Facebook and Twitter can’t uphold standards with offices in repressive Middle East countries
Last week, activists and journalists launched a campaign on Twitter, calling on the platform to relocate its regional office in the Middle East from Dubai.
Using the hashtag #Change_Office_Twitter_Dubai, many activists said Twitter "manipulated" their tweets and removed hashtags criticising their governments. The campaign was launched following the deletion and suspension of hundreds of accounts of political opponents and activists.
In today’s digital reality, freedom of speech and expression are increasingly determined by social media companies
Recently, Facebook rescinded a policy banning false claims in political advertising. The move raised a few eyebrows. But questionable Facebook acts are not new: its crackdown on Palestinian content, reportedly via an algorithm that targets terms such as “resistance”, “martyr”, and “Hamas” - no matter the context - results in the removal or blocking of posts, the banning of users’ accounts, and, in the worst cases, arrest.
In response, activists have launched a campaign with the hashtag #FBblocksPalestine.
A digital reality
In today’s digital reality, freedom of speech and expression are increasingly determined by social media companies entrusted to manage the precarious balance between open communication and censorship of hate speech. Yet without a code of conduct ensuring protection of human rights, these private companies too often cave to pressure from governments and allow their channels to be used as instruments of repression.
This is particularly true when digital giants locate headquarters or regional offices in countries guilty of crushing freedom of expression.
Analysis conducted by ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies, a London-based think tank, shows that when Facebook and Twitter locate offices in countries such as Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the companies can be enlisted by the governments to silence dissenters and political opponents.
The most recent and egregious examples are found in Israel, where Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Intel are among more than 300 multinationals that have opened research and development facilities. Facebook, for instance, opened a regional office in Tel Aviv in 2013.
Three years later, a team from that office met with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who spearheads the fight against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. The aim of the meeting, according to a statement released by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office at the time, was improved "cooperation against incitement to terror and murder”.
In reality, what resulted was a concerted effort to suppress Palestinian social media activity focused against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In 2017, a report by the Israeli Ministry of Justice said its cyber unit documented 2,241 cases of “objectionable” online content shared by Palestinians and succeeded in removing 70 percent of it.
Last year, 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, reported that Israeli authorities arrested around 350 Palestinians in the West Bank on charges of “incitement” because of their posts on social media - up from 300 arrests in 2017.