Human Rights Watch has said that Facebook and Instagram wrongfully suppressed pro-Palestinian posts – including content related to human rights abuses – during military action by Israel against Palestinians in May.
Thousands of pro-Palestine campaigners complained of censorship during the conflict during which more than 260 Palestinians were killed by Israel including women and children.
The HRW report has added pressure on Facebook, which owns Instagram as well as WhatsApp, after a whistle-blower went public demanding regulations on the social media platform.
The Washington-based advocacy group said: “The Company’s acknowledgment of errors and attempts to correct some of them are insufficient and do not address the scale and scope of reported content restrictions, or adequately explain why they occurred in the first place.”
“Facebook should take up the Facebook Oversight Board’s recommendation on September 14, 2021, to commission an independent investigation into content moderation regarding Israel and Palestine, particularly in relation to any bias or discrimination in its policies, enforcement, or systems, and to publish the investigation’s findings,” the report said.
“Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate HRW.
She added: “With the space for such advocacy under threat in many parts of the world, Facebook censorship threatens to restrict a critical platform for learning and engaging on these issues.”
HRW said they documented “that Instagram removed a screenshot of headlines and photos from three New York Times opinion articles for which the Instagram user added commentary that urged Palestinians to ‘never concede’ their rights.” The group said: “that the post did not transform the material in any way that could reasonably be construed as incitement to violence or hatred.”
Citing another example of censorship, HRW said: “Instagram removed a photograph of a building with a caption that read, ‘This is a photo of my family’s building before it was struck by Israeli missiles on Saturday, May 15, 2021. We have three apartments in this building.’ The company also removed the reposting of a political cartoon whose message was that Palestinians are oppressed and not fighting a religious war with Israel.”
HRW urged Facebook “to commission an independent investigation into content moderation regarding Israel and Palestine, particularly in relation to any bias or discrimination in its policies, enforcement, or systems, and to publish the investigation’s findings.”
In addition to the examples highlighted by the group, it said “Human Rights Watch reviewed screenshots from people who were sharing content about the escalating violence and who reported restrictions on their accounts, including not being able to post content, live-stream videos on Instagram, post videos on Facebook, or even like a post.”
“Facebook provides a particularly critical platform in the Israeli and Palestinian context, where Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions, and Palestinians and Israelis have committed war crimes,” Brown said.
She added: “Instead of respecting people’s right to speak out, Facebook is silencing many people arbitrarily and without explanation, replicating online some of the same power imbalances and rights abuses we see on the ground.”
The group also objected to the fact that Facebook is censoring the content at the behest of governments. According to HRW, “The Israeli government has been aggressive in seeking to remove content from social media.”
It added: “The Israeli Cyber Unit, based within the State Attorney’s Office flags and submits requests to social media companies to ‘voluntarily’ remove content. Instead of going through the legal process of filing a court order based on Israeli criminal law to take down online content, the Cyber Unit makes appeals directly to platforms based on their own terms of service.”
Facebook claimed that there was a technical error after removing content and posts of Palestinians and their supporters.
Facebook did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for comment.