Misinformation, disinformation, and deepfakes in the digital age are endless. Whether you’re combing through social media for story verification, identifying misinformation, finding a source, or using Google reverse image search, the digital world is something no journalist can avoid or produce stories without.
With platform choices spanning endlessly — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube and so on — social media is used by vulnerable communities to highlight their plight, or by experts for analysis, and by journalists as well.
Together, it becomes an unstable online world to navigate when you factor in bots, trolls, fake news, and altered images. This space becomes even more difficult to navigate during real time breaking news, wars, and escalations across the global sphere.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2022, chaos ensued on social media, and it became a struggle to identify accurate news. Social platforms were overflowing with footage of different world events.
A video of the 2020 Beirut port blast went viral, masked as Russian missile attacks on Ukraine. Then, old clips of a young Palestinian girl, Ahed Tamimi, confronting Israeli soldiers, also went viral and were falsely misidentified as a Ukrainian girl confronting Russian soldiers.
Geolocation and open-source investigative journalism also boomed as journalists attempted to decipher what was real and what was altered. The rise of open-source investigative journalism in today’s world has made tracking and verifying misinformation easier to debunk for readers.
Newsrooms have begun incorporating open-source methods into their news coverage. Part of this includes verifying posts on social media networks. The other part includes integrating satellite imagery, Google maps, and looking for areas where reporters can’t get into the field (like military bases) using the internet. The use of satellite imagery, digital forensics, open data sets through social media, investigative journalism has evolved to include verifying disputed claims and fact-checking global events and statements made online.
The rise of social media platforms and public consumption of news vis-a-vis social platforms, journalists and news channels have added enhanced and increased layers of verification for news. With different audiences dominating the ideological spectrum and news cycle, social media can both be a powerful tool as well as a powerful weapon.
Open-source investigation: the case of Shireen Abu Akleh
It was a day that changed the trajectory of journalism worldwide, brought the occupation of Palestine to the forefront, and exposed the treatment of journalists at the behest of the Israeli military. On May 11, 2022 footage showing veteran Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh lying face down on the ground, motionless, went viral.
What was supposed to be another day doing her job, albeit in a volatile environment, turned into a day of execution for Abu Akleh. She had gone to cover an Israeli raid at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank with her camera crew, but later met her fate in the line of duty.
In the span of a few months, several investigations into Abu Akleh’s death followed. CNN, Washington Post, Bellingcat, Forensic Architecture, to name a few, charted the course of the moment the bullet hit Abu Akleh’s head, to the misinformation that followed on social media.
Several TikTok videos and tweets attempted to skewer information and alter videos that were taken by Abu Akleh’s colleagues as well as eyewitnesses, in a massive misinformation campaign that was meant to shield the culprit.
While Shireen’s death isn’t the first global event to spark open-source investigation, it was one that spotlighted how social media can be used as a catalyst and combination for news investigations featuring Google Maps, body cams, eyewitness testimonies, and firearms experts.
Tech giants, censorship, and the Israeli government
Despite their use in aiding news investigations, social media platforms are contingent on who runs them, and have run free with censorship, suspensions, and targeting of users online. Big Tech heads and CEOs control content and create policies for their staff to follow.
Many Palestinians on the ground and abroad, whether journalists or regular people, rely on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Meta to dispatch live updates and news out of the Occupied Territories.
Yet several restrictions come with such usage, as noted by users who have said content to related Palestine is removed, whether a Tweet or an Instagram story, and slapped with tags of ‘sensitive’ and ‘violent’. Sometimes the accounts are suspended altogether.
Social media users have claimed that the relationship between Big Tech corporate heads and the Israeli government is the reason behind this targeting.
The creator of Meta – previously known as Facebook — Mark Zuckerberg has a history of collaborations with Israel. In 2016, Meta/Facebook teamed up with the Israeli government to “tackle incitement on the social media network”.
This collaboration came after a Meta delegation met with Israeli government officials prior to the announcement. Meta then released a statement saying that “online extremism can only be tackled with a strong partnership between policymakers, civil society, academia and companies, and this is true in Israel and around the world”.
The long-lasting effects of this collaboration can still be felt, and human rights groups worry that any content Israel deems as ‘terrorism’ often results in the censorship of any Palestinian news and content that shows Israeli arrests, and storming of mosques, churches, and house demolitions by the Israeli forces.
When technology and a foreign occupying state collude, it results in the occupied population’s content being censored under the false guise of terrorism and/or antisemitism.
The relationship doesn’t end with the joint Meta-Israeli government collaboration. In 2020, Emi Palmor was appointed to Meta’s Oversight Board. According to its website, the Oversight Board “was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up and why.”
Prior to that, Palmor served as the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Justice up until 2019. Several Palestinian rights groups accused Palmor of censoring Palestinians in her tenure at the Justice Ministry, under the Israeli Cyber Unit. Palmor denied this.
The Israeli Cyber Unit can request Meta remove content that incites violence or supports terrorism and has successfully lobbied the removal of Palestinian content on Meta in the past.
Another popular platform, Instagram, owned by parent-company Meta, takes its cues from its current head, Israeli businessman Adam Mosseri.
The picture-sharing app has also been accused by users internationally of their content not being viewable in 2021 when the most recent Israeli-Palestinian tension reached its boiling point. Meta and Instagram employees, prompted by an Egyptian employee’s open letter, accused the platforms of anti-Arab bias.
Meta’s products, which also include WhatsApp, were removing content about Palestine, both in English and Arabic, alongside hashtags and videos, as well as news about the Indigenous population in Canada. Some chalked it up to bugs, others attributed it to targeted censorship.
Instagram also banned content about Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, the site where Palestinian worshippers were attacked by Israeli soldiers. Meta told the National News it was a mistake.
WhatsApp has also been accused of targeted censorship from journalists and Palestinian groups. Last year during the uprising, Gaza-based Palestinian journalists said they were blocked from using WhatsApp.
Social media platforms, tech giants, and political leaders have stimulated a questionable relationship, one that can spur conflicts of interest when monitoring misinformation, hate speech, and simultaneously toe the line of censoring the freedom of speech of vulnerable communities.
The question of data and privacy is another concern that has risen in the past decade with the case of Cambridge Analytica as an example of social media violating public privacy.
Case Study: Palestine, May–June 2021
Misinformation and censorship exploded online in May 2021, when a violent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian situation rose to global heights.
It started when the Jerusalem District Court officials ruled that at least six Palestinian families had to leave their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. These families had lived there for decades and most of them were exiled from Yaffa and Haifa in 1948 to the predominantly Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
A few days after the court-ordered expulsion, a video of a Sheikh Jarrah resident confronting an Israeli settler in her house went viral.
The 23-year-old Palestinian, Muna El Kurd, is seen in the video saying, “you are stealing my house!”, to which the squatter, Jacob, replies, “If I don’t steal it, someone else will steal it….so why are you yelling at me?”
International solidarity with the El Kurds and Sheikh Jarrah ensued online rapidly, with hashtags like #SaveSheikhJarrah trending on Twitter and Instagram.
The news cycle was dominated with Sheikh Jarrah developments and Muna and Mohammed El Kurd rose to unprecedented international prominence and became regulars on news channels. With the international solidarity, however, came a targeted misinformation campaign by Israeli bots and social media platforms.
On May 6, 2021 Mohammed El Kurd said that Instagram alerted him of an account removal based on the Arabic and Palestinian content he was posting. He added: “IG also deleted my videos about the settler and IOF invasions a few nights ago calling it ‘hate speech’ after it amassed over 2k reposts. They literally want us to rot and die but without the world watching.”
7amleh and Sada Social Centre, two Palestinian digital rights groups, together documented over 1000 instances of social media content restrictions and removals. According to their report, the Sada team “documented more than 770 violations during May, as Facebook topped the list with 350 violations, followed by Twitter with 250 violations, Instagram with 100 violations, TikTok with 50 violations, WhatsApp 20, and 10 violations on YouTube.”
Meanwhile, 7amleh was bombarded with hundreds of complaints during May-June 2021 from users whose accounts were suspended. They helped restore several accounts by escalating requests to Facebook and Instagram.
7amleh released a report compiled over the first two weeks of May 2021, stating “accounts were removed, reduced, and restricted, hashtags were hidden, and archived content deleted. 50% of these reports were about Instagram, 35% Facebook, 11% Twitter and 1% Tik Tok.” Their report also highlighted the heightened “use of surveillance and spyware technologies by Israeli authorities against Palestinians”.
Palestinians claimed removals aided in misinformation and fake news being reported about what was happening in Sheikh Jarrah, and said that it had become dangerous for criticism of the Israeli state to be shared online by journalists and activists.
Mohammed and Muna El Kurd were both arrested temporarily in June 2021 for participating in Sheikh Jarrah protests, according to the Israeli army. This arrest coincided with pro-Israel bots on Twitter and Instagram mass reporting Mohammed and Muna’s accounts for allegedly inciting violence and terrorism, and social media platforms complying with these requests
In February 2022, Sada Social Centre teamed up with one of the largest law firms in London, Bindmans, to lodge an official complaint to Facebook, representing several Palestinian journalists, writers, activists, and news agencies. Sada’s press release called the lawsuit an act against “arbitrary censorship” by corporate tech platforms like Meta.
In response to what Palestinian groups called “digital repression” in 2021, social-media companies have admitted to some takedowns and account blockages in the past. Instagram apologized for the fact that many accounts couldn’t post content related to Palestine on May 6, and for those whose accounts were flagged or blocked. Instagram called it a broader technical problem that affected posts from several countries about different global issues.
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, tweeted: “Many people thought we were removing their content because of what they posted or what hashtag they used, but this bug wasn’t related to the content itself”.
Human rights groups and some users weren’t convinced and called it a collusion between social media heads and the Israeli government. Al Jazeera reported that 7amleh discovered how Meta previously complied with 81 per cent of Israel’s requests to remove content surrounding Palestine.
Digital abuse and harassment: spillover effects
While mass reporting and misinformation campaigns are now a regular aspect of navigating the social media world, many of these campaigns can have spillover effects for some users. In January 2022, 7amleh released another report called ‘Hashtag Palestine’, which claimed that digital harassment transfers to real life surveillance.
7amleh’s report claimed that: “use of surveillance technologies significantly increased, evident in the proposal of an Israeli law to allow the use of facial-recognition cameras in public spaces.”
It also added that “Israeli manufactured ‘Pegasus’ spyware, developed by the Israeli ‘NSO Group’” was identified on the phones of 6 Palestinian human rights defenders and workers in Palestinian rights organizations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This goes back to Meta and the Israeli government’s 2016 collaboration, in which Palestinian groups claimed the social media platform didn’t target antisemitism but concentrated its efforts on Palestinian censorship.
The report stated that the Israeli Ministerial Committee for Legislation recently approved the first draft of the ‘Facebook Law,’ which would allow the Israeli Public Prosecution to refer to the Israeli courts to issue binding decisions to remove any content online, which would have serious repercussions for Palestinian digital rights.
This begs the question: how dangerous is the relationship between social media platform giants like Mark Zuckerberg and foreign governments? Does allowing governments to monitor platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram violate cyber privacy by allowing them to spy on civilians who criticize?
An environment in disorder: what next?
Misinformation will continue to breed online regardless of any cyber checks in power. The critical role is for journalists to regularly continue to debunk false claims, and users to verify information with news outlets and multiple sources of confirmation.
Journalism can help mitigate online chaos by producing and investigating leads on powerful people — from political leaders and governments to tech giants such as Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos. This aids public service journalism in calling for public accountability from platforms that have discriminatory social media policies.
Social media platforms have the responsibility to place policies to counter fake news and sensationalization, but they also need to ensure their teams and algorithms are not censoring a language or a country, in this case Arabic or Palestinian content, hashtags, and news.
Countries across the world have implemented their own laws against misinformation as social media platforms continue to impact global issues, elections, and users worldwide.
In 2017, Meta, Twitter, and Google representatives were summoned to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee and testified on their roles in spreading disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election. Their consensus was that Russia had manipulated their platforms with fake accounts, ads, and bots.
The discrepancies regarding Palestine in these platforms, noted and condemned by international human rights groups, comes down to social media platforms failing to monitor Israeli bots and Israeli-state sponsored mis- and dis-information. The result is social and political consequences for Palestinians whether on social media vis-à-vis account suspensions, or in real life with arbitrary detentions and arrests.