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Facebook and Instagram ‘violated Palestinian users’ rights by taking down posts, according to its own report

Election 2022 Zuckerberg Donations (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Election 2022 Zuckerberg Donations (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Meta’s policy decisions harmed the human rights of Palestinians during Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in May, according to a report into its content moderation practices.

“Based on the data reviewed, examination of individual cases and related materials, and external stakeholder engagement, Meta’s actions in May 2021 appear to have had an adverse human rights impact on the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination, and therefore on the ability of Palestinians to share information and insights about their experiences as they occurred,” Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) wrote in its report.

Arabic content was proactively detected at a much greater rate than Hebrew content – because the company has an internal tool that can detect “hostile speech” in one language but not another, and Meta lacked the necessary oversight to stop major errors occurring.

“One key example during this crisis shared with BSR was that #AlAqsa was added to a hashtag block list by an employee in Meta’s Outsourced Services when pulling from an updated list of terms from the US Treasury Department containing the Al Aqsa Brigade, resulting in #AlAqsa being hidden from search results. The hashtag #AlAqsa in fact had been used extensively in posts referring to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam,” the report says.

Many accounts were therefore hit with “false strikes” and had posts wrongly removed, with the strikes “remain[ing] in place for those users that did not appeal erroneous content removals”.

In response to the report, Meta said it is updating its policies and has “started a policy development process to review our definitions of praise, support and representation”. It also said it has “begun experimentation on building a dialect-specific Arabic classifier” for written posts.

Twitter, alongside Meta, has been criticized for its response to Palestinian posts. In 2021, the non-profit organisation 7amleh documented 500 cases in a 12 day period of what it calls the digital rights violations of Palestinians on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – where content was taken down or its visibility reduced.

Twitter infamously temporarily restricted the account of Palestinian-American writer Mariam Barghouti, who was reporting on Palestinians being evicted from Sheikh Jarrah.

"We took enforcement action on the account you referenced in error. That has since been reversed," Twitter said in a statement, changing Barghouti’s account to say that it was “temporarily unavailable because it violates the Twitter Media Policy.”

Twitter said that “if an account’s profile or media content is not compliant with our policies, we may make it temporarily unavailable and require that the violator edit the media or information in their profile to comply with our rules. We also explain which policy their profile or media content has violated.” Twitter did not explain to The Independent which policy was violated.