GDE750 – Weeks 3+4: Research & Discover, Part 2

In the previous blog post, I ended with a question about how the momentum of an activist movement can be kept up, especially considering the restrictions and barriers against the movement, as well as the burnout experienced by activists due to the almost 24/7 nature of the “job” at hand.

The activist movement in question here is namely the plight of the Palestinian which can be essentially boiled down to the struggle to gain autonomy. For decades, the Palestinian population both native and in the diaspora, have repeatedly lost control of the narrative they require in order to seek adequate help and attention from the international community. Crimes committed against them in the name of Israeli colonization are often swept under the rug, and Intifadas or uprisings are extinguished almost immediately. For Palestinians, losing control of the narrative means that their struggle is often labeled as “too complex” for a simple solution.

Credit: All For The Resistance – Ismail Shammout; palestineposterproject.org

From 2010 to 2011, a time period in the Middle East marked as the Arab Spring, a wave of protests swept and helped topple regimes that had long seemed invulnerable to such popular mobilization. However, the Palestinian territories remained relatively calm during that time. Professor and Researcher Dr. Tahani Mustafa stated that the reason for the lack of a “Palestinian Spring” is due to the suppression of resistance from both Israeli forces and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA, while in the role of a government for the Palestinian people with aspirations for Palestinian liberation, is also appointed as the security force against its own people. (Mustafa, 2015)

“The utilization of concepts that appear politically neutral … like security, human rights, and good governance serves to strip it of apparent political content and serve to legitimize the practice of power in contemporary international relations by making the exercise of that power appear as empowering rather than what it, in fact, is: domineering. It has shaped the Palestinians into subjects, not just of their own proto-state but also of an international regime that has prioritized pacification and control of the Palestinian population, and active suppression of their capacity to independently mobilize against the occupation or even to protest against the PA’s inability to meet the basic benchmarks of good governance…”

– Dr. Tahani Mustafa, The Damming of the Palestinian Spring: Security Sector Reform and Entrenched Repression
Credit: Andrea and Magda, ActiveStills

With these factors in mind, social media as a tool for activism comes into question. It was afterall the key behind many mobilization efforts during the Arab Spring. So has it been effective for the Palestinian cause? I looked at this quite briefly in my previous blog post, citing activists like Mohammad al Kurd who has become almost a celebrity in his efforts to shine a light on the injustices caused to his family and others in Sheikh Jarrah. In the book Palestinian Youth Activism in the Internet Age, Albana S. Dwonch explains that younger Palestinians’ online tactics and offline protests are compared to their global peers: they determine to remain unaffiliated with any political party and their decentralized and leaderless networks of action rely on social media networks as their primary coordinating and communicating tool. (Dwonch, 2021)

Credit: Mohammed El-Kurd addresses UN on anniversary of Palestine partition, Middleeast Monitor

The concern in this case is how social networks as a tool have changed the quality of these political mobilizations. Without a central figure or a driving force, are these movements able to maintain a momentum? And most importantly, as Dwonch questions, what is the vested interest behind the institutions that host the social networks that such activist movements collectively organize though? The ever-growing censorship of Palestinian activists, such as Mohammed El-Kurd, who was banned from speaking at a Goethe-Institut conference in Hamburg in June 2022, is an indicator that now more than ever, it’s essential to regain control of the narrative that systematically shuts down the narrative of Palestinian activists to maintain the status quo.

Algorithmic Possibilities

We constantly hear the word Algorithm being thrown around in relation to our usage of social media. Algorithms control what we see in relation to our actions and the actions of our community on any given social media platform. And while, we have a vague understanding of its purpose, we are rarely given the true structural definition of it. I feel like it’s almost a mystical force, dictating how we use the internet. For the purpose of this project, I want to define algorithms and explore their possibilities in different settings.

In a quick search for a definition online, I found this explanation of the basic definition of an Algorithm:

”A set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations ”

”A procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently by recursive operations “.

(Geeks for Geeks, 2019)

In the language of programming, it’s simply a tool used to help produce an output. But while not all programming code can be classified as an algorithm, it is simply due to requiring these specific characteristics:

  • Clear and Unambiguous: The algorithm should be clear and unambiguous. Each of its steps should be clear in all aspects and must lead to only one meaning.
  • Well-Defined Inputs: If an algorithm says to take inputs, it should be well-defined inputs.
  • Well-Defined Outputs: The algorithm must clearly define what output will be yielded and it should be well-defined as well.
  • Finite-ness: The algorithm must be finite, i.e. it should terminate after a finite time.
  • Feasible: The algorithm must be simple, generic, and practical, such that it can be executed with the available resources. It must not contain some future technology or anything.
  • Language Independent: The Algorithm designed must be language-independent, i.e. it must be just plain instructions that can be implemented in any language, and yet the output will be the same, as expected.

(Geeks for Geeks, 2019)

On social media platforms, this code is simply a system of automation for content curation in a world of seemingly endless terrabytes of data. In a deeper search for the algorithms of specific social media platforms, the results are much more ambiguous. A lot of talk about the subject from marketers or journalists invested in the topic mention that algorithms show us content that is most interacted with, whether it’s liked, viewed, or shared.

From my personal experience in the matter, it is not that simple. Even in the most carefully curated account, I’ve had content pushed to me based on what I can only assume is the platform’s host attempting to sway my consumption behaviors. For example, Instagram Reels, a new feature rolled out to compete with Tiktok, have taken priority in my feed even tho I rarely click to watch them. My assumption is that the platform wishes to make this feature succeed above still images and eventually replace Tiktok as a platform that people will flock to for their short-video needs. So it is a feature of their algorithm that goes against the behaviors and wants of their users for a more self-serving purpose.

“As TikTok users often point out in their videos, you can always “end up on the wrong side of the app” and keep getting content that doesn’t fit your profile. You don’t know why, and when it happens you can’t do much to avoid it. “The Algorithm” is mentioned constantly in user content across all platforms; it is an invisible presence that everyone talks about, a God-like entity that you can evoke, pray to, or try to hide from”

(Tanni, 2022)

From a consumption standpoint, the algorithm isn’t all too difficult to navigate, but from a creator standpoint, it’s much trickier to get noticed, especially when the content you’re creating is likely to be censored for political takes. The book, The Great Algorithm, lists a variety of ways that social media users have managed to “game the system”:

  • Hide & Seek: creators start videos with seemingly inconspicuous content that later shift to discuss important topics, thus circumventing the 3-second “purity” rule of video platforms.
  • Algospeaking: Words such as “unalive” is used instead of the word “kill” as a way to keep the algorithm from censoring content based on their safety parameters.
  • Entropy: using unconventional means of communication to confuse the algorithm and bypass security and safety parameters. (Tanni, 2022)

One such example of Entropy is Ben Grosser’s project, Not For You, which is described as an “Automated Confusion System”.

“Not For You is an “automated confusion system” designed to mislead TikTok’s video recommendation algorithm, to make it possible to see how TikTok feels when it’s no longer made “For You.” The system navigates the site without intervention, clicking on videos and hashtags and users to find the nooks and crannies TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t show us, to reveal those videos its content moderators suppress, and to surface speech the company hopes to hide. Through its alternative personality-agnostic choices of what to like, who to follow, and which posts to share, Not For You should make the For You page less addictive, and hopefully steer users away from feeling like the best path to platform success is through mimicry and conformity. Perhaps most importantly—on the precipice of yet another critical election in the USA—Not For You aims to defuse the filter bubbles produced by algorithmic feeds and the risks such feeds pose for targeted disinformation and voter manipulation. Finally, the work stands in opposition to letting corporations opaquely decide what we see and when we see it, to their intentional crafting of addictive user interfaces, and to the extraction of profit from the residual data left behind by users. Ultimately, Not For You asks us to think about who most benefits from social media’s algorithmic feeds, and who is made most vulnerable.”

(Grosser, 2020)

Palestinian Censorship Online

This is a topic I won’t get into too much detail into at the moment as there is a much deeper leadup to it that I have planned in Week 5, but Palestinian censorship online is no secret. From being shadowbanned to outright having accounts deleted and removed for “violating community guidelines” on various platforms, Palestinian activists have especially struggled online to find their voice and relay important and crucial news.

Within this context, I would like to explore the utilization of algorithms and any related automated digital technologies to advance the political mobilization of the Palestinian cause through Social Media. Through my research, I hope to review these methods’ possible advantages and pitfalls in an attempt to uncover the extent to which technological automation can be effective.

Reference list

Dwonch, A.S. (2021). PALESTINIAN YOUTH ACTIVISM IN THE INTERNET AGE : online and offline social networks after the… arab spring. S.L.: I B Tauris.

Geeks for Geeks (2019). Introduction to Algorithms. [online] GeeksforGeeks. Available at: https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/introduction-to-algorithms/.

Grosser, B. (2020). Not For You. [online] bengrosser.com. Available at: https://bengrosser.com/projects/not-for-you/.

Mustafa, T. (2015). Damming the Palestinian Spring: Security Sector Reform and Entrenched Repression. Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 9(2), pp.212–230. doi:10.1080/17502977.2015.1020738.

Tanni, V. (2022). THE GREAT ALGORITHM. [online] PostScriptUM. Available at: https://aksioma.org/pdf/aksioma_PostScriptUM_43_ENG_tanni.pdf.

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