Pro-Palestinian activists have come up with a unique way of maneuvering around online censorship in the Arabic language: using an ancient form of the Arabic alphabet that isn’t properly recognized by social media algorithms designed to detect offensive or controversial content. In light of the recent developments in the Israel–Palestine conflict, social media networks like Facebook have been accused of censoring pro-Palestinian sentiments, deleting posts, and banning users who display pro-Palestinian messages in Arabic.
The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters, many of which are only differentiated by a series of dots placed above or below the characters—for example, the Arabic letters د and ذ (which are respectively transliterated as d and dh) have the same basic shape, but the latter has a dot placed above it and represents a different sound. However, these dots weren’t always used in Arabic writing— sometime around the seventh century, the dots were introduced to make the Quran easier to read for non-Arabs who adopted Islam.
Nowadays, Arabic speakers looking to circumvent censorship online have adopted the undotted form of the alphabet, which has not been used this widely since before the seventh century. Machine translation and artificial intelligence systems are unable to recognize the undotted form of the language, making it an easy way to get around algorithm-based censorship—some Arabic speakers have noted that this form of writing is equivalent to writing English letters like b and d without any straight lines, as o.
As tensions between Israel and Palestine ran especially high in recent weeks, pro-Palestinian messages have been shot down on social media, with Facebook frequently labeling such messages as misinformation, even going as far as deleting the content entirely. Benny Gantz, Israel’s justice minister, recently had a meeting with executives at Facebook and TikTok, who committed to removing content that could incite violence toward Israel. Palestinian activists have noted that pro-Palestinian sentiments are indiscriminately marked as violent or hateful, while pro-Israel sentiment is rarely taken down on social media, regardless of how violent it is.
Using the ancient undotted form of the Arabic alphabet allows users to get around these restrictions, however, as machine translation systems and other algorithms cannot recognize which letters are which without the identifying dots.
In order to share information and spread messages about what is going on in Palestine, Arabic-speaking social media users have taken to using a form of the language which, while easily understandable for native speakers, is nearly impossible for computers to encode and translate.
Undotted versions of the language can easily be produced using mobile or web apps like Old Arabic, but systems like Google Translate typically translate the undotted language into unintelligible gibberish. Andrew Warner