Amidst a global humanitarian crisis, Instagram users say they’re censored for speaking up

As casualties in the Israel-Hamas war continue to rise, countless people are taking to Instagram to voice their support for the Palestinian people—but many of their posts are being hidden or suppressed. “My account just got shadowbanned because I shared a post about the West Bank from @democracynow,” wrote artist, activist, and journalist Molly Crabapple on the platform earlier this week, sharing a screenshot from Instagram informing her that, because of her recent account activity, her profile would be hidden from non-followers—unavailable via the explore, search, and recommendation functions many rely on for visibility.

The offending post was an article on settler violence in the West. “Many other artists, academics, and journalists have faced similar bans for sharing news on Israel-Palestine,” Crabapple tells Document, noting that, because she relies on Instagram to sell her art, being shadowbanned directly impacts her livelihood. “This sort of censorship is one of the many ways that social media shuts people up about Palestine.”

Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Azmat Khan seconds this sentiment: “After posting an Instagram story about the war in Gaza yesterday, my account was shadowbanned. It’s an extraordinary threat to the flow of information and credible journalism about an unprecedented war,” she wrote on X, stating that the trend raises troubling questions about the viability of free press in a news environment already rife with misinformation.

They’re not the only ones having this experience. So many users came forward, accusing Instagram of suppressing pro-Palestine sentiment, that Meta’s communication director Andy Stone put out a statement, claiming that the company identified a bug that had reduced the reach of posts across the world. “This bug affected accounts equally,” he said, asserting that it had “nothing to do with the subject matter of the content.”

This wasn’t the first time Meta cited technical errors after users called out the erasure of pro-Palestine content: In 2021, the company was accused of deleting posts from Palestinian accounts that attempted to document another violent assault from Israel, launched in retaliation against Palestinians protesting the forcible eviction of families from Sheikh Jarrah, an occupied neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The attack injured hundreds of Palestinians, killing nearly 300, including 66 children. Many attempted to document the violence on Facebook and Instagram, only to find that the platform had labeled words like “martyr” and “resistance” incitements to violence—at least when they were used by Palestinians.

“This has been a trend of Meta in times of crisis, and we saw a significant spike of Palestinians and allies reporting limited reach and errors with content they posted about the ongoing crisis in Palestine,” Nadim Nashif, co-founder and director of 7amleh: The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, told The Guardian. He notes that, while Meta blamed “a high volume of content” for the issue, and said it was never “our intention to suppress a particular community or point of view,” they made similar excuses about Sheikh Jarrah before an independent analysis found that the social network had censored content related to Israel’s attacks. This analysis was commissioned by Meta at the urging of nearly 200 of the company’s employees, who banded together to push its executives to address the suppression of Palestinian voices on social media—calling for the creation of an internal task force to investigate potential bias in both human and automated content moderation systems.

“My account just got shadowbanned because I shared a post about the West Bank. Many other artists, academics, and journalists have faced similar bans for sharing news on Israel-Palestine.”

Other tech companies are known to be collaborating with Israel: In May 2021, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud executives signed a $1.22 billion contract for “Project Nimbus,” a cloud computing system that offered advanced artificial intelligence to the Israeli government—augmenting their digital surveillance capabilities in occupied Palestinian territories, and reportedly preventing Google from denying services to the Israeli Defense Forces. “By doing business with Israeli apartheid, Amazon and Google will make it easier for the Israeli government to surveil Palestinians and force them off their land,” wrote a coalition of Google workers and community members who launched No Tech for Apartheid, a campaign protesting the contract. “Technology should be used to bring people together, not enable apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and settler-colonialism.”

Facebook’s collaboration with the Israeli government poses a similar issue, pitting freedom of speech against potential advertising revenue. As Nashif put it in an earlier interview with Dazed, “You have one side that wants to control the internet and control freedom of expression, and you have the other side that wants to make profit,” he says. “This is not a good formula in places where there is no democratic regime.”

While social media has the potential to serve as a lifeline for activists and journalists to organize, protest, and report on human rights abuses—providing a platform through which to raise awareness of the struggles ignored or undermined by mainstream media outlets—it is currently being turned against a portion of those same people, and used to amplify the reach of disinformation and propaganda.

The calculated erasure of Palestinian voices has been felt across social media platforms, from Instagram to X and YouTube—and in the midst of the Israel-Hamas war, this has massive consequences, allowing for the censorship of inconvenient political narratives. As Sarah Shulman argues in an article for New York Magazine, there is already a collective refusal among political and institutional leaders to bear witness to the violence being inflicted on Gaza, and to acknowledge the role of the United States in funding it. Instead, many are engaging in a practice of ‘selective recognition’—turning a blind eye to the fact that today’s conflict is predated by decades of injustice, and acknowledging only a sliver of the political reality: that which fits most conveniently into the narrative of American and Israeli moral purity.

“This is called ‘manufactured consent’—Noam Chomsky’s term for a system-supported propaganda by which authorities and media agree on a simplified reality, and it becomes the assumptive truth,” Shulman writes. “We’ve seen this erasure of history in the uniform responses by Western world leaders, university administrations, heads of foundations, and even book fairs over the past week. It has become a tool to justify the sustained murder of thousands in Gaza, where the current death toll sits at over 2,600 people.”

This issue was pressing in 2021, and is even more pressing now, in a news environment rife with massive disinformation campaigns designed to distract as Israel inflicts continued violence on the citizens of Gaza. Amidst a mounting death toll, the erasure of Palestinian voices from social media has been likened to a ‘digital apartheid’—extending Israel’s oppression of Palestinians far beyond occupied territory, and into the narratives consumed by the rest of the world.