Pro-Palestine social media users on Instagram globally were in for a shock when their accounts started getting shadow banned. Hundreds of users in various parts of Palestine, including journalists covering Israel air strike and its devastation in Gaza, were not able to post or share content, while many complained of limited reach.

Many users said that if they usually get story views in thousands, it had come down to dozens as they shared Palestine content.

Journalists from Gaza like Motaz Azaiza, who has more than three million followers on Instagram had his account temporarily suspended as he shared the on-ground reality from Gaza. His footage showed hospitals overwhelmed as injured and dead people were brought in every time, the heap of rubbles that used to be buildings, and people who are still stuck under them.

An Indian journalist Kasturi Chakrobarty who is also reporting from Gaza was not able to share her content as posts. She later, in a series of stories, said that she has been heavily shadow banned. People also complained that they were not able to share her posts as their stories.

For anyone who has been supporting the Palestine cause, the situation is the same. Over the past couple of days, users from big followings to the smallest ones have been complaining how their profiles are no longer accessible, content is being removed and they are heavily shadow banned.

The Citizen spoke to many users from different parts of the world and everyone had the same story to tell.

Aabha Murlidharan, a writer and social activist who has been actively talking about the situation in Palestine, said, “An Instagram shadowban refers to the act of hiding or restricting a user's content without informing the user that it's happening. If you're shadowbanned, your content won't appear on anyone's feed, Explore, or hashtag pages unless they already follow you.

“Shadow ban is not a new phenomenon and has been seen in India during the anti-citizenship amendment act, farmers protest or any other major event, where the people are calling out the government.”

Murlidharan, who has more than 14,000 followers, said that her views have gone down drastically. “The viewership has been consistently dropping and even if I put up content that is a screenshot, I am not able to break the ban. People have been messaging and telling me that they are not able to see my content,” Murlidharan said.

She said that people have to find her profile and then see the content, which Murlidharan says is not part of the “natural algorithm”. The writer further observed that the same thing is not happening when it comes to anyone sharing pro-Israel content.

Rabia Mushtaq, a journalist based in Pakistan’s Karachi said that even though she is not active on social media, her views have been in the hundreds, and were a mere two when she shared pro-Palestine content.

“My Instagram account is public but I have 1000 plus followers, which is not a lot. However, I get decent views. But after the air strikes and videos that were coming out from Gaza, I posted a couple of stories. The next day when I checked the stories, the views were merely 2. I was shocked for a while but then I saw how people were saying they were shadow banned,” Mushtaq told The Citizen.

Fatima (name changed on request), who is a scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and has more than 4800 followers saw a sharp decrease in the number of views on her Palestine stories. “My views are usually around 1000 plus, but when I posted Palestine content it went down to half,” Fatima added.

Users also complained that when they updated the Instagram application, the shadow ban was more lethal. “Apps on my phone get auto updated. After the update it went down to as low as 30 to 40 views, even after 12 hours of putting them up. I know that it is not like people are not viewing my story, but it was intentionally done,” Fatima said.

She added that people are not able to access her profile through their phones and have to log on from their laptops. “If I have posted like 20 stories, people are only able to view 10 of them. Without discretion of the person following the account and the owner of the account, Instagram is deciding what stories or content to show. They are intentionally not showing the stories related to Palestine, but are showing the rest of the stories,” Fatima added.

People said that others are not able to find the profiles, unless they type in their whole name. Nayla Khwaja, an independent journalist based in Delhi, who was also facing heavy shadow banning said that the update of the app was a mistake as it started happening more.

“A few people in my profile did not even share any posts. They just dropped in a comment to a post that was pro-Palestine and faced a shadow ban. A friend who has 400 followers and a private account said she had merely 3 views after hours,” Khwaja added.

Khwaja said that when she saw stories of other people saying the same thing, is when she realised the shadow ban was bigger.

Pro-Palestine users from the United States said they faced similar issues. “Account is heavily banned after Palestine content,” a resident of Chicago told The Citizen.

As soon as people understood that their profiles were getting shadow banned or suspended, they started tweaking the algorithm. Many tech experts started sharing ways in which people could help tackle this situation.

Murlidharan cited example of a user who made a video from Oxford University, as she is a student there, and after a few seconds of excitedly saying she say the actress, went on to talk about Palestine and how a genocide is taking place there.

“In meta spaces people are trying to find ways and tweak the algorithm. They are finding different ways. In a video shared by an Oxford scholar, the opening remark is how she saw Emma Watson, but goes on to explain how Israel is bombing Palestine,” Murlidharan said.

Users averred that if they use the word genocide, Palestine, or Palestine flag, they are directly getting shadow banned.

Fatima said that most people have figured out loopholes to handle the algorithm, which is being successful. “Apparently it is the latest update that is pushing the shadow ban. So those who have not updated their app, they are not in a bad position. We are trying to avoid certain words. All this is open sourced and so we are all guessing,” she said.

Another way that many users said was using different variations to write “Palestine”. “Use P different or exclamation mark something like that, or add it with an asterisk. The idea is that the algorithm is not able to detect the spelling,” Fatima added.

Nayla Khwaja, who was also facing heavy shadow banning said that the update of the app was a mistake as it started happening more. Khwaja said that these applications are the only way people can raise their voices, which is why it is also important to keep using them.

“Any conflict happening in the world, there is always one sided or is the oppressor. In this case, where a genocide is happening, we see a certain set of super powers who are the oppressing agencies. When those in power already own media and other agencies, people need to find ways to counter these claims,” she said.

“Why is the content getting policed? What is the kind of pressure that people are under from the government that social media owners are doing this,” Murlidharan asked.

Fatima said that this clearly shows where the onus of social media lies. “It shows that we do suffer a setback, because the administration known as the government, allied with the management, which is the owning team of the social media,” Fatima said.

She also pointed out how this can be seen not only for Palestine, but also for what is happening in India. “We also see a shadow ban but nothing this bad. I have seen my reach going down when I use words like terrorism, genocide while sharing Indian news. But it’s like when you use these words, irrespective of which country, you are shadow banned,” she added.

Mushtaq, while echoing the same sentiments as Fatima said that it is not now that content related to Palestine always gets shadowbanned, however adding not it is never this heavy.

“But since it happens frequently you still get an idea how these big techs like meta work. They function on a very biased basis and it shows,” she said.

Fatima observed that the social media giants are not restricting sensitive content per se, but only targeting certain information. However, Meta has been controlling content on Palestine since the past few years, say users.

As spaces for Palestinians voices were getting shrunk, three Palestinian journalists started a group on Facebook called Sada Social. It aims to document “violations against Palestinian content” on social networks such as Facebook and YouTube, and to liaise with its executives to restore some of the pages and accounts that have been shut down.

In a statement on October 15, the organisation took to Facebook to talk about how they have been tracking serious developments against the Palestinian narrative in the digital space.

“The actions to combat the Palestinian narrative are also taken by a clear political decision from governments and implemented by social media platforms in line with the Israeli occupation in its aggression against the Palestinian people,” it said in a statement.

They went on to say that Meta and TikTok platforms have put the term "from sea to river" and "from sea to River" as one sentence in the ban clause, under the standard of "anti-Semitic".

“…Is a serious attempt to suppress the Palestinian right and the Palestinian novel, the public bias of the Zionist novel, and what is combined with the idea of "antisemitic" to try to cover up votes the extension of Israeli occupation and apartheid system as a dangerous grant to persecute Palestinian supporters around the world,” the group stated.

The statement also mentioned how on October 13, Meta announced that it deleted 795,000 posts on its various platforms in the first three days of the war, and announced that it banned a number of tags (hashtags) on the Instagram platform, and according to Echo Social, the hashtag #MaximumStorm was one of these banned tags.

“On Thursday, October 13, 2023, Meta announced that its removal of posts is not limited to the ongoing war in Palestine, but it is also reviewing accounts since 2021, removing posts that it believes are connected to Hamas, and it is deleting Palestinian accounts recreated after 2021.

“More than 4800 restrictions and violations against Palestinian content were carried out by social media platforms according to Echo Social. The procedures consisted of banning, restriction, blocking and deleting accounts and pages completely, with the Echo Social notifying that the number of violations is much more, especially with Meta's announcement that 795 thousand content was deleted,” it noted.

They also pointed out that there are more than 8,000 “provocative” Hebrew and foreign languages, on social media platforms to “incite against Palestinians”, calling for their killing and extermination, tightening siege, cutting off water, electricity and medicine from the Gaza Strip, as well as social echoed dangerous settlers’ groups via Telegram to incite Palestinians in the Occupied Bank.

This they said resulted in the “murder of six Palestinians shot by the settlers in the town of Qasra Qadaa, Nablus, and the settlers attacked Palestinian property”.

Speaking to The Citizen, an independent journalist from Kashmir, on conditions of anonymity said, “the world has come together to stand with Gaza by “condemning Israel’s war crimes on social media, exposing the atrocities on civilians, from bombing children to cutting off electricity, food, and communication.

“Israeli forces have even targeted journalists who unveil their actions. Journalists are running out of battery in Gaza while people worldwide turn to platforms like Facebook and Instagram to reveal the truth. However, Meta is shadow banning millions who dare to expose these acts of terrorism, a tactic employed by Zionists to stifle free voices globally,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sada Social criticised the silence of media platforms to the sufferings of the people of Palestine. “As Social Echoed the spread of the incitement speech against the killing of Palestinians widespread on social media platforms, it calls for immediate reporting of incitement posts to work on their removal, and also recalls the necessity to report any violation of Palestinian content in social media platforms by taking restrictive measures against Palestinian accounts,” the platform stated.

According to latest reports more than 4000 people, including 1000 children, have been killed as Israel continues with air strikes.