OPINION: The Sheikh Jarrah protests reveal the ugly truth about social media censorship

Words such as "Gaza massacres," "land theft," "water deprivation" are crossed out in red marker.
Censorship and power politics plague social media movements, argues Sae Furukawa PO ’25 (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

Social media is often credited as a revolutionary tool that has changed the way people communicate and share their stories. It has advanced countless sociopolitical movements worldwide, including the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter and the MeToo Movement, many of which are decentralized and rely on individual participation to spread their causes and challenge existing institutions that have fueled oppression and injustice. 

While social media is often seen as an equalizer that democratizes political engagement, it has also become a platform that actively fuels power politics — where a dominant party uses its influence to silence its weaker counterpart and further advance its power. Through social media censorship, tech giants often manipulate (intentionally or unintentionally) the narratives of events and silence a certain group of people to disrupt their engagement in sociopolitical issues.

One recent example entails the digital censorship of Palestinian voices during the Sheikh Jarrah protests starting May 2021. Following Israel’s forceful eviction of Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Palestinians and supporters began to document various acts of violence committed by Israeli authorities and share their solidarity with Palestinian communities through social media posts. 

However, many claimed that social media companies heavily censored their posts for allegedly “inciting violence” or “spreading misinformation.” 7amleh, a Palestinian digital rights non-profit, reported that nearly 500 posts related to Sheikh Jarrah were removed from Instagram and Facebook from May 6 through May 19. For instance, Instagram removed numerous posts related to the killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian Saeed Odeh by Israeli forces; similarly, the same platform temporarily banned the account of Mona al-Kurd, a Palestinian woman whose video capturing her confrontation with an Israeli settler went viral. 

In many cases, users have reported that their accounts and posts were banned without any explanation, and a lack of transparency surrounding the content handling makes it even harder for them to pinpoint the reason behind such censorship. While algorithms could inadvertently result in censorship, some critics suspect collusion between tech giants and the Israeli government. Facebook has been in close collaboration with Israel over content moderation since 2016, when both parties agreed to work together to tackle “incitement” over social media. Jillian York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international digital rights group that advocates against government surveillance, told the Washington Post that “what we’re seeing here is existing offline repression and inequality being replicated online,” and that Palestinians “are left out of the policy conversation.” 

Tech giants operate with a lack of transparency, and it remains ambiguous as to what exactly has contributed to the censorship of pro-Palestinian content — it could be intentional or attributable to the algorithms. Regardless, it seems that social media, despite its reputation as a democratizer of digital content, has also become a catalyst for further reinforcing power dynamics and allowing a dominant party to silence a vulnerable counterpart. 

Furthermore, this ongoing dispute over the censorship of Palestinian voices also demonstrates that when social media companies are the sole arbiters of which content is “harmful” or “inappropriate,” these companies are effectively granted the authority to shape the thoughts and opinions of the general public through content moderation. 

One dilemma behind digital censorship, however, is that social media, despite being complicit in the oppression and silencing of minorities, continues to be the only platform for these vulnerable populations to address injustice facing them. Ironically, for example, Palestinian activists continue to rely on social media to share their experiences of being censored. 

Yet, this is precisely why we must scoop and amplify their stories and voices before they are erased from social media platforms. While one tweet or resharing may not make a substantial difference, claiming that the issue is “too complicated to understand or talk about” equates to siding with the oppressors and enabling the silencing of vulnerable communities. Exercising our free expression is one way to acknowledge silenced individuals and strive for equal footing on digital platforms. 

Sae Furukawa PO ’25 is from Tokyo, Japan. She loves nonfiction, documentaries and Coppola’s films.

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