Events in Palestine highlight how Palestinian voices are being silenced by mainstream media and through systematic manipulation and targeted misinformation campaigns on digital platforms, according to speakers at a recent Northwestern Qatar webinar.
Digital Occupation in the War Against Palestine, which was hosted by the Middle East Studies Committee at Northwestern Qatar, featured academics, media experts, and data scientists in a discussion on how occupation policies, censorship, biased media framing, and manipulation have shaped the narrative on the recent Sheikh Jarrah protests across social media and digital platforms.
Dima Khatib, managing director of AJ+, explained how, in order to challenge mainstream western media coverage of the occupation, “Palestinian activists and pro-Palestinians from around the world have turned to social media to give those who were on the ground the biggest exposure possible.”
As engagement with activists' accounts and solidarity with Palestine on Facebook and Instagram grew, Khatib noted that attempts to censor Palestinian content on these platforms resulted in Palestinian voices still being excluded. She added that, while Palestinian voices were silenced on social media, “[Western mainstream] media organisations could carry on with the narrative that activists were contesting and challenging.”
Marc Owen Jones, a Hamad bin Khalifa University professor and expert on digital authoritarianism in the Middle East, noted that forces that are hostile to the Palestinian narrative have also played a key role in undermining it on social media through manipulation and astroturfing, which is an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign that appears as unsolicited comments from the public.
In the wake of the recent war on Gaza, he noted that thousands of automated bots and influencers were used on social media to create the illusion of public support for normalisation between Gulf states and Israel, resulting in diminished support for the Palestinian cause within the Arab world.
Kareem Darwish, a principal scientist at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, presented findings from his research and said that, despite censorship and manipulation efforts, Palestinian activists’ coverage of the Sheikh Jarrah protests on social media has contributed to shifting the narrative on Palestine among the US media outlets and social media users.
While support for Palestinians is on the rise in the West as activists inside Palestine and across the world use digital platforms to tell their stories, Helga Tawil-Souri, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University Steinhardt, said that the future of Palestinian statehood is reliant on the development of Palestinian telecommunication and media infrastructure that is independent of Israeli policies.
She added: “This isn't simply about whether somebody can make a phone call or whether Internet access is available and at what price and where. It is ultimately about what kind of state is made possible or impossible according to the infrastructural developments that are permitted.”