Multiple users say their posts on violence in the Middle East had vanished or views had declined
CBC News · Posted: Jun 06, 2021 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: 7 hours ago
Palestinians celebrate in the streets following a ceasefire, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 21. Some social media users have reported issues with their posts relating to the conflict. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
With social media posts vanishing and story reach dropping off a cliff, some Palestinian supporters say they think Facebook has suppressed content related to recent violence in the Middle East. The social media giant blamed a technical issue for impacting how users were able to share information.
While fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip raged in May, many people took to social media to voice their views on the conflict.
Former biomedical engineer turned chef Reem Ahmed was one of them. The Toronto-based social media influencer told CBC News that once she started posting about the violence last month, she noticed an “enormous” drop in her online engagement with followers.
“My voice was basically getting blocked,” she said.
With 49,000 followers on Instagram, Ahmed was used to routinely seeing 5,000 to 6,000 views on her stories. But once she started posting about deaths in Gaza and humanitarian aid for Palestinians, that number plummeted down under 100.
“I just felt like there was something off,” she said. Facebook is the parent company of Instagram.
“So what does that mean? … It means my engagement is dead, because I chose to speak about something that is humanitarian and important?”
Reem Ahmed appeared on Master Chef Canada, and has amassed a large following on her Instagram account. (Reem Ahmed/Instagram)
Bissan Daoudi, a Palestinian living in Toronto, told CBC News she experienced something similar, though on an innocuous Instagram post. In 2019, she visited her husband’s family in the West Bank, and shot some video in the area.
She then posted those videos in highlights on her Instagram profile, categorized by country. One was labelled “Palestine/Jordan, 2019.”
Ceasefire begins after Israel, Hamas agree to end 11 days of fighting
Last week, she went onto her profile and was shocked to see those stories had been removed from her highlights.
“I was really upset. I just didn’t understand why they would remove something like that,” Daoudi said. “There was nothing political in there whatsoever, and they had no right to remove my highlights from my stories.”
Facebook said in an emailed statement that “an error temporarily restricted content from being viewed on the Al-Aqsa Mosque hashtag page,” which some pro-Palestinian commentators had been using for their posts on last month’s violence.
“We know there have been several issues that have impacted people’s ability to share on our apps, including a technical bug that affected Stories around the world,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
CBC IN ISRAELIsraeli city where Jews and Arabs have lived as neighbours now seeing unprecedented violence
“While these have been fixed, they should never have happened in the first place. We’re so sorry to everyone who felt they couldn’t bring attention to important events, or who felt this was a deliberate suppression of their voice.
“This was never our intention — nor do we ever want to silence a particular community or point of view. Our policies are designed to give everyone a voice while keeping them safe on our apps, and we apply these policies equally, regardless of who is posting or their personal beliefs.”
CBC IN GAZASurrounded by rubble once again, shaken Gazans struggle to find hope for a brighter future
The company did not say whether pro-Israeli posts or other Middle East content were impacted by the issue.
“We have a dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, closely monitoring the situation on the ground, who are focused on making sure we’re removing harmful content, while addressing any enforcement errors as quickly as possible,” Facebook’s spokesperson said.
Shadow banning less obvious than deleting of posts
Some pro-Palestinian activists said their posts had been “shadow banned,” a method of blocking online content in a way that, unlike when content is deleted by social media companies, is not easily apparent to a user.
Mitch Joel, president of Montreal-based digital advisory company Six Pixels Group, told CBC News that shadow banning is “an opaque concept.”
Why Palestinians say this Gaza conflict is different
“You don’t know that it’s happening. It’s hard to see or be sure,” Joel said. “But essentially, you’re seeing a decrease in either your traffic, followers, people connecting and liking something, and/or your content isn’t showing up in the algorithm as much.”
It basically amounts to a person or algorithm seeing content or a user that is deemed somehow problematic, and so their access to an audience is limited, he said.
WATCH | The Jerusalem neighbourhood symbolizing the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation:
The Jerusalem neighbourhood symbolizing the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation6 days ago
Palestinians fear the Israeli government is backing plans by hardline Jewish settlers to displace them from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem and end any chance of it one day serving as the capital of a Palestinian state. 7:51
Political motivations versus ‘turning the volume down’
The most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, began last month when tensions escalated over an ongoing legal battle between Jewish settlers and several Palestinian families under threat of forced eviction their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.
Israeli forces subsequently clashed with Palestinian protesters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is part of a holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews, and Hamas retaliated by firing rockets at Israel.
A look at past confrontations between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza
Violence in Gaza and Israel has left behind a changed political landscape in Canada
A ceasefire was reached after 11 days of fighting, during which Hamas fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted, and Israel conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Gaza that it said targeted Hamas infrastructure.
The Associated Press reported that at least 254 people were killed in Gaza, including 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza health ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
Facebook said ‘several issues’ impacted people’s ability to share content on the company’s apps last month, including a technical bug that affected stories around the world. (Wilfredo Lee/The Associated Press)
Joel said users may have found issues with their posts because social media platforms could be looking to “turn the volume down” on a specific topic or area.
“They might feel that it’s overtaking the general feed,” he said.
Political motivations could be at play as well, Joel said.
“Absolutely, it could be political, too, depending on the platform and what they’re trying to bring out into the world,” he said.
The issue has popped up in relation to other causes, too. Last month, a group called Women in Canada which is connected to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) movement were questioning why their social media posts similarly disappeared.