On Monday, May 27, Dr. Rima Najjar, a retired professor and active participant on many social media platforms, had her attorney, Rima Kapitan, serve the management of Quora with a letter seeking a settlement with the internet platform, which had banned her permanently earlier that month. Quora.com is a website where users can post general questions on a range of topics and other users offer answers to those questions. Najjar feels that the ban is a direct result of her national origin, and Kapitan’s letter to the Quora management documents many instances when Najjar was censored because she wrote as a Palestinian. Kapitan’s letter to Quora, which she shared with me, states:
“Starting on May 2, 2019, Quora permanently banned [Najjar] from the site, claiming she engaged in ‘hate speech’ for using the term ‘Zionist’ because she views Zionism in a negative way. Quora claims to be enforcing its ‘Be Nice, Be Respectful’ policy, but Dr. Najjar can show that the policy is enforced against her because of her advocacy for the national rights of Palestinians, and that the policy is not enforced in the same way against non-Palestinians.”
Najjar’s action raises important questions about the legal definition of social media: is it a public accommodation, and thus subject to anti-discrimination laws? Who are the “censors?” Can an internet platform be manipulated by readers into determining what is acceptable contents, and what qualifies as hate speech?
Quora’s claim that criticism of Zionism is hate speech is based on the disproportionate number of reader comments to that effect. Yet Palestine rights activists know that Israel has deployed an army of paid internet trolls to flag Palestinian posts as hateful, and otherwise spread its hasbara. Indeed, the internet is one of the more active battlefronts in today’s culture wars, where discourse is shaped, and worldviews and ideologies can be transformed. It has democratized the media, which was once the purview of the wealthy and powerful. Are the wealthy and powerful– the funders of internet platforms such as Quora, which depends on their paid ads– shutting down this venue for grassroots conversations?
Quora’s permanent ban of Dr. Najjar, following the unmitigated harassment she had been subjected to from Zionist readers, “Quorans,” as they are called, prompted Najjar to take legal action. I asked her a few questions about her experience, her posts, and her decision to sue the social media platform.
Nada Elia: When did you start writing on Quora, and how soon afterwards did you experience harassment or hostility?
Rima Najjar: I am not sure exactly when I began writing there. Quora deleted all my answers on my profile and I cannot access my account. However, I began experiencing harassment in the form of collapsed (hidden) answers almost immediately. (Editor’s Note: Quora moderators have the authority to “collapse” answers, effectively making them less visible or completely invisible. They do so most frequently in response to readers “downvoting” an answer. Najjar’s answers were routinely “collapsed,” until she was permanently banned from the site.) My first post on Collapse Detectives, a Quora blog that helps newcomers understand moderation decisions, is dated Jan 25, 2018 and titled, ‘BDS and Writing While Palestinian’. Some of the initial collapses were a result of technical violations – for example, not formatting quotations according to a required Quora style or linking inadvertently to a commercial website (in my case, the Encyclopedia Britannica), which in Quora is considered spamming. But I quickly got a grasp of these technicalities and then the collapses were clearly a result of malicious mass reporting. From the discussions of my frequent posts on Collapse Detectives, I learned a lot about what “common discourse” was considered acceptable and polite on Quora and what was not. I challenged some of that through discussion there, and also by giving feedback to Quora management.
NE: Why persist, in what is clearly a hostile environment?
RN: I write on Quora because I have a strong desire to integrate Palestinian rights into the Quora universe, based on universal rights and the need for justice, equality and freedom for all people.
In wanting to erase me as someone with a Palestinian nationality from its platform, Quora exhibits the same attitude of Western society at large, which has long taken its cue from Zionist propaganda as formulated, not only by Israel, but also by academia, namely that the Jewish nationality (alternatively called “ethnicity”) is a given as a construct and as a reality in the form of Israel, and that the Palestinian nationality does not exists and never has. It must be stamped out, both as a construct and as a reality in the form of an independent Palestinian state, because it threatens the very foundation of the Jewish state, which, in order to exist as a Jewish state with a Jewish majority had first to ethnic cleanse and displace Palestinians – “transfer” them to other Arab states as “Arab nationals”.
NE: Can you cite some specific examples of the censorship and hostility you experienced, before being permanently banned from Quora?
RN: In my anti-Zionist writing, Quora’s demand goes beyond an insistence that I use the language of symmetry to describe the tragedy that has befallen me and millions of Palestinians, which is inherently asymmetrical, as any situation between the oppressed and their oppressor is. In fact, it appears to direct me to use only “neutral” language. And what’s “neutral” language? It’s “accepted usage” – i.e. the accepted dominant Zionist “narrative”. Veer away from that, and I am not being neutral.
This came out in a discussion I had on Collapse Detectives with Jennifer Edeburn, a Quora Top Writer. She was guessing that my use of the terms diaspora/exile in a question is what caused a moderator to flag the question as “possibly insincere, using language that was not neutral”. To “fix” the question, she suggested that I “replace the words diaspora/exile with ‘other countries’ or some such, [and then] the marking [flag on the question] will be removed. The idea that all Palestinians who do not live in Palestine are in exile is the ‘non-neutral’ perspective that supported the flagging of this question. … you should change it to be less easily misunderstood by those who do not share your knowledge and background. After all, I am not suggesting that you use an incorrect term, only a different one.”
I responded with, “All Palestinians who do not live in Palestine are ‘in exile’, a term accepted in Palestinian discourse the same way Jewish discourse accepts the term ‘diaspora’ (to Palestinians, that’s far from neutral). It refers to the fact that Palestinians living in other countries are denied return to Palestine, whether they wish to return or not. See Edward Said’s book Reflections on Exile and Other essays.”
NE: And did the moderators consider your perspective?
RN: The catch came after I wrote: “You are right, Jennifer — ’a moderator not familiar with the usage of the term would take that viewpoint.’ I agree. But don’t you think it is better to introduce the usage into common discourse — i.e., try to educate the moderator by appealing, etc., so that reports flagging Palestinian terms will not be successful anymore?”
Jennifer answered: “… you have the directionality wrong. Moderators are mirrors of common discourse, not mediators of it.”
Common discourse on Israel/Palestine – aka the Israeli side of the story, as we all know, is horrendous for Palestinians. Platforms like Quora that refuse to accept challenges to it, partly, I am guessing, to enhance their commercial attractiveness for ad buyers, end up with endless hasbara rhetoric masquerading as “knowledge” and “information”.
NE: What prompted you to consider legal action against Quora?
RN: It became clear to me that I was being censored not because of any neutral policy but because Quora considers advocacy for Palestinian national rights “hate speech.” Quora’s discriminatory application of its policies affects not only me but others seeking to create space on the internet for the exploration and examination of Palestinian national identity, and the ability of the general public to access accurate information through internet searches. I am concerned, horrified really, about the massive disinformation regarding Israel/Palestine that Quora puts out there, both in the questions that the hasbara machine cranks out (Quora’s Partnership Program financially rewards the writing of questions) as well as the content these questions attract.
NE: What other sites/platforms do you post on, and has your experience been different there?
RN: I am very active on Facebook and my Facebook account is connected to my Twitter account. I post everything on Facebook publicly, having come to the conclusion long ago that there is no such thing as privacy on social media, so why bother. Plus, I was motivated to be on Facebook for the same reason I was on Quora – to get my voice heard as widely as possible. At the beginning, there was a lot of trolling, but I don’t experience that now at all. My account on Facebook was blocked twice. The second time (in February 2018), the notification said I would be blocked for 30 days for posting the following meme: “#Hillel, a racist organization, has as much place on university campuses as does the #KKK.” Reason given was: “We remove posts that attack people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender or disability.” Clearly, Hillel is not “a people”. If that were the case, my article in which I discuss Hillel as a racist organization would also be subject to censorship. Hillel is billed as “introducing students to Jewish life”, but its core mission is to link Jewish students’ identities with Israel, regardless of their American (or other) nationality. This time, I not only appealed to Facebook, I also reported my experience to Online Censorship, and I believe they were able to help, because I was sprung from Facebook jail [a temporary ban] only a couple of days later and I have never been bothered again. Someone told me that a Facebook admin had said that Facebook had made “a lot of mistakes in the Middle East”. From recent news reports about the closure of the Facebook accounts of Palestinian officials and journalists, it looks like Facebook is still “making mistakes in the Middle East”.
Using ‘civility’ to silence
After intervewing Najjar, I reached out to her attorney, Rima Kapitan, who told me: “Quora uses the notion of ‘civility’ to silence proponents of Palestinian nationality. But speech isn’t uncivil simply because Zionists respond to it with outrage. Quora also fails to enforce its policies equally against those who advocate for Palestinian self-determination and proponents of Zionism. The effect is erasure of Palestinian voices from Quora and the removal of informative content.”
Quora’s headquarters are in California, and Najjar’s attorney, Kapitan, notes in her letter to Quora’s management that:
California’s public accommodations law provides “full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever” regardless of “national origin.” This Act applies to websites, since they are “a kind of business establishment and an accommodation, advantage, facility, and privilege of a place of public accommodation, respectively. No nexus to [a] physical [place] need be shown.”
Kapitan then documents how “Quora has denied equal privileges to Dr. Rima Najjar because of her national origin—Palestinian. Starting on May 2, 2019, Quora permanently banned her from the site, claiming she engaged in ‘hate speech’ for using the term ‘Zionist’ because she views Zionism in a negative way. Quora claims to be enforcing its ‘Be Nice, Be Respectful’ policy, but Dr. Najjar can show that the policy is enforced against her because of her advocacy for the national rights of Palestinians, and that the policy is not enforced in the same way against non-Palestinians.”
Among other demands she is making, Najjar is asking for her account to be reinstated, for Quora to issue a public statement affirming that opposition to Zionism is not “hate speech,” and for Quora to change its moderation policies, so that answers are not “collapsed” because of readers’ complaints, but rather because they violate the forum’s “Be Nice, Be Respectful” policy. Quora’s management has until June 10 to settle out of court.
Whatever the outcome, this is an important precedent for Palestine rights and other grassroots activists, as it legally challenges censorship in a space that has played a critical role in documenting abuse, social mobilizing, and political organizing, and shaping the public discourse.