As Palestinians took to social media to protest pending evictions from East Jerusalem, some inexplicably found their posts has been removed or their accounts blocked.
Social media platforms Instagram and Twitter have blamed technical errors for deleting posts mentioning the possible eviction of Palestinians, citing “error by our automated systems”.
But data rights groups fear “discriminatory” algorithms are the cause of the takedowns and blocking of accounts and want greater transparency.
The issue came to the fore as a long-running legal case over evictions from homes in Sheikh Jarrah has fuelled tensions in Jerusalem where hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police on Monday.
By Monday, 7amleh, a non-profit focused on social media, had received more than 200 complaints about deleted posts and suspended accounts related to Sheikh Jarrah.
“On Instagram, it was mostly content takedown, even archives from older stories were deleted. On Twitter, most cases were an account suspension,” said Mona Shtaya, an advocacy advisor at 7amleh.
Instagram and Twitter said the accounts were suspended in error by our automated systems and the issue had been resolved and content reinstated.
Instagram said in a statement that an automated update last week caused content re-shared by multiple users to appear as missing, affecting posts on Sheikh Jarrah, Colombia, and U.S. and Canadian indigenous communities.
“We are so sorry this happened. Especially to those in Colombia, East Jerusalem, and Indigenous communities who felt this was an intentional suppression of their voices and their stories – that was not our intent whatsoever,” Instagram said.
But in a joint statement, 7amleh, Access Now, and other digital rights groups called on Twitter and Instagram to use “transparent and coherent moderation policies” and be more open when take-downs happen.
Marwa Fatafta, Middle East and North Africa policy advisor for Access Now, said Twitter and Instagram users saw continued restrictions on content over the weekend.
“The issue was not resolved. We’re demanding clarity on this censorship, and system glitches are no longer accepted as an excuse,” Fatafta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.
Data rights groups said the technical glitch had revealed the risks of using an automated algorithm to try to weed out violent or otherwise inappropriate posts.
“Moderation is on the rise, and it’s really a blunt object,” said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“The companies don’t pay enough attention to cultural contexts like Palestine where there’s basically less profit, so they put a lot more effort into making content moderation and automation effective in larger markets,” she said.
She said as a result, content that doesn’t violate Instagram, Facebook or Twitter standards can get 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 the need for tech companies to be transparent about the systems they use, and ensure they do not infringe on people’s rights in such a discriminatory and arbitrary manner,” she said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)