – and we never want to silence a particular community or point of view. “
As consumers find ways around what many perceive to be algorithmic bias, tech workers have launched efforts to pressure companies from within. On Tuesday, a group of Google employees called the Jewish Diaspora in Tech released an open letter asking the company to condemn the actions of the Israeli government and to “ensure that any support for Israeli humanitarian efforts is matched by ‘support for Palestinian-led human rights. and relief efforts. “
Google management has yet to respond to the letter or to individual organizers. Last month, the company and Amazon were awarded a $ 1.2 billion cloud contract by the Israeli government. Google did not respond to a request for comment. The company also wouldn’t say if it would. update your maps to include high resolution images of the area now that a law prohibiting the use of the images has been lifted. (Apple said it’s working on an update to make its maps high-res.)
Meanwhile, Venmo told The Times that the company “takes its regulatory and compliance obligations seriously, including compliance with US economic and trade sanctions administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Department of the Treasury” – l government body that enforces US sanctions. Several Palestinian rights organizations are listed under the desk directory of sanctions.
Facebook has also seen growing employee dissent on the issue. Discussions over Facebook’s internal chat system have been particularly tense, with groups of Arab and Muslim employees calling on senior executives for a perceived internal bias against Palestinian voices and content, said Ashraf Zeitoon, who led Facebook’s political unit in the Middle East for three years until half-time. 2017.
“I’m told these discussions were some of the toughest and loudest ever on Facebook, on par with BLM,” he said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mai El-Mahdy, who left her native Egypt to join Facebook in Ireland as a member of the climbing team and left the company in 2017, said she heard from her former colleagues that the speech was getting “ugly,” employees reporting one another to Facebook’s human resources division.
“Arabs and Muslims, they see that Facebook is biased. The Israelis say that what is happening is correct and that, on the contrary, Facebook should be tougher, ”El-Mahdy said in a telephone interview Thursday.
El-Mahdy noted that previous conflagrations between Israelis and Palestinians had led to similar but to no effect internal discussions.
Lever, the Facebook spokesperson, said: “Our policies are designed to give everyone a voice while protecting them on our apps, and we enforce these policies the same regardless of users or their personal beliefs. . “
“We have a dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, closely monitoring the situation on the ground, focusing on removing harmful content, while addressing application errors on the ground. as quickly as possible.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.