The young people fighting censorship online for a free Palestine

The young people fighting censorship online for a free Palestine

in partnership with Peace & Justice ProjectSeason of Hope
During lockdown, kids used Roblox to hang out and have digital parties. Now, they’re using it to organise virtual protests in solidarity with Palestine.

Thousands of people are marching down a red brick road lined with Palestinian flags. They gather in front of a stage, where a giant sign in the colours of Palestine says “Solidarity Untukmu” (Solidarity with you in Malay). But the common pro-Palestine slogans, ‘Free Free Palestine’ or ‘From the river to the sea’, aren’t chanted. Instead, they appear and disappear over people’s heads and scroll up the chat box on the top-left corner of a computer screen. This protest in solidarity with the Palestinian people is happening on the online gaming platform and tween-hit Roblox. Only three days after its launch, over 364,000 people had visited it.

On October 23, Salsabeel (a pseudonym) tweeted: “y’all my cousin is 15 and couldn’t join a protest so she just went to one on roblox bro i’m crying”, and got over 6.7 million views. At the time of writing, over 7028 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, including at least 2913 children in Israel's brutal response to Hamas’ October 7th attack that killed 1,400 and saw 200 Israelis kidnapped. To show solidarity with the millions of Palestinian civilians being targeted relentlessly by airstrikes in the besieged Gaza Strip, hundreds of thousands of people have participated in marches around the world, including half a million out on the streets of London this weekend.

As with any real life gathering, not everyone can make it – especially children. Whether it’s a lack of proximity to demonstrations or those unable to attend because of their parents many were unable to attend and show their solidarity in person and so, children and teens across the world set up their own thing with what they had. In this case, what they had was Roblox.

Roblox is one of the top children’s gaming platforms. In 2020, two-thirds of US kids aged from 9 to 12 used the game, and 54% of users were under the age of 13. The app is a massive, infinite gaming landscape; users can explore the virtual universes conceived by other gamers or craft and personalise their own, which can then be shared with fellow players. Roblox became really popular among younger people during lockdown when children started having their playdates and birthday parties on the app. Now, they’re using the same tool to express solidarity.

Itxaso Domínguez, EU Advocacy Officer for social media watchdog 7amlet-The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement, says digital spaces “are invaluable during times of crisis. They provide a means for people to offer immediate assistance, share critical information and organise relief efforts.”

That’s what a group of 15-year-old Malaysian kids did, explains Rosha, a friend and colleague of streamer @cikguzyd, who helped the kids coordinate and amplify the march. The teenagers used Roblox’s creation tool, Roblox Studio, to build their own ‘game’ and create a protest-friendly map: large roads and a spacious square with a stage as the march endpoint. “They came up with the idea to show their solidarity about what’s happening in Palestine,” says Rosha.

Just like many other solidarity protests that happened all over the world in recent weeks, the Roblox protest was attended by thousands of people – and more keep joining it every day. But here, these thousands of people were mostly kids and teenagers, as they dominate the platform’s demographics. “I usually use Roblox to play with friends,” says Z., a 15-year-old Moroccan-American girl who hasn’t got a license to drive to her local protests in the US. “I heard about the protest through TikTok, and decided to join the game to show my support. It might be silly, but it’s the intentions that count.”

For those who were able to get to the protests, like Salsabeel (who was the first person to share the Roblox protest on Twitter (X) under @funnecfox), it’s hopeful to see that “kids are very vocal about what they believe in, and are educated on it or willing to learn.” For her, the online gathering got a lot of traction “because of the determination of the attendees to spread the message that they will not forget about Palestinians no matter what is barring them, be it their age, accessibility, or environment.” She adds: “kids use their platforms for more than just entertainment [...] and these children are doing better than we were so early on, en masse.”

People utilising online spaces for political ends is not new. Doing the bare minimum online – i.e. sharing infographics that explain “the complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict in 10 points :)” – and making sure everyone else is aware that you are aware has become the go-to means for partaking in collective action. Indeed it is often derided as slacktivism. But sharing images and facts on social media also allows information that challenges the mainstream narratives to travel inside the mainstream spheres or, in this case, allows facts about the ongoing genocide in Palestine to reach people in the West – who could ultimately be the ones to put pressure on their pro-Israel governments.

There’s a reason why young people took to Roblox instead of Instagram – where most online activism would usually take place. Obviously, the affordances of Instagram would not allow for a virtual protest to happen. But most importantly, Meta (Instagram’s parent company) has been consistently accused of censoring pro-Palestine content. 7or, the Arab Center for Advancement of Social Media’s first-of-its-kind monitoring platform, received and documented reports of 343 censorship cases from October 7 to October 24. Since October 7, there have also been reports of major Palestinian awareness accounts deleted (“locked”) by Meta, and Palestinian users’ bios had the word “terrorist” added to their automatic Instagram translation.

Activists and digital rights stakeholders like 7amlet claim censorship on Instagram often occurs through shadowbanning, a term that is not officially used by Meta. Itxaso defines it as “the practice of limiting a user’s visibility or engagement without their knowledge.” She added that a 2022 report found that Palestinian content faced discrimination but referred to it as ‘unintentional bias’. “But we contend the issue is systemic the moment these [...] dynamics keep occurring with the effect of silencing Palestinian voices,” she says.

Ana (who doesn’t reveal her last name online) runs @neoliberalhell, a political and cultural satire meme page on Instagram and is the co-founder of Anti-Zuck, a collective of people protesting against Meta’s moderation system. She says: “Posting content relating to Palestine is often more highly censored. Despite this, things that are political in nature are definitely more censored. Instagram wants to be cooking tutorials and influencers selling flat tummy tea, they don’t want to be a network of heightened political discourse.”

It’s therefore no surprise that Ana has also noticed Meta’s censorship of Palestine content. She says: “Major journalists and news outlets that share vital information about what is happening in Gaza have been completely deplatformed. It is precious that we do not censor the truth about the ethnic cleansing happening in Gaza right now.”

But apparently, Meta isn’t the only one to censor pro-Palestine content. We noted that the phrase “Free Palestine” was automatically censored in the Roblox chat – although all other expressions of solidarity weren’t – while the phrase “Free Israel” could be typed freely. Roblox responded that “blocking phrases like ‘Free Palestine’ is consistent with our Community Standards where we do not allow political content, particularly with regards to ‘content related to real world border, territorial, or jurisdictional relationships.”

It’s in the face of this online context that the kids’ Roblox protest is all the more refreshing – and important. “It’s a promising indicator when Palestinians and their allies, in a show of solidarity, discover methods to outmanoeuvre the system’s inherent biases,” Itxaso says. “But it’s essential to recognise that [...] systemic biases have the potential to become entrenched within machine learning algorithms, and asymmetric frameworks, over time,” she adds.

“Digital spaces of solidarity play a crucial role in preserving and chronicling the development of social movements, advocacy initiatives, and shifts in public perspectives throughout history,” Itxaso explains. So, on this side of history, we’re hoping that younger generations will create more spaces for justice and solidarity. Maybe they’ve already started.

Meta did not respond to our request for comment.

This article is part of the Season of Hope, a series run in partnership with the Peace & Justice Project.

Find out more

Follow Livia Giannotti on Twitter

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.