Pro-Palestinian activists are running a coordinated campaign to downgrade Facebook’s app review ratings to protest the company’s alleged censorship of Palestinian accounts and posts.
The strategy appears to be working. In the last week, the average star rating for the social network was down from over 4 out of 5 to 2.3 out of 5 on Apple’s App Store and 2.4 out of 5 on the Google Play store Saturday evening after receiving thousands of one-star reviews. Many of the reviews include comments mentioning Facebook’s alleged silencing of Palestinian voices and hashtags such as #FreePalestine or #GazaUnderAttack.
Inside Facebook, the campaign is being treated very seriously and has been categorized as an SEV1, which stands for “severity 1,” a descriptor used internally when there is a major issue with the website, according to screenshots of internal message boards reviewed by NBC News. An SEV1 is the second-highest priority site event after SEV0, which is used when the website is down.
“User trust is dropping considerably with the recent escalations between Israel and Palestine,” said one senior software engineer in a post on Facebook’s internal message board. “Our users are upset with our handling of the situation. Users are feeling that they are being censored, getting limited distribution, and ultimately silenced. As a result, our users have started protesting by leaving 1 star reviews.”
According to leaked screenshots of internal discussions, Facebook contacted the app stores to ask if they would remove the negative reviews. Apple declined, according to a post by a Facebook employee who said she contacted Apple’s developer relations team about the issue.
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks have for years been accused of censoring Palestinian voices by deleting pro-Palestinian posts and accounts. During this month’s conflict between Israel and Hamas, Palestinians and their supporters said the problem has intensified.
Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for digital rights, has documented many examples in a Twitter thread, including Instagram restricting the hashtag referring to the Al-Aqsa mosque, the site of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers earlier this month, and Twitter restricting the account of American-Palestinian writer Mariam Barghouti.
"Our policies are designed to give everyone a voice while keeping them safe on our apps, and we apply these policies equally, regardless of who is posting or their personal beliefs," said Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone in a statement. "We have a dedicated team, which includes Arabic and Hebrew speakers, closely monitoring the situation on the ground, who are focused on making sure we’re removing harmful content, while addressing any enforcement errors as quickly as possible."
Google and Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.