Social media users are bypassing censorship on Palestine

In the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza, since 7 October many social media users trying to build cross-border solidarity for Palestine have used creative means to avoid censorship from tech giants like Meta and TikTok. 

In December, Human Rights Watch confirmed what many users already knew to be true: Meta, which runs Facebook, Instagram, Threads and WhatsApp, was systematically ‘shadow-banning’ Palestinian voices on its platforms – a process by which content is suppressed by the algorithm so posts receive less visibility and engagement.

Researchers reviewed 1,050 cases of online censorship in over 60 countries to reveal a systematic pattern that includes content removals, account suspensions or deletions and stopping users from engaging with content.

 

Human Rights Watch have highlighted that Meta’s censorship of content supporting Palestinians has been documented for many years, with activities becoming even more curtailed in recent months as both Meta and TikTok have succumbed to enormous pressure from the US, the EU and Israel to remove content allegedly containing disinformation. Rights groups have criticized the platforms’ erroneous policies and arbitrary application of these policies which they say disproportionately impact content on or about Palestine, including peaceful expression in support of Palestine and public debate about Palestinian human rights.

But in the face of political erasure, many social media users and content creators have found ways to successfully bypass censorship.

How to ‘trick’ the algorithm

New Internationalist spoke to a number of social media users who suspected their solidarity posts were being restricted.

Hamza Ali Shah, a British Palestinian journalist, says he has noticed his Palestine posts receive far less engagement than others.

‘Let’s say I post on football, I’ll get 100 plus views, but on Palestine it’s like 50 to 70, especially if it’s consecutive posts,’ he said. Shah says he now posts unrelated content in between Instagram stories on Palestine, or waits 24 hours in between posting to avoid censorship.

Use of the watermelon emoji has also become synonymous with Palestinian solidarity – symbolism that dates back to the Six-Day war of 1967 when Israel criminalized any displays of the Palestinian flag in Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians began using the watermelon, which bears the same white, red, green and black colours of the flag, to circumvent the ban, and today, the watermelon emoji successfully flies under Meta’s content moderation radar.   

The Instagram algorithm tends to amplify posts featuring faces, so ‘face for the algorithm’ has become another popular tactic for avoiding censorship. Climate activist Mikaela Loach says that showing her face in posts relating to Palestine have helped amplify the content to a wider audience, compared to images directly linked to Palestinian liberation.

 

‘When I was in Jamaica recently, I would use photos that I knew the algorithm would like more and that people would engage with more – for example, photos of me in a bathing suit. I used my face for the algorithm a lot. Because of that, my engagement [on Palestine posts] has been a lot better.’

Other users have found that posting unrelated comments or questions on posts about Palestine can help subvert the algorithm’s censorship of certain posts. Sneaking in something like ‘When’s your birthday?’ or 'Where’s your jumper from?’ can make the difference to their post being seen. Some people also believe they are ‘tricking’ the algorithm by swapping the letters in key words like Palestine and Israel with numbers and symbols, like ‘P@l3st1ne’ or ‘Isr*el’.

Tips are also being shared on how to change app settings in order to see more. For example, Hareth Yousef, a Palestinian Instagram user, shared a guide on how to disable Instagram’s ‘sensitive content’ setting that censors Palestinian content.

Empty promises

In the past Meta has made a series of changes to its policies and content moderation enforcement based on recommendations from its own Oversight Board and with the stated intention of applying global human rights frameworks to its approach. But Human Rights Watch says the company has so far failed to take decisive action in response to these recommendations and is instead replicating and amplifying past patterns of abuse.

As with countless other conflicts around the world, Gaza is at risk of disappearing from public consciousness. At least 100 journalists are among the more 26,000 people that have been killed since Israel’s war on Gaza began on 7 October.

But millions of people around the world are refusing to be silenced, and they are continuing to find innovative ways to subvert censorship and sustain meaningful attention on Palestine – both online and offline.