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Football, Facebook, and soft wars over ‘Palestine’

May 31, 2011

Nb: This post refers to football, a term favored by every participating nation except the United States. In American English, football is ‘soccer.’ The word Palestine is mentioned in quotation marks in the title because I treat it here as not only the boundary of a physical land mass named Palestine but a historic and international recognition of an unjust loss and a movement toward regain.

This month there was a stirring around the Brazilian football player Marcelo Vieira (known simply as ‘Marcelo’ to fans), first for purportedly having his page deleted* from Facebook and then for being cut from his team. In both cases the prevailing belief was that Marcelo suffered these infringements on account of his solidarity stance with the Palestinian cause. Among non-mainstream sources, I estimate that the report first began by a young Palestinian blogger, Palestinian Field Negro, followed by Raphael Tsavkko’s blog.

PFN noted:

[The picture and caption Marcelo posted to his Facebook page] along with the caption received wide attention, it had 4000+ likes and a couple thousand comments. While I was surfing through the comments, I saw different and varying opinions, people appreciating and showing respect, while others were arguing and showing their disapproval of what he said.

Two days later, the unexpected happened. Marcelo Vieira’s official Facebook page was shut down. [The] official Real Madrid website mentioned that the Facebook administration received requests from Israelis to shut down the page as it was inciting violence against Israel by supporting the Palestinian Intifada.

Tsavkko linked to an article about Marcelo and other players cut from the Copa America team, ‘A surpresa mais considerável foi a troca do lateral-esquerdo Marcelo, do Real Madrid…’ (‘The most formidable surprise was switching the lateral-left Marcelo, of Real Madrid…’ My translation.) I linked to his blog as both charges seemed to check out: Marcelo’s page had been deleted by Facebook’s administrators, he had been cut from the national players team (which was noted as unusual by both formal and informal sources I checked), and he was outspoken in supporting Palestinian resistance against the blight of Israeli aggression.

An unlikely source—Noor Al Hussein, the wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan—took up this issue, and was smart to include the conditional ‘if.’

(I say unlikely because the human rights record of the Jordanian kingdom is highly unethical, nay, downright embarrassing, with Jordan being only the second Arab country to normalize relations with Israel after Egypt in 1994, and when one considers the presence of nearly two million people Palestinians registered as refugees within a population of a little over six million people—an average of one in three people in Jordan as Palestinian—the normalization treaty with the state that created the refugee ‘problem’ and its continued puppeteering in collusion with the U.S. extraordinary rendition program compete more sordidly with the flattering Twitter profile and the expressions of sympathy for Palestinians it lets on.)

Jillian C. York also commented on the Marcelo affair. In the past, she has warned about the inefficacies of Facebook as a trustworthy mobilization platform (‘My advice to activists: avoid Facebook at all costs.  They don’t care about you.’), concluding that Facebook’s content managers are ‘utterly inept at policing content on its site.’ She has noted that rather than instating a real, live, breathing human to review flagged content, Facebook simply removes it: ‘Attempts to appeal the content typically result in refusal to reinstate it, unless of course you’re Sarah Palin, or your story gets picked up by CNN.’

In keeping with what is acknowledged about Facebook’s basic abandon of a supremely important function, namely the reporting of content that may or may not be spammy, illegal, libelous, ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’ by a company-regulated moral perimeter, etc., York concluded:

[Because of] the attention Vieira’s comment received (it was highlighted in YNet and before being removed had nearly 2,000 comments), I’m guessing that someone–or a group of someones–decided that Vieira should be targeted. And because Facebook has no solid appeals system (users whose content is removed are often told the decision is final), or because the Page was maintained by someone other than Vieira who didn’t know what to do, the Page went down and has not been reinstated.

There’s a sizeable digital trail that suggests this, as Facebook has in the past come under scrutiny for allegedly (I say allegedly, but this actually happened) blacklisting the word ‘Palestinian’ from its Pages. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s assurance that he works extremely hard for Facebook (taking out time only to learn Chinese, attempt to overthrow Google for an even bigger position as master of industry, and slaughter his own food), ‘Facebook does not have a strong customer support team to handle complaints about this, nor do they seem to care.’

It’s the outright deletion of the word ‘Palestine’ and/or ‘Palestinian’ (whether by an eradication bot or in the case I’ll now describe, as an editorial decision) that has been the most irksome. The BBC recently censored the word ‘Palestine’ on a program on Radio 1Xtra, and was met by significant anger, including in this open letter:

We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the BBC’s censorship of the word ‘Palestine’ from a song played on The Hip Hop M1X with Charlie Sloth on BBC Radio 1Xtra. The edit was made three minutes into a recording by the artist Mic Righteous, with the word ‘Palestine’ being blanked out of the lyrics ‘I can say “Free Palestine.”‘ As artists, academics, lawyers and parliamentarians, we oppose this attack on the principles of free speech and on the freedom of artists to express political viewpoints through art.

[Signed] Mark Thomas, Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Alexei Sayle, Miriam Margolyes, Benjamin Zephaniah, Ken Loach, Robert del Naja, Lowkey, Bella Freud, Bernadine Freud, Ahdaf Souief, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Andy Slaughter MP, Dr Karma Nabulsi, Professor Ilan Pappé […]

BBC’s response was noxious, laughable, and brief.

We have received complaints about the decision taken in editing the song ‘Fire In the Booth’ by Mic Righteous—the phrase ‘Free Palestine’ was obscured.

All BBC programmes have a responsibility to be impartial when dealing with controversial subjects and an edit was made to the artist’s freestyle to ensure that impartiality was maintained.

If a football player’s sentiments over the Palestine/Israel debacle can trigger a (likely) automated Page removal on Facebook; if Facebook has historically revealed a tendency to disband Palestine-related material flagged as ‘offensive’; if the BBC can issue inane hand-waving over its ‘obscuring’ of a Palestine-related phrase; can an activist, artist, reader, listener, user, person of conscience, etc. help but draw attention to a pattern of ‘soft’ censorship?

One could argue—and many have—that this form of censorship is unsurprising (I tend to agree) or a useless and enervating battle (I tend to disagree). But it might serve as a useful gateway to a more comprehensive discussion about actual state propaganda, an ever-widening desert valley that in the case of Israeli hasbara appears more like a glass-encased anthill than the Grand Canyon.

How significant is this so-called web war? Ha’aretz recently published a long article about it called ‘Israel preparing itself for Twitter war over Palestinian state’, stating that the Foreign Ministry is ‘bracing’ itself for a ‘flood of tweets.’ Scary stuff for a state with its own ‘information and Internet division at the ministry’ of around 10 people, plus external consultants who ‘run websites in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian and Persian’ and operate on a budget of NIS 3 million (almost US$1 million), ‘not including the wages of the unit’s seven state employees.’ One million dollars to type out multilingual tweets: not shabby.

The operation director told Ha’aretz, in a factual, not-closely guarded moment that the lesson Israel learned from the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident was that ‘no explanations will—not in the old media or in the new—will change minds among the hard core of opponents. There are groups and organizations whose activists are impermeable to arguments […]. Unfortunately, these people are intensely active in the social media, where they disseminate their messages.’ The insight this yields, I believe, is that Israel simply sees the ‘opposition’ as practically another nation-state, which if not technically endowed with the power of statecraft, can nonetheless shape, inform, and influence with an equanimity that Israel fears and invests enormous resources to counteract.

‘Recently a Facebook page went online that provides links to all the Facebook pages of Israel’s embassies and representations around the world: facebook.com/IsraelMFA. The ministry also runs official state Facebook pages in several languages, including facebook.com/IsraelArabic, which has 72,000 “fans” – not quite the word, really, considering that most posters are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.’ Altogether the Foreign Ministry has about 100 Facebook pages.

Popular cultural pastimes, whether football or Facebook, tend to leave a residue of unseriousness in serious discussion by sheer virtue of their play interfaces. This is where I return to softness as a question of collective response and action, where mediums like football or Facebook shed their categorization as amusement, play, or even instances of possible reconciliation, and become ‘soft’ targets. In this respect, Israel has racked up significant propaganda losses, and if its own Foreign Ministry is to be believed, knows it.

Soccer Politics‘s Danny Mammo wrote on Lula’s 2009 attempt to join Israelis and Palestinians in a football match against Brazil, ‘I say [it’s] interesting and hesitate to say encouraging because while I believe in the power of football to engage different communities that are unfamiliar with each other, I am skeptical about any effect it could have on Israeli/Palestinian relations.’ I lived in Brazil during this entire period and never heard of Lula’s unity match proposal , but even so, recall the anti-propaganda (and by extension, anti-normalization, anti-conciliatory) premise laid out earlier.

No one believes football or Facebook are going to create a just solution to Palestine/Israel, however, football, Facebook, and similar mediums can (and have) become berths of ‘soft’ resistance that have undoubted effect**, not only on the politics of free speech or civic freedom or sports but on a propaganda machine that acknowledges its own machinations. In June of the same year that Mammo cites (I mentioned it here), Corinthians (the team of famed striker Ronaldo) and Flamengo (a globally appreciated team) played a solidarity match in Ramallah, refusing to play in or with Israel. The Israeli Foreign Ministry called it ‘an act of ostracism.’

_____________________________________

*  A solidarity page has sprung up, but Vieira’s page has not at this writing been reinstated.

**  I noted here that the group that broke the American embargo on Iraq was none other than the Palestinian national football team.

[Update: This post was cross-posted by KABOBfest.]

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