Facebook Recruits an Israeli Censorship Expert

Facebook’s new global Oversight Board, tasked with ruling on content ethics, has the former director-general of Israel’s Justice Ministry as one of its 20 members. Emi Palmor had set up a cyber unit in charge of monitoring and censoring Palestinian social media posts, on the orders of the extreme right-wing minister Ayelet Shaked.

(Photo: Israeli Minister of Justice)

The Oversight Board is the kind of thing the digital giants adore as a way of getting people to talk about something other than their astronomical profits. Thus it was that Facebook announced on 6 May the establishment of a body which is supposed to root out “hateful, harmful and deceitful” content. The Board will have a mandate to take “final and binding decisions on whether specific content should be allowed or removed” from Facebook and also Instagram, which is owned by Zuckerberg’s group.

The Board is independent from Facebook but 100% financed by a trust fund set up by the multinational and endowed with $130m. It could rule on a demand by a user to see some content removed, or by another appealing against the removal of a post by the Facebook moderators. The body could also make “recommendations” on what type of publication should be taken down.

Prestigious international cast

The Board will eventually have 40 members, and already has 20 who “represent diverse professional, cultural, political, and religious backgrounds and viewpoints.” It is a prestigious line-up: Tawakkol Karman1 from Yemen, who shared the Nobel peace prize in 2011 with the Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee; a former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, on whom the character of Birgitte Nyborg in the TV series Borgen was famously based; Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian; an American human rights lawyer, a program manager for the Open Society initiative in West Africa, an Indonesian editor-in-chief, academics from around the world … and then an Israeli, Emi Palmor, described as “former Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Justice” where, Facebook tells us, “she established the Anti-Racism Coordinating Government Unit, advanced access to justice via digital services and platforms, and promoted diversity in the public sector.”

So far so good —put like that, nothing unusual about this panoply of human rights and digital culture specialists. Emi Palmor, a 53-year-old lawyer, is currently a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, a bastion of the academic right in Israel. She directed the Justice Ministry from 2014 to 2019, where indeed she worked on a scheme involving free legal aid to enable access to justice for Israelis of Ethiopian origin, victims of multiple discriminations in a country riddled with racism. But this worthy achievement should not cover up another one, carried out by Emi Palmor in masterly fashion: the electronic surveillance and censorship of the Palestinians on social media, first Facebook, the most heavily used in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Her minister boss was Ayelet Shaked, a member of the extreme rightist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, who was himself minister of education in the same Netanyahu government. Justice Minister Shaked, the author of numerous diatribes against “the Arabs,” was permanently engaged in battling the Palestinian “enemy,” but also set her sights on human rights NGOs, considered dens of pro-Palestinian leftists. She was to have a law passed on their financing, in an attempt to stifle them.2.

“Severe restrictions on freedom of opinion”

Under the guidance of a minister described by a journalist in Tel Aviv as “the most extreme voice of an Israeli extreme right which has no shortage of others,” Emi Palmor thus set about tracking Palestinians on social media. This devout official of a government of war and occupation had created a “Cyber Unit” in 2016 “to suppress, limit or suspend access to certain content, pages or users.”

Adalah, the Palestinian human rights organisation based in Haifa, said that this cyber-patrol “deliberately targeted and suppressed tens of thousands of Palestinian posts, imposing severe restrictions on freedom of expression and opinion, especially when it concerns Palestine.” The Cyber Unit, set up by Emi Palmor and attached to the office of the prosecutor general Avichai Mandelbilt, has deployed numerous algorithms to detect content deemed “extremist,” and it requests their removal directly to social media networks without its interventions being made public. So the process is completely untransparent. A far cry from the “transparency” promised by Facebook’s new Oversight Board.

According to Adalah, in 2017, the second year of Emi Palmor’s Cyber Unit, the number of takedowns shot up by 500%. In 2018, 14,285 takedowns were registered.

A racist message every single minute

At the same time, research on incitement to hatred against the Palestinians showed that in 2018 anti-Palestinian messages in Hebrew were being posted on average every 66 seconds - yes, one a minute, 24 hours a day! That did not bother the Cyber Unit, despite the openly racist tenor of many of those messages. Its job was to shut the Palestinians up and stifle any content criticising Israeli policy.

Several Palestinian groups have denounced Emi Palmor’s role in “muzzling freedom of expression and censoring human rights defenders, especially Palestinian, Arab and Muslim voices”. The Palestine Digital Rights Coalition, the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council and the Palestinian NGOs Network urged Facebook “to consider the grave consequences the choice of Emi Palmor could have, especially for Palestinian human rights defenders and for the freedom of expression online in defence of Palestinian rights”.

Adding some spice to the story, when Emi Palmor was fired in 2019 by Amir Ohana, a Likud Knesset member close to Netanyahu who succeeded Ayelet Shaked at the Justice Ministry, the prime minister’s son Yair shared—on Facebook—a post accusing Palmor of being “leftist.” A mortal insult in Israel, as everybody knows. A few years earlier, she had been an adviser to a Knesset member from Meretz, a small party of the Zionist “left,” before changing colours and working with a minister of the extreme right.

Facebook’s Oversight Board is going to have its work cut out to re-establish freedom of publication on the network in occupied Palestine and to push back against the anti-Palestinian hatred so widely propagated in Israel. But it’s not certain that Palmor the “expert” is best qualified to do it3.

1The nomination of Karman, accused of being close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been the subject of heavy criticism.

2For more on Ayelet Shaked, see Sylvain Cypel, L’État d’Israël contre les Juifs, La Découverte, Paris, 2020.

3Contacted by email, Emi Palmor did not respond to Orient XXI.