Motaz Azaiza wearing Press flak vest and helmet in ruins

Motaz Azaiza/Instagram

A bombing in Gaza killed an influencer’s family—Instagram responded by suspending his account

Social media policies are being enforced unevenly, activists say.


Ernie Piper


Posted on Oct 24, 2023   Updated on Nov 27, 2023, 1:11 pm CST

In a video on Oct. 13, Instagram influencer and photojournalist Motaz Azaiza shared footage of the rubble of an apartment, the site of an Israeli bombardment that killed 15 of his family members.

He turns the camera on himself first, visibly upset, and then shows the scene—the ruin of the building, a bloodstain, a neighbor carrying a child’s body draped with a shroud. 

In response, Meta restricted access to his account.

Some of his 3 million followers responded by sharing screenshots on other platforms of the locked account, asking whether he was still alive.

In the hours it was down, he created an alternate account, which accrued a million followers before his access was restored later on Oct. 14. 

His Twitter account is still suspended for unclear reasons. 

Social media remains one of the most important tools for Gaza residents to document the atrocities they’re seeing and to communicate with the outside world. Foreign journalists are not allowed in Gaza right now and the ones already reporting there are targets. According to the Palestinian Journalism Syndicate, 11 journalists have been killed since Oct. 7.

And people in Gaza still face myriad issues with the basic communications tools necessary to document their side of the war.

Palestinian accounts have been targeted with bans, shadowbans, or blocked posts or hashtags. Al Jazeera compiled a number of stories from other content creators in Gaza—some comedians, some day-in-the-life influencers, some journalists—who struggled with accessing their accounts in the past weeks. The Intercept similarly documented how the TikTok and Instagram accounts associated with journalists at the left-wing outlet Monzoweiss in the West Bank were repeatedly taken down or the content was restricted. 

These decisions don’t simply amount to forms of censorship—they also affect how Palestinians tell their story. The Daily Dot recently reported on how Instagram’s auto-translate was inserting “terrorist” into its translations of Palestinian accounts.

Meta denied it was censoring Palestinians. In a larger statement detailing their efforts to moderate content from the war, it said: “Our policies are designed to keep people safe on our apps while giving everyone a voice. We apply these policies equally around the world and there is no truth to the suggestion that we are deliberately suppressing voices.”

Mona Shtaya, a digital rights defender who works at the NGO Digital Action as their Middle East lead, spoke to the Daily Dot about how tech platforms reinforce power imbalances. Glitches, automated moderation, and policy decisions all tend to come down on the side of people with power, and all put a thumb on the scale of deciding who can speak.

“It’s a war of information,” she said. “This is connected to the disinformation on the platform. When someone is spreading disinformation and then the internet is shut down, the electricity is cut off—the counter-narrative is not there.”

Shtaya has been documenting other examples of this. After the Al-Ahli hospital bombing, Palestinian users got automated messages suggesting that their posts about the bombing had been filtered out of everyone’s feeds. 

During the 2021 clashes in the Al Aqsa mosque, Shtaya documented how other pro-Palestinian hashtags, like #SaveSheikhJarrah or #AlAqsa, got blocked or filtered from searches on social media. Meta’s rules say, “Hashtags on Instagram may not be searchable if the text or the content associated with the hashtag consistently do not follow our Terms of Use or Community Guidelines.”

A 2022 third-party audit of Meta’s policies from that time found that it negatively impacted “the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination, and therefore on the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred.” 

When forms of automated censorship stop Palestinians from countering harmful narratives, the information gap can be filled by posts that spread misinformation or incite violence against them.  

Shtaya explained that Israeli settlers used social platforms to incite violence against Palestinians in the West Bank earlier this year. “People on the ground are sometimes beaten, there were towns burned because of this incitement on the platforms,” she said.

Analysis from 7amleh found that an attack on the village of Hawara in the West Bank was precipitated by a deluge of violent content containing the Hebrew hashtag WipeOutHawara, The month before and after the attack, “80.2% of all (15,250) tweets about Hawara included negative content against the village and its residents via the Hebrew-language digital space.”

“This is a real harm,” she said.

Digital Action, along with 49 other civil society organizations, signed a statement on Oct. 13 demanding that large tech platforms protect Palestinians from hate speech, disinformation, and bans or blocks.

“Restrictions on activists, civil society, and human rights defenders represent a grave threat to freedom of expression and access to information, freedom of assembly, and political participation,” the statement reads. “This censorship is also affecting journalists’ ability to work and resulting in a chilling effect. It is imperative that companies urgently address this censorship and genuinely commit to ensuring that all voices are heard.

“We’re talking about a global equity crisis when it comes to tech,” Shtaya said.

The promise of social media was that anyone anywhere can get their story out and find their audience—and for a lot of people that’s been true. It’s been hugely important for members of marginalized communities to share their perspectives with new audiences and more importantly, organize. But in Gaza, that flow of information is being strangled. 

After posting images and memorials of his family to his Stories, Azaiza documented receiving a call in English from a number with a blocked caller ID, where the caller implied that his footage could get him killed, advising him to “leave Gaza one way or another.”

Azaiza wrote that he wasn’t sure who was behind this but it was clear that his posts on Instagram had made him a target. 

Azaiza’s most recent Instagram Story from yesterday is titled simply, “Stop killing us.” It shows the aftermath of bombs falling in his hometown on the Gaza Strip and the “dozens of massacres” occurring, showing an array of shrouded bodies on the ground. 

“Please someone stop this,” he says, speaking from a hospital in another Story. “Someone end this, please.”

Since the outbreak of the war, as of late November, at least 53 journalists have been killed by bombings and attacks in Gaza.

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*First Published: Oct 24, 2023, 8:43 am CDT