Western publics are waking up very belatedly to the undemocratic power social media wields over them. But if we wish to understand where this ultimately leads, there is no better case study than the very different ways Israelis and Palestinians have been treated by the tech giants.
The treatment of Palestinians online serves as a warning that it would be foolish indeed to regard these globe-spanning corporations as politically neutral platforms, and their decisions as straightforwardly commercial. This is to doubly misunderstand their role.
Social media firms are now effectively monopolistic communication grids – similar to the electricity and water grids, or the phone network of a quarter of a century ago. Their decisions are therefore no longer private matters, but instead have huge social, economic and political consequences. That is part of the reason why the US justice department launched a lawsuit last week against Google for acting as a “monopoly gatekeeper for the internet”.
Google, Facebook and Twitter have no more a right to arbitrarily decide who and what they host on their sites than telecoms companies once had a right to decide whether a customer should be allowed a phone line. But unlike the phone company, social media corporations control not just the means of communication, but the content too. They can decide, as the Hunter Biden story shows, whether their customers get to participate in vital public debates about who leads them.
The Hunter Biden decision is as if the phone company of old not only listened in to conversations, but was able to cut the line if it did not like the politics of any particular customer.
In fact, it is even worse than that. Social media now deliver the news to large sections of the population. Their censoring of a story is more akin to the electricity company turning off the power to everyone’s homes for the duration of a TV broadcast to ensure no one can see it.
Nowhere are ties between tech and state officials more evident than in their dealings with Israel. This has led to starkly different treatment of digital rights for Israelis and Palestinians. The online fate of Palestinians points to a future in which the already-powerful will gain ever greater control over what we know and what we are allowed to think, and over who is visible and who is erased from public life.
Israel was well-positioned to exploit social media before most other states had recognised its importance in manipulating popular attitudes and perceptions. For decades, Israel had, in part, outsourced an official programme of hasbara – or state propaganda – to its own citizens and supporters abroad. As new digital platforms emerged, these partisans were only too willing to expand their role.
Israel had another advantage. After the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel began crafting a narrative of state victimhood by redefining antisemitism to suggest it was now a particular affliction of the left, not the right. So-called “new antisemitism” did not target Jews, but related instead to criticism of Israel and support for Palestinian rights.
This highly dubious narrative proved easy to condense into social media-friendly soundbites.
Israel still routinely describes any Palestinian resistance to its belligerent occupation or its illegal settlements as “terrorism”, and any support from other Palestinians as “incitement”. International solidarity with Palestinians is characterised as “delegitimisation” and equated with antisemitism.
As far back as 2008, it emerged that a pro-Israel media lobby group, Camera, had been orchestrating covert efforts by Israel loyalists to infiltrate the online encyclopedia Wikipedia to edit entries and “rewrite history” in ways favourable to Israel. Soon afterwards, politician Naftali Bennett helped organise courses teaching “Zionist editing” of Wikipedia.
In 2011, the Israeli army declared social media a new “battleground” and assigned “cyber warriors” to wage combat online. In 2015, Israel’s foreign ministry set up an additional command centre to recruit young, tech-savvy former soldiers from 8200, the army’s cyber intelligence unit, to lead the battle online. Many have gone on to establish hi-tech firms whose spying software became integral to the functioning of social media.
In 2016, Israel’s justice ministry was boasting that Facebook, Google and YouTube were “complying with up to 95 percent of Israeli requests to delete content”, almost all of it Palestinian. The social media companies did not confirm this figure.
The Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel lobby group with a history of smearing Palestinian organisations and Jewish groups critical of Israel, established a “command centre” in Silicon Valley in 2017 to monitor what it termed “online hate speech”. That same year, it was appointed a “trusted flagger” organisation for YouTube, meaning its reporting of content for removal was prioritised.
Israel’s ever-tightening relationship with social media corporations has played out largely behind the scenes. But these ties moved decisively out of the shadows in May, when Facebook announced that its new oversight board would include Emi Palmor, one of the architects of Israel’s online repression policy towards Palestinians.
The board will issue precedent-setting rulings to help shape Facebook’s and Instagram’s censorship and free speech policies. But as the former director-general of the justice ministry, Palmor has shown no commitment to online free speech. Quite the reverse: she worked hand-in-hand with the tech giants to censor Palestinian posts and shut down Palestinian news websites. She oversaw the transformation of her department into what the human rights organisation Adalah has called the Orwellian “Ministry of Truth”.
Tech corporations are now the undeclared, profit-driven arbiters of our speech rights. But their commitment is not to open and vigorous public debate, online transparency or greater civic engagement. Their only commitment is to the maintenance of a business environment in which they avoid any regulation by major governments infringing on their right to make money.
The appointment of Palmor perfectly illustrates the corrupting relationship between government and social media. Palestinians know only too well how easy it is for technology to diminish and disappear the voices of the weak and oppressed, and to amplify the voices of the powerful.
Many more of us could soon find ourselves sharing the online fate of Palestinians.Social Media’s Erasure of Palestinians is a Grim Warning for our Future