On Jan. 11, Israel’s new minister of strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, named Facebook senior employee, Jordana Cutler, as the ministry’s director general. The ministry is notorious for combatting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and promoting a positive image of Israel abroad. Yet with Cutler’s biography and Facebook’s history of censoring Palestinian content, experts and activists are sounding the alarm over the appointment.
Cutler worked as Facebook’s public policy director for Israel and the Jewish diaspora since 2016. During her time there, the social media giant was consistently accused of restricting Palestinian content on its site — a problem that persists today.
Palestinian digital rights organization SadaSocial said in a statement to MintPress News:
We believe that Jordana Cutler’s appointment as director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs underscores the mutual relationship between the two parties, Israel’s official level and social media platforms, which translates on the ground into the suppression of Palestinian content.”
— Muhammad Shehada (@muhammadshehad2) January 12, 2023
Cutler’s new government role is not the first time she has been involved in politics, however. She worked for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2007 and then again in 2013- 2016 as its Chief of Staff. From 2009 to 2013, she was an advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s time as head of state. Before that, she also worked on the political campaigns of Likud – Netanyahu’s political party.
“Our woman at Facebook”
In 2020, Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, called Cutler “Our woman at Facebook” and subsequently named her one of the 50 most influential Jews of 2022. “My job is to represent Facebook to Israel, and represent Israel to Facebook,” Cutler told the outlet.
Throughout her time at Facebook, the social media behemoth consistently topped the list of tech companies violating Palestinian digital rights, according to data from SadaSocial and 7amleh – The Arab Center For the Advancement of Social Media. In 2021, 7amleh recorded 585 violations occurring on Facebook. In 2020, SadaSocial reported 801 violations on the social media platform. And in 2018, SadaSocial documented 370 violations on Facebook, that number jumped to 779 in 2019.
“This makes us very worried that one of the people working for the government of occupation is in direct contact with one of the biggest social media platforms, which could lead to more censorship, repression, and digital aggression,” SadaSocial said, adding that Cutler’s appointment may increase the arrests of Palestinians for their social media posts.
A September 2022 report by the independent consulting firm, Business for Social Responsibility found that Meta (the company which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) violated Palestinian users’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination during Israel’s May 2021 assault on Gaza. Specifically, the findings conclude Meta over-enforced rules on Arabic content and under-enforced Hebrew content. The report confirmed long-standing accusations that Meta silenced Palestinian voices online during the events of May 2021.
As Israel rained missiles on Gaza and violently arrested Palestinians in the flashpoint Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, activists reported that social media companies, particularly Instagram and Facebook, removed their content under the pretext it violated community guidelines.
Facebook admitted to the content takedowns during that period in a statement to MintPress News:
We know there have been several issues that have impacted people’s ability to share on our apps, including a technical bug that affected Stories around the world, and an error which temporarily restricted content from being viewed on the Al Aqsa mosque hashtag page.”
There have been countless incidents of Facebook restricting content or deactivating accounts belonging to Palestinian activists, news agencies, and non-governmental organizations over the years.
In 2021, Facebook removed the page of pro-Palestinian protest network, Palestine Action, allegedly for violating its community guidelines. This occurred after the organization succeeded in shutting down Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit Systems’ factory in Shenstone, U.K.
— Palestine Action (@Pal_action) February 2, 2021
“Facebook has long suppressed Palestinian voices and their moderation policies have been plainly driven by anti-Palestinian racism,” Palestine Action told MintPress News.
This was not the first time the activist group faced social media censorship. Palestine Action said in a statement to MintPress News:
In our own experience, Facebook has regularly attempted to stifle our campaigns against firms supplying Israel with arms. Our Facebook profile was removed after less than two months of our founding, and our Instagram profile has been ‘shadowbanned’, locked, or shut down for days at a time.”
Facebook’s move against Palestine Action appeared to be at the behest of U.K. Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), a pro-Israel lawfare group.
“Facebook’s action follows UKLFI’s letter to them, highlighting Palestine Action’s breaches of their Community Standards and requesting that the organization’s Facebook page be removed,” UKLFI wrote after Facebook deactivated Palestine Action’s account.
According to the nonprofit resource center, the Charity & Security Network, UKLFI is tied to the Israeli government. UKLFI was featured on Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and co-sponsored a conference in London with the Israeli Embassy.
The organization’s international director, Yifa Segal, previously worked as the Chief of Staff to Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and is the founder of the International Legal Forum (ILF), which is connected to Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. According to the Charity & Security Network, the ILF administered a grant program funded by the Strategic Affairs Ministry and partnered with the ministry to host its first legal conference in 2018. Segal also worked with Shurat HaDin, a law firm revealed to take direction from Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad, and Israel’s National Security Council on what cases to pursue.
An Israeli ministry peddling propaganda
The government department Cutler is expected to work in was shuttered in 2021 by the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government but has now been revived under Benjamin Netanyahu. The ministry’s previous mission was battling the BDS movement, but will now reportedly focus on Iran, relations with the U.S., and expanding and deepening the Abraham Accords, the set of Israeli normalization agreements with Arab countries.
The ministry’s more covert role, however, has been spreading Israeli propaganda through social media networks. Through its company, Kela Shlomo, or Solomon’s Sling, the ministry carried out activities to improve Israel’s image and fight delegitimization attempts online, through smear campaigns, lobbying efforts, and sponsored content.
For instance, the ministry budgeted NIS 2.6 million ($740,000) in 2017 to promote content on social media and search engines, including Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, according to a freedom of information request provided to Israeli newspaper The Seventh Eye and regulatory movement Hatzlacha. Additionally, an NIS 2 million ($570,000) was reserved for producing multimedia content for Act.il, a-now defunct app designed to lead an online army of pro-Israel trolls in spreading disinformation, reporting content critical of Israel, and increasing hate speech directed towards Palestinians.
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs also created the website 4IL.org.il (now part of the Foreign Affairs Ministry) which recruits individuals to disseminate pro-Israel content, often engaging in smear campaigns of prominent Palestinian human rights defenders. For instance, the site published an article accusing Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq’s director, Shawan Jabarin, of terrorism.
Once packed with ex-Israeli spies, the ministry has also been involved in monitoring social media activity. According to Al-Jazeera’s documentary series “The Lobby”, it tracks information from social media about BDS supporters.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry is not the only government unit using social media to its advantage. According to 7amleh, Israeli authorities have relied on Facebook to censor content since 2016 — when Cutler took up her position at the social media giant. This is done through the Israeli Justice Ministry’s Cyber Unit which submits content removal requests to social media companies based on purported violations of domestic law and the companies’ community guidelines.
According to a 2020 7amleh report, former Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked said in 2016 that “‘Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israel’s requests to delete content that the Israeli government says incites Palestinian violence.’”
With Facebook’s Cutler now at the forefront of an Israeli ministry’s propaganda efforts, social media may become an even more contentious battleground for Palestinian activists.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.