Sheikh Jarrah: Activists raise concerns over deleted social media content
Rights groups and activists have raised concerns that the social media platforms Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are silencing Palestinian voices, after a number of posts about increased tensions in the East Jerusalem Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood were taken down and accounts suspended.
Hundreds of people shared screenshots of their suspended accounts and blank screens after they had shared posts related to the forced evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a residential area less than a kilometre away from the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Demonstrations have intensified this week after Israel’s Supreme Court ordered that the Iskafi, Kurd, Jaouni, and Qasim families - consisting of 30 adults and 10 children - evacuate their homes by Thursday.
The Palestinian families have repeatedly rejected any deal with the Israeli settlers claiming ownership of the properties, refusing to recognise the validity of their demands.
Around the world, hundreds of people have been using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah on social media to draw attention to the evictions.
Mona Shtaya, local advocacy manager at 7amleh, an organisation that focuses on the advancement and protection of Palestinian digital rights, said the removal of social media posts would have huge implications, particularly for activists who use social media to document human rights violations.
"Various content has been deleted, across different platforms... we have monitored and documented that image posts have been removed from Instagram," she told Middle East Eye.
Shtaya alleged that the removal of social media posts was a systematic effort to pursue and remove Palestinian content, with the aim of silencing the voices of Palestinians.
According to a statement from Instagram on Thursday, the removal of Instagram Stories and the Highlights feature was because of a technical issue which affected the platform.
"We know that some people are experiencing issues uploading and viewing stories. This is a widespread global technical issue not related to any particular topic and we're fixing it right now... we're sorry to all impacted, especially those raising awareness for important causes globally."
Many activists remain unconvinced by the platform's response, stating that it remains an ongoing issue.
Some social media users said their posts were being removed for "hate speech". According to Shtaya, some activists also had their posts removed after receiving a notification saying they had "violated community standards".
"This doesn't make sense, as they are documenting what is happening on the ground and the violations... so this reason is not convincing or correct, but rather an excuse," she added.
Shtaya also said she had noticed an ongoing trend of Palestine-related social media posts being removed and silenced over the years.
"This is not the first time that we monitor these cases. Annually there are tens of thousands of requests that the Israeli cyber unit send to social media companies in an attempt to silence Palestinians. The number of requests is increasing annually. In 2019 Israel made 19,606 requests from the cyber unit to social media companies regarding content takedowns," she said.
Middle East Eye reached out to Instagram, who reiterated that content removed related to Sheikh Jarrah was due to a widespread technical issue, and that native Arabic speakers on their team frequently reviewed Arabic content to make sure all factors were taken into account.
Marwa Fatafta, the Middle East and North Africa policy manager at Access Now, a digital rights organisation, told Middle East Eye that most of the deleted content was documentation of Israeli settler attacks and policy crackdown on protesters.
“Users were not given any reason for their content takedown...Instagram tweeted yesterday that they are facing a 'technical issue' at global scale...but the scale and specific nature of those takedowns casts a shadow over Instagram's announcement, especially that this kind of corporate censorship is not new to Palestinian users.”
Fatafta also stated that Facebook has been ‘systematically complicit in censoring Palestinian speech’.
“Their content moderation policies are discriminatory and non-transparent, not to mention their high compliance to Israel's cyber unit who's actively sending requests for social media platforms to remove Palestinian content,” she added.
On Thursday, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), an NGO which provides information about Palestine, tweeted to say they had dozens of messages from people who have had their posts and stories regarding Sheikh Jarrah and Palestine removed without explanation.
Earlier this week, Israeli police, some mounted on horses, attempted to push back protesters using tear gas, stun grenades and "skunk water", a Middle East Eye correspondent on the scene reported.
The latest evictions come as Jerusalem has seen heightened tensions in recent weeks, with far-right Israelis staging marches, calling for "Death to Arabs" amid longstanding efforts by Israeli authorities to expand settlements - which are widely considered illegal under international law - in East Jerusalem.
Since Israel seized East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, Israeli settler organisations have claimed ownership of land in Sheikh Jarrah and have, since 1972, filed multiple successful lawsuits to evict Palestinians from the neighbourhood.
Since the start of last year, Israeli courts have ordered the eviction of 13 Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah.