Stop Cyberbullying in Palestine

Globally, social media has become a platform for hate speech on various issues and from different groups of people, as these sites formed a wide area for the expression of opinions without limits, especially with the absence of a legal system in Palestine.
Written by: Akram Al-Jariri 

Walaa Al-Satari, a young activist from Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, wrote about her exposure to domestic abuse on social media. She was accused of attempting to gain more followers on social media. According to a video that Walaa posted on the 11th of August, many fake accounts were made that included false information on her experience and were far from the main issue, domestic violence, causing her to delete a number of posts. In general, media programs on television channels that address human rights and social issues, especially with regard to women’s rights, become an arena where atrocious words are written on social media, such as threats of rape and expulsion from religion.

Last June, Khadija Zahran, a Palestinian lawyer and Director of the Monitoring of National Legislations and Policies Unit,  is amongst those targeted in a campaign of incitement waged against women and human rights activists who are working to advance the Palestinian Family Protection Law. Because of her stance, she received several death threats, harassment and threats of expulsion from religion. In the same month, Dr. Omar Rahal, a human rights defender, was exposed to the same threats and defamation that filled digital media platforms due to his participation in a TV program on the matter, resulting in his family also being targeted. These are just a few examples and cases of bullying and hate speech in Palestinian society.

Globally, social media has become a platform for hate speech on various issues and from different groups of people, as these sites formed a wide area for the expression of opinions without limits, especially with the absence of a legal system in Palestine. Strikingly enough, these online attacks on human rights defenders can not only be used as a weapon to defame someone, but can also lead to their prosecution, if enough cyberbullies unite.

There are many reasons that lead to hate speech towards human rights defenders:

  1. The division of society, in which opposing opinions and views are not valued or accepted; as finding a middle ground between opposing parties often enables the society to preserve pluralism.
  2. Widely accepted taboos that cannot be socially addressed due to the sensitivity of its nature. For example, if there is any criticism of a religious practice, regardless of its nature or party, the other party turns to personally attack the writer or person who criticized. In other cases, there is a part of society that rejects change, such as the CEDAW agreement or the Family Protection Law, thus making those calling for their application vulnerable to all kinds of threats, such as hate speech, bullying, insults and accusations of treason, and expulsion from religion.
  3. The third reason is usually more organized than the previous cases, for it is directed towards the parties opposing the government and the authority in the state. In this case, these organizations are based on loyalty, in which they try to wipe out those who disagree with them by using the same tools of distortion and insults, attempting to undermine the opposition socially, as what happened many times to several social activists and opponents.

Hate speech is like a wildfire, as described by the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, in which he stated: “As the wildfire of hate spreads, social media is being exploited for bigotry. Neo-Nazi and white supremacist movements are growing and incendiary rhetoric is being weaponized for political gain.” There have been international calls that were directed towards creating joint international mechanisms to combat hate speech and work towards prohibiting it in a manner that does not conflict with freedom of opinion and expression, in partnership with governments, civil society, the media and leaders within a strategy and action plan adopted by the UN.

Social media platforms are required to develop clear strategies to combat hate speech, especially in cases related to human rights and its defenders, from fact-checking to fighting misleading news and hate speech, like what Twitter did with a tweet by the US President, Donald Trump, on the killing of George Floyd last May. According to the Director of Twitter, Twitter flagged his tweet with a label warning because it violated a rule against glorifying violence. However, the tweet was not deleted because the public has the right to see the tweet branded as hate speech.

Hate speech continues to grow globally and locally, despite all the attempts made by states and civil society to combat it. The digital development, which made social media platforms available to everyone under pseudonyms or real names, enabled easier access to information; but at the same time, it increased the ability to attack, where rumors and misleading news are spread, especially towards human rights defenders. If these cases are not properly and officially dealt with by law enforcement agencies, and not just a formality as a matter of complaints, it will expand and swallow up the space for freedom of opinion and expression to produce an unhealthy social environment.

The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Association or donor.

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