The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As violence in Israel and Gaza plays out on social media, activists raise concerns about tech companies’ interference

People gather at the site of a collapsed building in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City on Tuesday. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
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As Israel and Gaza slip toward war, videos of a collapsing apartment building, grieving families and rockets streaking through the night sky have quickly reached a worldwide audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.

The largely unfiltered view may have a long-term impact on how the public perceives the crisis — even as some activists call for more transparency about decisions by social media companies that recently blamed a glitch for taking down posts from Palestinian users.

Video footage of Israeli soldiers storming the al-Aqsa Mosque compound last week instantly went viral, prompting world leaders that typically maintain positive relationships with Israel to call for de-escalation on all sides.

In recent days, as the death toll on both sides has intensified, people around the world have watched a 13-story Gaza apartment building collapse into rubble, and heard the air raid sirens sound as dozens of rockets are launched at Tel Aviv.

What’s behind the violence in Israel and Gaza?

The Israeli military, which has an active Twitter presence and more than 1.2 million followers, has been posting regular updates about its successful airstrikes interspersed with gripping footage of the Iron Dome antimissile defense system intercepting rockets.

Here’s how rockets from Gaza test Israel’s Iron Dome

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Yet some Palestinian digital rights activists have expressed concern about Instagram’s removal of posts mentioning the potential eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, and Twitter’s suspensions of accounts related to the flash point.

7amleh, a nonprofit focused on Palestinians’ access to the Internet and freedom of expression, told Reuters on Monday that it had fielded more than 200 complaints of posts being taken down or accounts being suspended.

Both Instagram and Twitter blamed the takedowns on an error made by their automated systems, and said that the posts and accounts in question had been restored. Instagram, in a statement this week also addressing content that appeared to be missing from other regions as well, apologized to those in East Jerusalem who “felt this was an intentional suppression of their voices and their stories — that was not our intent whatsoever.”

But their explanation has not satisfied digital rights groups, who say that it demonstrates why social platforms need to be more transparent about how their algorithms function.

“Social media platforms provide an important space for marginalized communities that have no other means to make their demands for freedom, justice and dignity heard,” 7amleh and other groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Jewish Voice for Peace said in a Friday statement. “However, this cannot succeed without the platforms building transparent and coherent content stewardship policies that are based on international human rights standards.”

And the proliferation of unfiltered social media has also caused other controversies — including accusations that users are taking videos out of context, or deliberately spreading misinformation.

One widely-shared video, for instance, showed Israelis dancing and waving flags as a tree burns near the Aqsa mosque compound in the background. Many Twitter and TikTok users claimed that the mosque had been set on fire and the Israelis were celebrating. However, the Israelis were gathered for a Jerusalem Day celebration, and the mosque was not damaged. While it is not entirely clear how the tree was set ablaze, some witnesses said that fireworks set off by Palestinian protesters appeared to have lit the spark.

“Since no one controls, regulates or checks these videos, you can post whatever you want,” University of Haifa professor Gabriel Weimann, told the Jerusalem Post. “There are a lot of lies.”

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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What’s behind the violence in Israel and Gaza?

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