Israel Uses Fake Accounts to Swing Public Opinion Its Way

TRT World interviewed several activists, including a former Facebook employee and multiple activists who described how the tech giants are choking off Palestine related content.

Palestinian ambassaador to the UK Husam Zomlot met with Ebele Okobi on May 14, Facebook’s Director of Public Policy, to protest the censorship of Palestinian posts and accounts, while leaving Israeli incitement untouched across their platforms.

For Khalid Harith, a 22-year old Palestinian activist who coordinates Palestinian coverage on social media, it’s nothing less than structural racism.

“You have to realize, it’s not just repression. Israel is blatantly using networks of fake accounts and bots to swing public opinion its way. They target activists and report their posts or accounts in overwhelming numbers,” Harith told TRT World.

“They post comments under international news posts, and their comments all sound the same. These accounts have no followers and don’t follow anyone. They have no posts.”

Facebook-owned Instagram has come under heavy fire for removing content related to Palestine that are posted from around the world. Many stories, highlights and archives touching upon the conflict have disappeared due to what Instagram describes as a “glitch”. Oddly enough, both Twitter and Instagram claimed a bug was responsible, though they are owned by two different companies.

Persistent glitches

Social media platforms are quickly becoming the new battleground for online activism, fueled by a new generation of tech-savvy youth that take naturally to content creation and engagement.

For causes like Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, elections and climate change, social media is the difference between obscurity and the beginning of systemic change. For Palestinian activists, it means having a voice in spite of traditional media’s reluctance to air their views.

But even Big Tech, particularly platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, have long faced criticism for the blatant suppression of Palestinian voices.

TRT World interviewed several activists and social media experts to figure out how partisan Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are when it comes to allowing the criticism of Israeli human rights abuse on its platforms.

The results were shockingly illiberal, and unanimously consistent across different regions, backgrounds, and types of accounts.

All these experts and activists consistently report viewership reducing by at least one-third or half on Palestine-related content, and not temporarily, but permanently.

They have the numbers and screenshots to prove it. Instagram accounts save expired stories to archives, so it’s a relatively easy task to track the sudden dip in content days after protests against the forcible seizure of Palestinian properties began in East Jerusalem.

Speech Control Inc.

So what if their audience simply lost interest? Social media burnout and desensitisation is a fact, after all.

Most scoffed at the suggestion. They said Palestine content continues to yield a high engagement, including reshares and likes from followers that see posts or go looking for them. But you can’t like what you don’t see.

In some cases, accounts have been all but delisted. The only way to find them is to type their full username handle. Come up one letter short, and search won’t suggest the account to you.

“It’s very clear what’s going on,” says Abdallah Masri, a Palestinian activist and geopolitical expert.

“The entire world is mobilised right now. It makes utterly no sense that only Palestinian social media content performs weakly, when a story of a cat gains more traction. There’s something wrong there and in light of the bodies piling up, it’s not innocent. No one leaves a bug for this long in their system when it means limiting the ability of civilians to document violence and share it with the world,” he adds.

Non-Palestinian content is consistently failing to perform in the usual manner, leading to speculation that the infamous ‘shadowban’ was used on them. The twist is that this is relatively recent.

“They can’t tell us this is a bug because for the first few days of the protests, we were sharing the same things and getting normal views and reach. Something changed around the second or third day. This was intentional. Let that sink in. Who’s working with who here? If there’s one thing we’re certain of, it’s that Facebook and Twitter couldn’t care less about what’s going on in Palestine,” adds Masri.

“There is one alternative. That they’re bowing to pressure from Israel, it’s lobby or working with them. There’s no possible outcome where this isn’t illegal and a violation of every basic human right at best, or outright complicity in ethnic cleansing at worst,” he concludes grimly.

A shadowban refers to an undeclared delisting or deranking of an account that throttles its reach without informing the user. The social media user continues posting and sharing, but their reach is severely hampered.

Social media companies don’t acknowledge the existence of a shadowban, which effectively punishes users without official notification or reason. But the practice is ubiquitous enough that it’s already a common part of social media parlance on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Social media companies are deeply secretive about the algorithms that decide engagement, reach and impact, with little in the way of regulation and oversight governing their behaviour. They’re even more reticent on their business and privacy practices. But could something more cynical be at play?

Complicity in apartheid 

Zeyad Ibrahim doesn’t strike you as an activist. He’s a Tesla enthusiast who worked for Facebook as a Product Data Operations Lead, and a former Data Analyst for Google, according to his LinkedIn profile.

In an instagram post that triggered waves of controversy, Zeyad described his experience working as a policy regulator and enforcer for Instagram and Facebook.

“I would constantly call out the bias and favouritism when it came to voicing political opinion. Anyone who voiced opinions criticizing Israel or pointing out their crimes would have their reach limited, their posts censored and deleted for being ‘offensive’ even if only stating facts objectively. If you criticize any other country, there would be no censorship,” Zeyd said in a post he shared on Instagram.

To raise the issue of conscious bias against Palestine, Zeyd met multiple managers with his concerns. Much to his dismay, his efforts backfired on him. He was eventually denied a promotion he claims he deserved, and sidelined.

Interviews with activists and experts indicate a grevious lack of transparency on the inner workings of corporations that ultimately operate for profit. That lack of transparency has real world implications.

Pro-Palestinian activist Hebh Jamal’s Twitter was targeted with complaints over a post detailing an emotional conversation between her husband and his little cousin in Gaza. The young cousin admitted to wanting to brush his hair before sleeping for fear that the Israeli fire may kill him in his sleep. He said he wanted to look good in case he died. Hebh’s post was flagged for deletion, and restricted by Twitter.

Since the German government has implemented legal measures to make social media companies accountable to users, Twitter later confessed to Hebh that the complaints against her post were baseless. Under German law, Twitter has to inform the user if their post or account is being investigated. This only applies because Hebh and her family reside in Germany. For most Palestinians hailing from Gaza City, there’s a different set of rules, and a radically different set of rights.

Hebh describes it as “weird and off-putting.”

Speaking to TRT World, Hebh emphasises that nothing she posts violates community guidelines.

Getting an answer out of social media companies is notoriously difficult. Automated menus handle complaints, and for most activists, they wouldn’t know where to get in touch with someone responsible even if they tried. Having your posts removed or flagged is just something you take in stride

Hebh now faces a video review for every post she makes. She’s also been reported on TikTok as well, with her account deleted before. Her name has also been listed on pro-Israel websites. With characteristic grace, she emphasises that others have it much worse.

Buthayna Ishtaiwi, a press editor in the Hols-Press International Agency spoke to TRT World,  warning that the situation is far more dire than it appears.

“These policies are reflections of American policies on Israel at the end of the day,” she notes.

“For Palestinians sealed-off in open-air prisons like Gaza, social media is all they have. Whoever uses words like occupation or martyr, is penalised for three days at least, which happened to me, or face a ban on live videos for a month,” she describes.

Live videos on social media were once hailed as revolutionary features that allowed content to be created from the ground in realtime, often acting as a deterrent against violence. Taking that away changes the dynamic deeply in favour of Israel by removing accountability and transparency.

“To survive, activists post videos without text or expression. Sometimes they break up ‘forbidden’ words so it won’t be picked up by censors, or create backup accounts and urge their followers to follow them there for the eventuality their first will be deleted,” adds Ishtaiwi.

Other social media users like sabrinecat, a modest fashion influencer with over 338,000 followers on Instagram also found herself a victim of Instagram’s shady censorship when her account was not only shadowbanned, but lost the ability to save stories to highlights so that they can be viewed beyond their 24-hour expiry date.

She also reports that her viewership has been slashed.

Newspeak

These events mark a deeply entrenched and institutionally tolerated threat to liberal values of freedom of speech held in high esteem, which effectively underpin the very basis of democratic societies. Some argue it’s not tolerated, but that Big Tech has grown so large they’re out of control.

The dangers of social media companies overlooking what’s come to be known as algorithmic bias is bad enough, as is tacit silence in spite of having faced complaints about it. What then of instances where social media companies seem to be actively taking sides with Israel?

Another instagram user who responded to a call for information, reports that social media posts that include any pro-Palestinian hashtags cannot be promoted. Dangerously enough, if pro-Israeli hashtags are included, Instagram prompts you to promote your story. We tested this, and it held up. Pro-Palestine hashtags are almost immediately censored. Pro-Israel content isn’t affected the same way.

Red pill or blue pill

Critically enough, social media companies don’t use nuanced distinctions to make these life-altering decisions, however intentional or unintentional they are. Instead, broad undiscerning brush strokes are used which means a post about children dying can be deemed offensive or harassment. For anyone who wishes to share or reshare content that supports Palestine, there’s a toll to pay.

Even sharing content on the spread of settlement, deemed illegal by most of the international community and its international bodies, is enough to ensure ‘social media death’. For a new generation of millenials breathing life into an old anti-apartheid struggle, this hits home in a different way.

One Palestinian social media user who requested anonymity spoke frankly on what this meant for him.

“It’s telling you don’t even try, because it won’t work. That’s the same logic Israel uses to break Palestinians. Accept the occupation. But it’s also more than that. Social media is how we find jobs, connect, gain recognition. I have to look out for my family. It’s bad enough I usually get detained by Israeli security when I visit Palestine. To speak out now is even more punishing,” he admits.

Azrul, a former Malaysian debate champion and owner of Inner Sejuk, a modest sportswear company, sent me a screenshot of the huge difference in performance between pro-Palestine and regular corporate content. Amid reels with thousands of views, an innocuous #SavePalestine post stands alone, with scarcely more than 94 views.

In the face of statements by social media companies that cite bugs and oversight challenges time and time again, activists are slowly coming to realise the gargantuan if invisible role social media companies play in deciding what makes it to the center of society’s conversations.

“Dictators and propaganda ministers throughout history would have been proud. They’re only letting conversations they want to take place, and doing it so well that most people aren’t aware of it,” adds Harith.

Pushing back

Activists have taken to sharing ‘hacks’ to restore their account viewership, tricking the algorithm into thinking they’re talking about anything but Palestine to regain their reach and freedom of speech.

Not taking no for an answer even in the face of these monolithic technology giants and their algorithms, pro-Palestine social media users have taken to posting unrelated quizzes on instagram to signal they’re not an activist account. For some it works, for many, it’s just scrabbling around in the dark trying to regain their capacity to make a difference.

Other more successful methods include using hashtags related to covid-19. One Palestinian social media user by the name of Tamer who requested his last name be withheld, discovered your posts gain significant traction if you hide pro-Israel hashtags behind a layer of Palestinian content. Others mix them both. It’s a desperate time, which calls for desperate measures.

Most activists remain unphased. For a_girl_with_imaan, who used to post spiritual and religious content on Instagram, her views fell from 80,000 to 6,000 from May 8 to 18. Her response? Undeterred determination and a public commitment to keep raising her voice “against oppression and genocide”.

Brave New World

For activists straining to amplify emotional stories of broken families in Palestine, Israeli brutality, apartheid and disproportionate violence and brutality, it’s strange that the rest of the world can carry on with life as usual, with no thought to the ongoing violence.

Yet, for the first time, young social media users are beginning to piece together that maybe the rules are different for them.

It’s becoming increasingly possible that the reason pro-Palestinian social justice content hasn’t gone mainstream is directly linked to hard limitations imposed by for-profit companies for equally ambiguous reasons.

Except that they’re not ambiguous. Shadowbans and throttled viewership are not new to activists from any cause. The Black Lives Matter movement struggled with the same challenges in past years, with little done to resolve it.

With a rising understanding that social media profits off its users, more users are calling for increased accountability and regulation particularly given that mistakes at their size can decide the fate of peoples or sway entire elections.

Algorithmic bias throttles the voices of dissent and threatens democracy. Little is done about it, activists say, adding that it’s time to start asking why.

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