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Facebook apologises for Palestine over censoring pro-Palestine content

Senior Facebook executives apologized to the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in a virtual meeting on Tuesday, after complaints were made to the company about censoring pro-Palestine content.

The Palestinian officials left the meeting on Tuesday with the impression that Facebook had admitted there was an “inherent issue with their algorithms” and that they had promised to address it, according to an account of the meeting shared with theTIME news by Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian mission to the U.K.

Zomlot said that Facebook’s team, which was led at the meeting by the company’s vice president for global affairs Nick Clegg, acknowledged that Facebook had inaccurately labeled certain words commonly used by Palestinians, including “martyr” and “resistance,” as incitement to violence.

“They promised they would revisit and reevaluate their framework,” Zomlot said.

The meeting was also attended by Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, Joel Kaplan, and its Middle East and North Africa policy chief Azzam Alameddin.

Social media users from Palestine and around the world have uploaded and shared videos and images about Israeli forces and settlers violence in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, and Israel’s aggression on Gaza Strip, using the hashtags #SaveSheikhJarrah and #GazaUnderAttack, in both English and Arabic.

However, social media websites, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, have censored, limited, and shut down their accounts, silencing their voices while they are fighting against the occupation.

Another hashtag, Al-Aqsa in Arabic, has also been hidden by Instagram, because, as it claims, the “content may not meet Instagram’s Community Guidelines.”

The hashtag was used to cover the settlers and forces’ violence and attacks against the Palestinians in al-Aqsa mosque courtyards.

Meanwhile, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, tweeted it was facing technical issues on May 6, after hundreds of people began reporting the censorship.

In response to questions from TIME, a Facebook spokesperson did not deny that Clegg’s team had apologized to the Palestinian side for the Al-Aqsa episode, nor that the company had committed to revisiting and reevaluating the way it dealt with similar posts and language.

“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by the horrific ongoing violence,” the spokesperson said in a statement to TIME on Friday.

“In response to the violence we are working to make sure our services are a safe place for our community. We will continue to remove content that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow hate speech or incitement to violence, and will proactively explain and promote dialogue on these policies to policymakers.”

“We are also actively working to respond to concerns about our content enforcement. These meetings are an effort to ensure that all parties are aware of steps the company has taken, and will continue to take, to keep the platform safe.”

Five days before Facebook met with the Palestinian Prime Minister, a Facebook delegation including Cutler, Clegg and Kaplan met with the Israeli Justice Minister, Benny Gantz.

At that meeting, on May 13, Gantz pressured Facebook to take even stricter action against “extremist elements that are seeking to do damage to our country,” according to a statement from his office.

“Gantz called upon them to commit to removing content from their social media sites that incites to violence or that spreads disinformation, and emphasized the importance of responding quickly to appeals from the governmental cyber bureau,” the statement said.

An official in the Israeli Justice Ministry told TIME on Friday that in the week since meeting with Facebook, they had noticed an improvement in the speed with which Facebook had dealt with Israeli takedown requests.

“Ahead of the meeting, the Ministry of Justice was disappointed with how Facebook was responding,” the official said.

“During the meeting, however, they did voice a willingness to respond more assertively, fully and quickly, and subsequently there has been some improvement. We would like to see even greater responsiveness going forward.”

Zomlot, however, said he had raised the issue of algorithmic bias with Facebook.

“The Israeli military machine is feeding their algorithms, absolutely,” he told TIME. “And the main purpose is to stifle the Palestinian voices about anything that has to do with injustices.”

Palestinians are no strangers to such restrictions on social media.

For years, American apps, including Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, have been deleting and deactivating the accounts of Palestinians in coordination with the Israeli government and security agencies, on the pretext of preventing Palestinian “incitement and hate speech” on its platform, stifling the Palestinian voices.

On May 2020, Facebook deleted the accounts of more than 50 Palestinian journalists and activists, saying their accounts had been deactivated for “not following our Community Standards,” according to Sada Social.

Sada Social, a Palestinian digital rights organisation, said it documented 38 violations against Palestinian content in April 2021 only.

Since the start of 2021, 50 violations against freedom of the press, as Facebook either blocked Palestinian publications or closed accounts of journalists and activists under feeble excuses, said the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS).

Also, Israeli media had reported that Facebook complies with 95% of Israeli orders to remove Palestinian content.

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