Instagram and Twitter blamed technical errors for deleting posts mentioning the possible displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem. However, data rights groups fear that “discriminatory” algorithms will work and want more transparency.
Palestinians living in the occupied Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem – an area illegally claimed by Jewish settlers – have posted on social media in protest of the eviction, but some have found their posts, photos or videos removed or their accounts removed blocked from last week.
This was a longstanding legal battle over evictions from homes in Sheikh Jarrah that fueled tension in Jerusalem, where hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police on Monday.
As of Monday, 7amleh, a nonprofit focused on social media, had received more than 200 complaints about deleted posts and blocked accounts related to Sheikh Jarrah.
“Most of the content on Instagram has been removed, even archives from older stories have been deleted. Twitter was mostly account banned, ”said Mona Shtaya, advocacy advisor at 7am.
Instagram and Twitter said the accounts were “mistakenly banned by our automated systems” and the problem had been fixed and the content restored.
Instagram said in a statement that an automated update last week resulted in content re-shared by multiple users being viewed as missing, affecting posts on Sheikh Jarrah, Colombia and indigenous communities in the US and Canada.
“We’re so sorry that happened. Especially for those in Colombia, East Jerusalem and indigenous communities who saw this as deliberately suppressing their voices and their stories – that was not our intention at all, ”Instagram said.
In a joint statement, 7amleh, Access Now and other digital rights groups called on Twitter and Instagram to use “transparent and coherent moderation guidelines” and to be more open when shutdowns occur.
Marwa Fatafta, Policy Advisor for Access Now in the Middle East and North Africa, said Twitter and Instagram users saw persistent restrictions on content over the weekend.
“The problem was not solved. We are asking for clarity on this censorship, and system malfunctions will no longer be accepted as an excuse, ”she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.
One of those affected was Hind Khoudary, a 25-year-old Palestinian journalist from Turkey, who noticed last Thursday that some posts about Sheikh Jarrah from her Instagram archives were not loading.
“I restarted my phone and wifi, but everything was still missing and Instagram was very slow,” said Khoudary.
Some of her posts had been restored by Friday afternoon, while others – as early as April and even on Saturday – were still missing, according to screenshots from her phone that she shared with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Some affected users received messages from Instagram about “violations of community standards”.
Shtaya said 7amleh was still filing complaints about missing content.
“It’s supposed to be done, but we’re still getting reports,” she said.
Data rights groups said the technical glitch exposed the risk of using an automated algorithm to weed out violent or otherwise inappropriate posts.
“Moderation is increasing and it’s really a dull object,” said Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Corporations don’t pay enough attention to cultural contexts like Palestine, which are essentially less profitable. So they put much more effort into making content moderation and automation effective in larger markets,” she said.
She said that content that doesn’t violate Instagram, Facebook or Twitter standards can be swept away by automated tools.
Fatafta said the deletion of posts about Sheikh Jarrah showed why using algorithms to moderate content was “a terrible idea”.
“It stresses that technology companies need to be transparent about the systems they use and ensure that they do not violate people’s rights in such discriminatory and arbitrary ways,” she said.