Charlie Litchfield/The Des Moines Register/AP/File
This 2014 file photo shows a board with the Facebook logo inside the company's data center in Altoona, Iowa. Palestinian journalists are claiming that the social media site blocked their accounts "for no reason."

Did Facebook intentionally block profiles of Palestinian journalists?

Several Palestinian journalists complained to the social media site after it suspended their accounts. Facebook says it was a mixup, but the journalists say the company’s recent agreement with Israel, and a resulting bias, are to blame.

Journalists working for two separate Palestinian publications had their Facebook accounts suspended this past week without any explanation. They say the social media platform may have taken its recent agreement with Israel to tackle online incitement to violence too far.

With more than 1.7 billion active users worldwide, Facebook has been the focus of not just recent Israeli and Palestinian complaints, but a growing debate over inherent political bias, censorship, and its growing role as a credible news delivery platform. 

A few former employees of the company came forward in May, saying they had been told to block conservative news stories from the site’s trending sidebar, and instead fill the space with stories from a list of ranked topics. The site also has a history of acquiescing to cultural or political sensitivities outside the US to maintain its presence amid censorship, from Turkey to India, although it has also faced accusations of being a heavy-handed censor itself. The latest criticism to make headlines came earlier this month, when the service blocked an iconic Vietnam War photo posted by a Norwegian newspaper after Facebook's algorithm determined that it violated the company's child nudity standard.

The result is a social network attempting to straddle the line between promoting free speech and protecting its platform from becoming overrun with hateful, or even dangerous, content.

The latest complaints came from four editors at the Shebab News Agency and three executives at Quds News Network, Al Jazeera reported. Quds has about 3.7 million Facebook followers, and has a reputation for being affiliated with Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group and Shehab has about 4.2 million followers and is regarded by Palestinians as being linked with Hamas, a militant group that denies Israel's right to exist.

Both publications, which have several million likes on Facebook each, cover daily news in the occupied West Bank region.

"[Sharek-Quds News Agency] does not publish anything that violates Facebook standards or that could annoy governments,” Nisreen al-Khatib, a translator and journalist at the Quds News Network, told Al Jazeera. "But still, we are targeted."

Since the complaint, Facebook has reinstated several of the accounts, claiming that their censorship was accidental.

“The pages were removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate,” a Facebook spokesperson tells The Christian Science Monitor in a statement. “Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We're very sorry about this mistake.”

Two weeks ago, Israeli officials announced an agreement with Facebook that would allow the two entities to combat online incitement in tandem. The agreement came after multiple requests from Israel that the company find a way to monitor the content on its platform and remove any likely to incite violence.

In the past, Israeli officials have reported anti-Israel bias on Facebook, as The Christian Science Monitor reported:

In December, the Tel Aviv-based Israel Law Center conducted an experiment in which it created two Facebook pages: "Stop Palestinians" and "Stop Israel." Similar content was posted on both pages, including political cartoons with the respective captions "Death to all the Jews" and "Death to all the Arabs."

It then reported both pages to see if either would be removed. The anti-Palestinian page was shut down the same day it was reported, but the anti-Israel page was not. 

During the four months leading up to the agreement with Israel, Facebook had already agreed to remove 95 percent of the 158 posts Israeli officials flagged, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said.

"We know that the amount of inciting online is even greater so we have to continue and increase our efforts, and we will," she told the Associated Press. "An inciting page is a perpetual growth engine for terror if it is not removed."

But is that a role an independent media company should play? While the platform has claimed to be a neutral news source that acts as a tool for sharing information, concealed editorial guidelines directing its trending news topics and the agreement to cater to certain countries guidelines have, to some extent, shaped the information spread across the platform.

“It’s hard to say whether the inflammatory posts were causing [violence], or it’s just kind of a symptom of broader issues in the conflict,” Thomas Zeitzoff, a professor in the department of justice, law, and criminology at American University, tells the Monitor. “By sort of wading into this debate, it’s not a kind of apolitical, benign move.”

By entering into an agreement with Israel, Facebook has in some ways agreed to put additional effort into curtailing violence against Israelis. Dr. Zeitzoff, who has studied the impact of social media on violence in the region, says the agreement may have set a precedent for similar requests from other nations in the future, as many tactics that originate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have become common across other scenarios.

“A lot of tactics that we see in conflicts got their big spotlight in this conflict,” he says. “I think especially with social media, this has been going on. These kinds of requests and fights over incitement to violence, you’re going to see this more in the US.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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