Bella Hadid is right, Palestinians won't stand for erasure on Instagram, or anywhere else

Bella Hadid is right, Palestinians won't stand for erasure on Instagram, or anywhere else
Comment: What happened to Bella Hadid is just one of the many ways we Palestinians are censored when we speak our truth, writes Elias Jahshan.
6 min read
13 Jul, 2020
Supermodel Bella Hadid and her father, real estate developer Mohamed Hadid [Getty]
Those who know me know I'm a fan of Mohamed Hadid. Not because of his illustrious career as a property developer, or because two of his children happen to be the world's biggest supermodels. It's because he makes no effort to hide his Palestinian identity and pride in his culture. 

His Instagram, with one million followers, is full of posts about his place of birth, his Nazareth family history, Palestinian cuisine - alongside wholesome, proud-dad posts about each of his children.

So when his daughter Bella Hadid used her platform of 31.6 million followers to call out Instagram for removing a post of hers that showed her father's birthplace as Palestine, naturally, I was cheering her on.

On July 2, the 23-year-old posted an Instagram Story that showed a partially blurred photo of Mohamed's expired US passport, with a caption that read "My baba and his birthplace of Palestine". Fast forward to early last week, Bella was grabbing headlines for accusing Instagram of bullying. She had posted another Story in which she revealed that the photo of her father's passport was taken down apparently for contravening Instagram's community guidelines.

"@instagram exactly what part of me being proud of my father's birthplace of Palestine is 'bullying, harassment, graphic or sexual nudity'?" Bella wrote alongside a screenshot of the message she received from the social media giant.

"Are we not allowed to be Palestinian on Instagram? This, to me, is bullying. You can't erase history by silencing people, it doesn't work like that."

Instagram must not become another arena where Palestinian voices are suppressed

Bella then reposted the photo of Mohamed's passport on her Instagram Story with the caption, "I am proud to be Palestinian."

On July 8 - almost a week after the original Story was taken down - Instagram issued an apology. "To protect the privacy of our community, we don't allow people to post personal information, such as passport numbers, on Instagram," a spokesperson said.

"In this case the passport number was blurred out, so this content shouldn't have been removed. We've restored the content and apologise to Bella for the mistake."

Quite frankly, Instagram's apology was weak. It focused on the technicality of the passport number - which was blurred anyway - with no acknowledgement whatsoever of Bella's main point: the erasure of Palestinian identity. The insidiousness was plain to see. The cynic in me also wondered if Instagram only responded because of Bella and the Hadid family's huge following.

Either way, the incident is not the first time Instagram and parent company Facebook have tried to erase Palestinian voices. Over the years, less influential Palestinians have been silenced by the social media giants with no apology.

Read more: Instagram apologises to supermodel Bella Hadid for censoring picture of Palestinian father's passport

As recently as two months ago, more than 50 Palestinian journalists and activists had their profile pages suddenly deleted by Facebook. Those affected were informed that their accounts had violated "community standards", with no further detail as to what the specific violations were. The accounts – which mostly focused on occupation forces and illegal activities in the West Bank and Gaza – were also told nothing could be done to re-activate them.

Speculation is now rife that things are about to become worse for Palestinian voices on Facebook and Instagram. After all, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has already been accused repeatedly of allowing fake news and content that incites hatred or violence against marginal groups to be posted without any accountability.

Facebook's controversial algorithms seemingly reflect the politics of Donald Trump and his corporate and right-wing allies, rather than the elevation of human rights. While its algorithms are different, Instagram must not become another arena where Palestinian voices are suppressed.

In a bid to appear more transparent, Zuckerberg recently appointed an "Oversight Board". The first 20 members, from all corners of the world and with diverse political views, of the 40-strong board were announced on May 6. The board will have the power to "reverse Facebook's decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts" as well as develop further guidelines on the type of content to remove.

In short: rather than allowing Facebook to be genuinely held accountable, Zuckerberg hand-picked his own regulators, although the tech giant insisted the board would be independent.

One of the Oversight Board members is Emi Palmor, who served as director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Justice from 2014-2019. According to the Association for Progressive Communications, Palmor helped establish the Israeli Cyber Unit, whose work has targeted and resulted in the takedowns of tens of thousands of Palestinians' online content over the years, and imposed limitations on freedom of expression and opinion - especially about Palestine.

As Bella highlighted, Palestinian people, history and culture cannot and will not be expunged

As politicians and influential commentators around the world increasingly conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, it's also arguable that Facebook's direct access with governments could signal further stifling of online expression about Palestine.

What happened to Bella Hadid is just one of the many ways we Palestinians are censored when we speak our truth. It's sheer stupidity for a tech firm to deny the reality of a passport that shows "born in Palestine". Denying Bella's pride in her and her father's heritage would no doubt have been hurtful for her. This is something every Palestinian has encountered - including me.

Millions of Palestinians - whether they live within Israeli borders, the West Bank and Gaza, or among the global diaspora - live with their own unique family inheritance from the Nakba of 1948. It is a legacy of loss and despair, of painful and bittersweet memories. Anger at consistently having the legitimacy of our culture, history and our families questioned. And exhaustion for being forced to constantly validate ourselves as human beings.

This epigenetic experience also lives in the deep, collective resilience and the yearning for justice we carry in our bodies, especially as the Nakba continues today; Netanyahu's plans for Israel to "annex" swathes of the West Bank is just one of many examples of this.

While Bella Hadid's presence on social media has on occasions been met with controversy, like her father and siblings, she has a track record of using her platform to voice support for Palestine and Palestinians. She even joined a 2017 pro-Palestine protest outside the US Embassy in London to oppose Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This is why I have respect for the way she stood her ground and held Instagram accountable. There's always a risk attached to speaking our truth, and for Bella that risk may have been heightened given her lucrative modelling contracts and huge following.

Instagram and Facebook may indeed be going down a path where attempts to erase Palestinian identity and history will become more commonplace, but as Bella highlighted, Palestinian people, history and culture cannot and will not be expunged. Our mere existence is resistance, and nothing can ever erase that.

We will continue to honour the memories and legacies of our parents and grandparents. We will continue to demand justice, equality, and equity. And we won't stop until we're free.

Elias Jahshan is a Palestinian/Lebanese-Australian journalist and freelance writer based in London. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.