HRW: Facebook censors Palestinian posts on Israeli human rights abuses

Human Rights Watch also claimed Facebook designating Hamas and PFLP as "dangerous organizations" is a threat to free expression.

 A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC)
A Facebook logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed on Friday that Facebook wrongfully removed content by Palestinian activists about Palestine and Israeli human rights violations during Operation Guardians of the Wall in May.

HRW, the New York-based NGO, also claimed that Facebook's reliance on the United States' Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) list for designating organizations as "dangerous" is a threat to free expression as it prohibits Palestinian leaders from using Facebook. Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), both of which are on the FTOs list, are merely "political movements that also have armed wings," HRW said.

Instagram, owned by Facebook, removed several posts pertaining to Palestine, including reposts of mainstream news organizations, HRW said. Posts in support of the Palestinian cause, such as one urging Palestinians to "never concede their rights" and another showing a building before it was "struck down by Israeli missiles" were removed from the social networking application for containing "hate speech or symbols," according to HRW.

In addition, HRW suggested wrongdoing in Facebook's handling of Israeli cyber units' reporting and flagging of violent content from Palestinians. HRW noted a State Attorney's Office report from 2018 which shows an 87% compliance rate for removal of hateful content on Facebook, which HRW states is extremely high for voluntary requests.

"Facebook provides a particularly critical platform where Israeli authorities are committing crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions," said HRW's Deborah Brown. "Instead of respecting people’s right to speak out, Facebook is silencing many people arbitrarily and without explanation," Brown added.

 PRO-PALESTINIAN demonstrators protest at the Washington Monument earlier this year. (credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS) PRO-PALESTINIAN demonstrators protest at the Washington Monument earlier this year. (credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

HRW advised Facebook to commission an independent investigation into content moderation specifically for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the Facebook Oversight Board recommended in September.

The Facebook Oversight Board, a content moderation body created in 2018, was once described by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as "Facebook's Supreme Court." It holds the power to moderate all content on Facebook and Instagram, as well as override any decision made by Facebook, Inc.

"Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues in Israel and Palestine," said Brown. "With the space for such advocacy under threat in many parts of the world, Facebook censorship threatens to restrict a critical platform for learning and engaging on these issues." 

Facebook, which by its own rules has 30 days to respond to the Oversight Board's recommendation, has until October 14.