Violent and racist anti-Palestinian rhetoric grew more prevalent across social media platforms last year, according to a new report published by 7amleh, an organization that partners with Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook.
Hateful anti-Palestinian remarks grew by 10 percent in 2022, compared to the prior year, according to the new report, based on an aggregated analysis of mentions of “Arabs,” “Palestinians,” and related keywords by Israeli social media users. 7amleh attributes the increase to a spate of real-world violence, including the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and Israeli military raids at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. As The Intercept previously reported, 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the end of the Second Intifada, with 2023 already on track to surpass that toll.
“The 10 percent increase in violent speech against Arabs and Palestinians is alarming and should be taken on serious matter from the tech giants so that everyone enjoys their rights and freedoms in this digital space,” said Mona Shtaya, the advocacy and communications director of 7amleh.
“The 10 percent increase in violent speech against Arabs and Palestinians is alarming.”
The 7amleh report also claims a pronounced increase in bigotry and violent incitement directed against Palestinian members of the Knesset, Israeli’s parliamentary body, a spike attributed to the coalition government formed by Knesset members Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. Much of Bennett’s hateful rhetoric flagged in the report took the shape of claims that Arabs are terrorists, that Arab members of the Knesset support terrorism, and calls for the death or forced displacement of Palestinian Arabs.
While the report states Facebook remains a hotbed of anti-Arab hate, “Twitter continues to be the main platform for violent discourse against Palestinians inside Israel.”
Civil society groups like 7amleh have long tracked the ways in which social media platforms censor Palestinians online through biased, lopsided enforcement of content moderation policies, using rulebooks that often conflate nonviolent political speech with the endorsement of terrorism.
Following The Intercept’s publication of Meta’s roster of so-called Dangerous Individuals and Organizations, content moderation scholars noted that Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim people and groups were overrepresented. 7amleh and other groups say these biases result in imbalanced censorship for Palestinians and relative latitude for Israelis during periods of violence.
7amleh is one of hundreds of global civil society organizations Meta has worked with in an effort to “better understand the impact” of its platforms around the world. “We partner with expert organizations that represent the voices and experiences of marginalized users around the globe and are equipped to raise questions and concerns about content on Facebook and Instagram,” Meta says on its website. “In addition to reporting content, Trusted Partners provide crucial feedback on our content policies and enforcement to help ensure that our efforts keep users safe.”
Advocates for Palestinian rights say those efforts have fallen flat.
“The Israeli right wing has been more than happy to declare on social media what they’d like to do to the Palestinian people,” Ubai Al-Aboudi, a Palestinian human rights activist and executive director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development, a prominent civil society group, told The Intercept. “There is a proliferation of hate speech against Palestinians. And this is the result of an asymmetrical power relation where big tech is happy to endorse the Israeli narrative while meanwhile suppressing the Palestinian narrative.”
Proliferation of online anti-Palestinian rhetoric and explicit incitement to violence was on display earlier this year during one of the worst episodes of violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank to date. Hundreds of settlers went on a nighttime rampage in the town of Huwara, near the city of Nablus, torching homes and cars. One Palestinian was killed, and dozens more were injured.
The incident, which was widely condemned and referred to as a “pogrom,” was also widely celebrated on social media, including by top figures in Israel’s new extremist government. Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right politician who is Israel’s current finance minister and a minister of defense in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, liked a tweet that made a call “to wipe out the village of Huwara today.” Later, Smotrich publicly repeated the remark himself, before being forced to apologize. (Two weeks after making those comments, Smotrich was in the U.S., where he was shunned by officials and several prominent Jewish organizations, but welcomed by others.)
The rampage in Huwara, which was documented in real time on social media, was launched following public calls for an attack against the town after a Palestinian man killed two Israeli settlers as they drove through. In the days following the attack, incitement to violence only escalated, with several accounts, including one popular among settlers, calling for yet more “vengeance.”
“The Israeli right wing is promoting hate speech on social media against Palestinians, like the pogrom on Huwara,” said Al-Aboudi of the Bisan Center. “They were calling for it, before it happened, on social media. And even after the incident, the celebrations were well tolerated by big tech.”
7amleh’s findings on the proliferation of anti-Palestinian online speech stand in stark contrast with social media companies’ active crackdown on Palestinian speech online. As The Intercept has repeatedly reported, platforms’ content moderation policies are regularly enforced in an arbitrary manner that has resulted in the censorship of Palestinian voices, including the frequent suspensions of Palestinian journalists’ accounts.
Last year, a review commissioned by Meta concluded that the company’s actions during a May 2021 Israeli bombing campaign on the occupied Gaza Strip had an “an adverse human rights impact … on the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination, and therefore on the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.”
The report’s conclusions also point to a glaring double standard in Israeli officials’ efforts to moderate online speech. Israel has long worked with social media companies in an effort to remove content that it considers incitement, frequently flagging posts for removal.
Earlier this year, Israeli officials with the Knesset’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs revealed that they had proactively lobbied TikTok for content removal to rates significantly higher than those of most other countries. The officials cited partial reports from TikTok for 2022 that it received 2,713 requests from various governments around the world to remove or limit content or accounts, with the Israeli government coming second only to Russia in calling for content removal. Israel made 252 official requests, 9.2 percent of the total number of requests to TikTok worldwide. By comparison, the U.S. government submitted only 13 applications, the French government submitted 27, the United Kingdom 71, and Germany 167.
“The Israeli right wing is promoting hate speech on social media against Palestinians, like the pogrom on Huwara.”
“Incitement on social media is a problem that needs to be dealt with in-depth,” Knesset member Oded Forer, the committee’s chair, said at the time, referring specifically to antisemitic speech. “It is clear to everyone that the extreme discourse on social networks increases and encourages acts of terrorism against Jews.” The committee made no reference to anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian speech in that context.
Lobbying for content removal is not the only way Israeli officials have worked to control speech on social media platforms. This week, the Israeli military acknowledged orchestrating a covert social media operation during the May 2021 Gaza campaign to “improve the Israeli public’s view of Israel’s performance in the conflict,” the Associated Press reported. As part of the operation, Israeli Defense Forces officials created fake accounts to “conceal the campaign’s origins and engage audiences” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok and coordinated the effort with real social media influencers.
While Israeli military officials regularly use social media to monitor and gather intelligence on Palestinians, this was seemingly the first time that an Israeli influence campaign targeted the Israeli public.