Ushna Shah’s claim about Instagram banning pro-Palestinian content in Canada is misleading
Meta has removed news content for users in Canada owing to the Online News Act 2023
Claim: Pakistani actor Ushna Shah says Instagram is censoring pro-Palestinian news content.
Fact: Meta has removed news content for users in Canada following the implementation of the Online News Act 2023, which was passed on 22 June 2023, leading to the warning shown in Shah’s screenshot.
Shah wrote that she was surprised that her elderly mother, who supports the Palestinian movement, had not posted anything for a week. She called her mother, who “hadn’t seen any of the videos or photos” and “was shocked when I [Ushna Shah] shared screen recordings with her”.
“I suggested some pages for her to follow, but she’s unable to see the content, it’s blocked in Canada!! Her algorithm doesn’t even display my posts unless she visits my profile directly,” the actress added.
She went on to claim (archive) that many of her friends living abroad did not know about how critical the situation in Gaza had become. She tweeted, “They’re unaware of the severity. They know about the attacks on Gaza, they assume they’re the same type of attacks we’ve sadly become accustomed to. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW!”
Shah attached a screenshot of how the Instagram profile of Middle East Eye — a UK-based media outlet reporting on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region — appears to her mother in Canada, as evidence of her claim.
Her post comes amidst a deluge of recent claims, where social media platforms have been accused of shadow-banning pro-Palestinian content. However, many of these reports are either unverified like the one by Shah.
What’s going on in Gaza?
On 7 October 2023, the Izzeddin al-Qassam Brigades — the military wing of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza — launched (archive) a “surprise attack” on Israel via sea, land, and air. In response, the Israeli government formally declared (archive) war on Hamas on 8 October 2023.
At least 1,400 fatalities have been reported in Israel, while health officials reported that more than 5,000 people have been killed in Gaza, Palestine, according to a report (archive) by the United Nations. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported (archive) that over one million people — or almost half the total population of Gaza — have been displaced.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported (archive) that 91 Palestinians have also been killed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and upwards of 1,700 injured since the 7 October attack.
Fact or Fiction?
Soch Fact Check observed that the screenshot of the Middle East Eye’s Instagram profile shared by Ushna Shah flags a warning, stating, “People in Canada can’t see this content. In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be viewed in Canada. Learn more.”
We found that on 1 June 2023, Meta — which owns Facebook and Instagram — published a blog titled “Changes to News Availability on Our Platforms in Canada” (archive), which was updated on 1 August, announcing it had “begun the process of ending news availability in Canada” in order to comply with the country’s Online News Act.
Canada’s Online News Act 2023 — or Bill C-18, passed on 22 June 2023 — aims to ensure that “dominant platforms compensate news businesses when their content is made available on their services”. Essentially, the Act contends that digital media outlets have lost necessary advertising revenues to large organisations like Meta and seeks to redress this imbalance.
To comply with the new law, Meta stated on its blog that “news links and content” posted by media outlets — whether Canadian or international — “will not be viewable by people in Canada”.
“People in Canada will no longer be able to view or share news content on Facebook and Instagram, including news articles and audio-visual content posted by news outlets,” it added.
The warning — “People in Canada can’t see this content. In response to Canadian government legislation, news content can’t be viewed in Canada. Learn more” — was also confirmed (archive) by CBC News Editor-in-Chief Brodie Fenlon in a blog post.
Meta platforms and censorship
It is, however, important to note that Meta and other social media platforms have been widely accused of suppressing pro-Palestinian content not just in the ongoing war but in the past as well (archived here and here), including during the major outbreak of violence (archive) between Israel and Palestine in 2021.
“There are claims about censorship taking the form of shadow-banning. A lot of pro-Palestine users and influencers have seen in the past few days their content removed. Some have actually posted Reels [and] stories and have seen that [their] content has been removed with a message by Instagram saying that their content goes against the policies or the guidelines of Instagram. Others were unable to livestream. Some actually had seen their handles blocked. Now, another form of censorship they claim, again, the pro-Palestinian users and influencers, that they are being subjected to is shadow-banning,” Hijazi said.
Shadow-banning is a moderation technique employed to prevent a user’s content from reaching others but without notifying them. Even if a shadow-banned user continues to post, their content will not receive traction nor will it show up in other users “recommendations” or “suggested” lists.
Marwa Fatafta, Access Now’s policy manager for the MENA region, said in a recent interview (archive), “Platforms do not use the word shadow ban and, therefore, if you ask a company like Meta, “Are you shadow banning users?’ They’ll say, ‘No.’ But social media companies have the ability [to] and do downrank content or demote content.”
“When we talk about content moderation, it’s not just about removing a piece of content that violates their terms of services or keeping an account up or down. It’s also about demoting and promoting content. And, so, they have that technical capability to try to contain or downrank or reduce the engagement and visibility and outreach of particular content,” Fatafta said.
On 20 October, Instagram “sincerely apologise(d)” for labelling some Palestinian users as “terrorists” in their biographies. One user said he originally wrote that he “was Palestinian, followed by a Palestinian flag, and the word ‘alhamdulillah’ in Arabic — which translates to ‘praise be to God’ in English”, according to the BBC (archive).
“However, upon clicking ‘see translation’, viewers were given an English translation reading: ‘Praise be to God, Palestinian terrorists are fighting for their freedom’,” the BBC reported.
Instagram also claimed to have identified what Meta Communications Director, Andy Stone, said was a “bug” (archive), which led to fewer views on the 24-hour Stories about the Israel-Palestine war. However he added that “it had nothing to do with subject matter”.
Meta also recently announced it would be limiting Facebook comments on Israeli and Palestinian posts, according to Reuters (archive), which cited a blog post (archive) by the company. Meta has also lowered (archive) its threshold from 80% to 25% for systems to classify certain content as hostile speech, which increases what is automatically filtered and slows content proliferation.
In 2022, an independent exercise by Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) — commissioned (archive) by Meta and conducted by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) on the coverage of the outbreak of violence in 2021 — found that the social media giant’s actions “appear to have had an adverse human rights impact on the rights of Palestinian users”.
Soch Fact Check, therefore, rates this claim as misleading.
The post by Ushna Shah has received more than 439,000 views, 7,400 likes, and 2,600 reposts — formerly retweets — at the time of writing this article.
In response to a comment by a user who pointed out what Shah’s mother saw on her Instagram was unrelated to the alleged censorship by social media giants, Shah doubled down saying the “timing couldn’t have been more convenient for this legislation” (archive) and that “I don’t think this genocide was planned overnight” (archive), implying that the legislation was carried out to censor coverage.
Conclusion: Meta has removed news content for users in Canada following the implementation of Online News Act 2023, which was passed on 22 June 2023. This legislation led to the warning shown in Shah’s screenshot. However, social media platforms have been accused of shadow-banning pro-Palestinian content but those reports remain unverified. Soch Fact Check has therefore rated this claim as misleading.
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