Over the past decade, social media has radically altered events in the Middle East but its relevance is beginning to wane.
Facebook and Twitter have made the organising of people easier and allowed the unfiltered views from the region’s young people to be broadcast around the world in real time. The Arab Spring protests, which upended the power balance in the region for better or worse, would have not have happened as they did without these platforms.
The relationship between users and social media companies has been an uneasy one, as recent events have sadly demonstrated. At the height of the Egyptian uprising, for example, there was an air of genuine camaraderie between the protesters and companies such as Twitter that gave them an unedited platform to broadcast their views, goals and methods. Twitter became the go-to source for breaking news and as such the platform’s international popularity skyrocketed. Facebook enjoyed a similar fate as protesters used social networking to achieve their political goals.
In Israel and Palestine, social media served a more profound and necessary role. Given the western media’s entrenched perspective on the conflict that has privileged the Israeli narrative for decades, social media has critically broken down misconceptions and revealed the brutality of Israel’s relationship to Palestine in previously unthinkable ways. The rise of the boycott movement has been carried out in part on social media.
This month, things turned sour when Facebook agreed to work with Israel to combat extremism online. In an unprecedented move, the social network essentially empowered a foreign government with the ability to determine what constitutes “incitement” on the most popular social network in the world. To add insult to injury, Facebook executives hammered out the deal with Israeli justice minister Ayelet Shaked, who has openly incited against Palestinians on Facebook and repeatedly rejected a two-state solution.
This agreement comes after years of Israeli officials hounding social media organisations to remove content to which it objects. According to Bloomberg, Facebook has removed 95 per cent of online content that Israel has claimed to be offensive (Google and Twitter have also removed content at Israel’s request). This is all the more astonishing considering the large amount of openly racist incitement by Israelis against Palestinians on the social network.
During the last Gaza offensive in 2014, thousands of Israelis posted extreme messages calling for the killing of Palestinians and destruction of Gaza. Most of this aggressive content is left undisturbed by Facebook's editors.
Collusion between powerful social media companies that claim to facilitate the free flow of information and a foreign government is discouraging on many levels. But it is nothing new. When Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket exploded this month, it was carrying a Facebook-owned satellite made in Israel that had been designed to provide internet access to remote corners of Africa. Israel’s famed military intelligence 8200 unit, which is known for using the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a laboratory for information technology testing, has many graduates in senior positions in Silicon Valley. Israeli hacking technology is sold and distributed across the world for mostly nefarious ends.
Last week, Facebook elevated its relationship with Israel with an unexplained attack on several prominent Palestinian journalists. Editors of popular Palestinian media organisations unexpectedly had their Facebook accounts deactivated.
According to the Electronic Intifada, editors of the Quds and Shehab News Agency pages, which have millions of likes respectively, discovered that their accounts had been disabled without reason. While the pages of these organisations remained active, individuals associated with them appear to have been targeted and Facebook has provided scant reasoning behind its decisions.
Only after an international campaign centred on the hashtag #FBCensorPalestine did the social media giant reveal that the accounts were closed “in error” and restored.
The episode sent shock waves through the Palestinian journalism community as many see the unusual decision to be a direct result of Facebook’s collaboration with the Israeli government.
Senior Israeli politicians and government members have said for years that the threat of Palestinian non-violent protest, especially in the form of boycott campaigns that find traction on social media platforms, is one of the greatest dangers facing the country. They will, of course, use their influence to ensure that non-violent resistance to Israeli occupation online will be labelled as incitement and subsequently silenced.
These developments undermine exactly how much control social media platforms have over user content. Based on its terms of service, Facebook hasn’t crossed any boundaries in collaborating with Israeli officials. This is the reality with which we all must live.
Because of the explosive growth of social media usage, media coverage of events in the Middle East such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has changed for the better. But that doesn't mean that social media is some kind of saviour, providing a platform for the voiceless and unheard.
Facebook and Twitter are little more than vehicles to disseminate perspectives previously ignored. With the power to spread information comes the ability to censor. Recent events indicate that Facebook has become another impediment to justice, at least for Palestinians, because they see collusion with Israel to be in the long-term interests of the company. No one should be surprised.
On Twitter: @ibnezra