As protestors pushed back against Israel’s plan to forcibly evict 13 Palestinian families from their homes in the disputed territory of East Jerusalem earlier this month, Al-Jazeera reported that Instagram started deleting stories from Palestinian users documenting the escalating situation. Instagram head Adam Mosseri tweeted a global bug was to blame.
Still, that wasn’t the first time the social media platform had been accused of political interference. Two days earlier, as reported by Saudi Arabia-based Arab News, Instagram had hidden the Arabic hashtag for Al-Aqsa – a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a flashpoint in the latest round of violence.
Instagram’s parent company Facebook told the New York Times that the removal of “Al-Aqsa” was an “enforcement error” caused by the fact that the phrase appears in the names of “several restricted organizations” – groups designated as terror organizations by the U.S. state department.
But doubts remain among Palestinian users and their followers. If your Twitter feed is full of images of violence in Gaza, for example, why isn’t the Israel-Palestine conflict a trending topic on social media?
The Times story notes Twitter has also been accused of blocking Palestinian content. “In certain cases, our automated systems took enforcement action on a small number of accounts in error through an automated spam filter,” the company said in a statement. “We expeditiously reversed these actions to reinstate access to the affected accounts.”
In the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, I talk to Amsterdam-based Canadian researcher and activist Jamil Fiorino-Habib about the way the latest violence in the Middle East is playing out online, and how social media algorithms can influence our perception of the conflict.
“Our news feeds are often populated by many different voices and many different cultural producers and journalists, each with their own voices wanting of proclaim their opinion or their perspective on the matter,” Fiorino-Habib says. “What social media platforms are really there for is to accumulate these voices and find ways of distributing them, organizing them, bringing them to our attention in certain ways that align with what it already thinks we would be interested in, and what it already thinks will grab our attention. Ultimately, what these platforms are doing is trying to find ways to grab our attention.
If you find it extremely difficult to log off Instagram or Twitter these days, that’s by design.
“[They want] to capture our attention and to find ways to stimulate our emotional responses to some very powerful and heavy imagery that is being produced from Gaza and from the front lines of the Palestinian territories,” he adds. “That’s a great example of how these platforms are shaping how we see the world and how we’re engaging with it.”
As for the mystery of the missing content, Fiorino-Habib explains that hashtags don’t necessarily trend because a large number of users are including them in posts.
“It’s also the frequency at which [a given hashtag] is being used, and how many people in a time span are using that hashtag,” he says. “In certain cases, when that hashtag is potentially about celebrities or something a little bit more mundane, those hashtags are often put into the trending areas of Twitter feeds and they come up more prominently.
“What we’ve been seeing here in recent days is that companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been called out and are being held accountable for suppressing these posts – for deleting certain posts that contain the words ‘Palestine,’ ‘Sheikh Jarrah’ and ‘Gaza.’ They are not only censoring people’s voices and their text, but also images – and I have a lot of colleagues – fellow activists and friends – who have been experiencing this directly with pages going blank when they share Instagram stories.
“We have to be very conscious of the platforms that we are using, and obviously how they are corralling us towards certain ideas or towards capturing our attention in certain areas over others,” he adds. “Really, attention is what they’re after – and attention is where they’re able to inject certain values or certain notions or ways of seeing and thinking and doing.”
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.