The following article is an interview with Hassan Youness, University Lecturer and Social Media Strategist
Q1: Does media play a pivotal role in framing the narrative surrounding the Israeli war on Gaza?
The ongoing Israeli massacres against civilians in Gaza have shaken the conscience of the international community, reigniting discussions about the Arab perspective on this unending cycle of violence and despair. Amid these dire circumstances, the role of media, both traditional and social, has taken on a profound significance, as it steers the complex landscape of content regulation, allegations of bias, and the immense influence of algorithms.
The struggle to strike the right balance between free expression and content moderation remains an ongoing and critical challenge.
Q2: What are the main sources of misinformation in this war?
The University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public has observed that the most popular posts about the war in Gaza highlight the rapid and disorienting nature of news on social media platforms. Additionally, a recent analysis by NewsGuard, a nonpartisan company specializing in tracking false narratives online, found that 6 verified accounts were responsible for disseminating nearly three-fourths of the most viral misinformation related to the Israel-Hamas conflict on X [formerly Twitter]. Surprisingly, these tweets triggered by Musk himself outperformed those from prominent news accounts, such as CNN, The New York Times, the BBC, and Reuters, despite having significantly fewer followers.
Q3: Do social media platforms have double standards in coverage of the war?
The notion of content moderation on different social media platforms in the coverage of the war has gained a lot of momentum, especially with the accusation of bias. Social media companies that usually claim to be responsible for enforcing community guidelines and content moderation policies to curb the spread of hate speech, incitement to violence, and misinformation didn’t provide an equal level playing field for both narratives.
Advocacy groups, users, and governments have accused these platforms of unevenly applying their policies, especially for content that supports Gaza which gets unfairly targeted or removed.
Social media algorithms, which prioritize engaging content, can unintentionally amplify polarizing or emotional posts. During times of conflict, this can lead to the rapid spread of content that may be one-sided or biased, making it difficult for platforms to regulate the narrative effectively. Meta's involvement in the Israeli misinformation battle has recently come under fire, particularly due to the troubling use of algorithms in the platform's operations.
One worrying example is the accidental insertion of the word "terrorist" into the profile descriptions of several Palestinian Instagram users. The incident, allegedly attributed to a bug in Meta's auto-translation feature, highlights the significant impact algorithms can have on how content is curated and presented on social media. Meta has issued an apology for this incident and claims to have resolved the bug, Guardian Australia reported.
Q4: What are the main challenges faced by Palestinians and Arab social media users to amplify their voices?
Meta's shadow ban on content related to Palestine and Gaza underscores the broader challenges of content moderation in today's digital landscape. It shows that the founders of such platforms are major participants in wars and have an impact on shaping the public opinion to fit their biased rhetoric and unfair arguments.
Suspending accounts deemed to be 'affiliated with Hamas' in an attempt to curb the spread of what they selectively deem 'violent and hateful' online content is the justification to show one side of the story.
Q5: Are these users able to overcome the policies and restrictions imposed by these companies?
In fact yes, many hacks have been provided for users facing suspension or shadow banning:
- Uploading stories with irrelevant hashtags and concealing them within the content;
- Incorporating unrelated stories that have no connection to Gaza to deceive the algorithm;
- Evading commonly detected trending hashtags;
- Manipulating your keywords by inserting punctuation or spaces between the letters to avoid algorithm detection.
- Adopting Algospeak which is an evasion tactic for automated moderation on social media, where users create new words to use in place of keywords that might get picked up by AI-powered filters, especially many posts that are being unfairly suppressed leading to, among other things, shadowbanning.
Q6: Amid this gloomy picture, could it be argued that social media is also helping Palestinians and Arabs to magnify their voices?
Despite these challenges, the war on Gaza has opened the door to new elites and “citizen journalists,” in addition to grassroots activism, to advocate for Palestinian rights. Many activists and organizations use platforms like Facebook and Twitter to mobilize support, share petitions, organize rallies, and provide resources for those seeking information about the conflict. This has allowed for a more organic and globalized approach to advocacy.
Some digitally active diplomats, bloggers and social media influencers played a significant role in raising awareness of the Arab perspective on the conflict in Gaza by amplifying the Arab perspective, offering a fresh and relatable approach, humanizing the crisis and challenging media narratives. Most importantly, many content creators on different social media platforms challenged misinformation through taking the role of fact-checkers and truth disseminators. They can debunk false claims and provide evidence-based information to counteract the spread of inaccurate narratives.
Q7: What do you think about the controversy about the content on Tiktok that is, according to the platform, overwhelmingly Palestinian?
Tiktok always tries to maintain a persona of being transparent, fair, and committed to diverse representation. The heightened global attention to the war on Gaza which took the world by surprise regarding the brutal activities and war crimes of the Israelis opened the doors for grassroots activism. This activism came from a plethora of sources–even from the West. Tiktok’s algorithm amplifies content based on users’ engagement and voice. The Palestinian narrative told by many activists and Tiktokers gained unprecedented momentum, empathy, and reach which made the content overwhelmingly Palestinian. Tiktokers were able to leverage the power of social media to defeat and show the counter argument of the classical media outlets which wasn’t the case in previous wars, as that with Lebanon in the year 2006. This shows the generation gap between the operators of huge media outlets and Gen Z who resort to Tiktok and know how to manipulate its algorithm to voice out their narratives. Classical media has failed on that front which shows why the public opinion has substantially changed in the aftermath of the 7th of October. This change in the real world is a reflection of the change in the virtual world.
Q8: Any concluding remarks?
In this digital age, the role of digital media in amplifying the Arab perspective on the Israeli war on Gaza has brought about a remarkable and unprecedented wave of protests. Hundreds of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators have converged in major cities worldwide, from Washington D.C., to New York and London as the conflict rages on. News site Axios has offered insights into the scale of this global outpouring, reporting that since October 16, a staggering 210,000 posts have employed the hashtag #StandwithPalestine, while 17,000 have used #StandwithIsrael. This surge in digital activism and the voices of a younger generation is representative of the changing landscape of information dissemination, emphasizing the power of individual expression and the role digital media plays in shaping narratives and mobilizing support.