Facebook Violated Rights Of Palestinian Users, Report Finds

Actions by Facebook and its parent Meta during last year’s Gaza war violated Palestinian users’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation and non-discrimination, according to a commissioned report by the social media company.

Thursday’s report by independent consultancy Business for Social Responsibility confirmed long-standing criticism of Meta’s policies and their uneven enforcement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It found that the company over-enforced the rules when it came to Arabic content and disrespect. forced content in hebrew.

However, it found no intentional bias at Meta, either by the company as a whole or among individual employees. The report’s authors said they found “no evidence of racial, ethnic, national or religious animus in the governance teams” and noted that Meta has “employees who represent different viewpoints, nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions relevant to this conflict”.

Rather, it found numerous instances of unintended prejudice that harmed the rights of Palestinian and Arabic-speaking users.

In response, Meta said it plans to implement some of the report’s recommendations, including improving its Hebrew “classifiers,” which help automatically remove infringing posts using artificial intelligence.

“There are no quick, overnight fixes for many of these recommendations, as BSR makes clear,” the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company said in a blog post Thursday . “While we have made significant changes as a result of this exercise already, this process will take time, including time to understand how some of these recommendations can best be addressed and whether they are technically feasible.”

Meta, the report confirmed, also made serious mistakes in the application. For example, when the Gaza war broke out last May, Instagram briefly banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, a flashpoint for the conflict.

Meta, which owns Instagram, later apologized, explaining that its algorithms had confused Islam’s third holiest site with the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular Fatah party.

The report echoed issues raised in internal documents by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last fall, showing that the company’s problems are systemic and have long been known within Meta.

A key flaw is the lack of moderators in languages ​​other than English, including Arabic, among the most common languages ​​on Meta’s platforms.

For users in Gaza, Syria and other conflict-affected regions of the Middle East, the issues raised in the report are nothing new.

Israeli security agencies and watchdogs, for example, have monitored Facebook and bombarded it with thousands of orders to remove Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to crack down on incitement.

“They flood our system, completely dominate it,” Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left, told The Associated Press last year in 2017. “This forces the system to make mistakes in favor of Israel.”

Israel experienced an intense spasm of violence in May 2021, with weeks of tensions in East Jerusalem escalating into an 11-day war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. The violence spread to Israel itself, and the country experienced the worst communal violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in years.

In an interview this week, Israel’s national police chief, Kobi Shabtai, told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that he believed social media had fueled communal fighting. He called for social media to be shut down if similar violence occurs again and said he had suggested blocking social media to reduce the flames last year.

“I’m talking about completely closing the networks, calming the situation on the ground and, when it’s calm, reactivating them,” he said. “We are a democratic country, but there is a limit.”

The comments caused an uproar and the police issued a clarification saying their proposal was only meant for extreme cases. Omer Barlev, the cabinet minister who oversees the police, also said Shabtai has no authority to impose such a ban.

Associated Press reporter Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.

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