Chapter Ninety-Seven: How Meta shadowbans Palestine into silence

Social Media platforms are the final frontier of all means of journalism and media. Any form of intended censorship through algorithm and bias cannot be a norm. The Shadowbanning of Palestine related news and information can be a great case in learning how censorship is practiced in the time of Platform dependencies.

Palestinian journalists and people have used social media to share information about the on-going genocide directly from the field, to gather support, and to gain control of the narrative. Social media has allowed the general public to witness the humanitarian crisis from the source without the information being mediated and filtered through media channels. As many countries bar Pro-palestine protests, people have turned to social media to show their support by creating awareness, fundraising, sponsoring e-sims, and more.

As social media becomes our only hope to find out the truth about what’s happening in Palestine and offer support, we are forced to confront the myth that social media is a haven for free speech. The most popular social media platforms Instagram and Facebook are owned and controlled by the tech giant like Meta which is trying to silence pro-Palestine voices. Meta uses the power asymmetry to gain a position of epistemic authority. The power asymmetry is owed to the information asymmetry as the platform hosts and regulates the information that we receive. Meta withholds details about its algorithms and does not provide adequate transparency on information being circulated and restricted on its platforms.

In this backdrop this issue of TypeRight discusses shadowbanning as a tactic used by Meta to systemically and deliberately silence pro-Palestinian voices further widening the power asymmetry between the platform and its users. 

The Human Rights Watch released a report where, between October and November 2023, it identified 1,050 cases of censorship of Pro-Palestinian content either through removal or suppression of the content. The report also stated that this was not the first instance of Meta silencing Palestinian voices citing the events of May 2021 when Israeli authorities had taken over Palestinian homes in the Sheikh Jarrah  neighborhood; people on social media experienced heavy censorship. The report identified six key patterns of censorship including shadowbanning.

What is shadowbanning? When an account is shadowbanned, the platform restricts the visibility of the account’s content to existing followers and non-followers as well. As a result, the account’s growth and visibility is restricted. Shadowbanning is difficult to identify as the account owner is not notified that they have been shadowbanned and they cannot contest the shadowban the same way they can contest removal of posts or restrictions. People identify shadowbanning when they notice a sudden drop in engagement for no apparent reason. 

AlJazeera featured an article that claimed that hundreds of social media users are accusing the world’s largest social media platforms of shadowbanning their pro-Palestine content. In response to this, on October 15 Meta spokesperson Andy Stone blamed the reduced reach of posts on a bug. Stone, on the behalf of Meta, wrote,

“We identified a bug impacting all Stories that re-shared Reels and Feed posts, meaning they weren’t showing up properly in people’s Stories tray, leading to significantly reduced reach. This bug affected accounts equally around the globe and had nothing to do with the subject matter of the content - and we fixed it as quickly as possible.”

However, the reduced reach of the pro-Palestine content is not a technical bug but a systematic and deliberate effort to silence pro-Palestine voices. We know this because of the many voices that have spoken up about the sudden drop in engagement upon posting pro-Palestine content, Meta’s relationships with the Israeli government, the experience of Meta’s ex-policy head, and similar remarks made by Meta in 2021 where it blamed the reduced reach of pro-Palestine Facebook posts on a technical error.

A popular Al-Jazeera investigative program has also shown the Israeli government’s influence over Meta’s censorship policies of Palestine where Israel has officially asked Meta to censor content and also influences the rules governing Facebook’s algorithms. The program also reported, “Among the most influential Israeli employees are Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, David Fischer, director of financial revenue at Facebook, as well as a former director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Amy Palmor, who is responsible for the cyber unit that fights Palestinian content. Curiously, this woman was appointed to Facebook’s oversight board, which raises questions about the independence of this board,”

Ashraf Zeitoon, the former head of policy at Meta for the Middle-east and North Africa has also claimed that during his time at the company there was a deliberate effort to censor Palestinian content. 

Even now social media is flooded with people claiming that they have been shadowbanned due to their pro-Palestine content. 

Yousef Alhelou, a Gaza war Journalist posted a reel in November where he informed his audience that Meta had warned him that his account was going to be deleted and asked for support. Upon receiving support, he put a comment on the reel which said that social media experts had told him that his account had been shadowbanned as he was not getting anticipated engagement. Even today,  Yosef’s following stands at 437,000 however his reels (the best performing content on Instagram) reaches not even 10% of his followers on average. 

@whatthefattoush on Instagram shared their experience of how they had been gaining almost 1000 followers a day during Gaza shelling. This figure dropped to zero and they even began losing followers. Moreover, when they reposted political content, the original account could not see that their post had been re-shared. 

To avoid getting shadowbanned, people had to take measures such as using alternative spellings like Palest*ne for Palestine and even adding a small emoji of Israel’s flag to appease the algorithm. 

As users, here are few things we can do elevate pro-Palestine voices on social media platforms:

  1. Turn on post notifications for the account.

  2. Share and save the post.

  3. Leave comments that are least five words longs.

  4. Increase the watch time of reels by allowing it to play on repeat.

And here are some newspaper clippings

More soon…

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TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad

TypeRight - The Digital Nukkad, is a weekly conversational bulletin curated through the news and discussions on social media as well as what's happening on the ground. Through the eyes and ears of Digital Empowerment Foundation across rural India and global south, TypeRight aspires to focus on bringing the contextual relevance of digital technologies and developments on the society - both connected and unconnected.