Actions by Facebook and its parent company Meta during last year’s Gaza war violated Palestinian users’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political participation and non-discrimination, a report commissioned by the social media company shows.
Thursday’s report from 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 the company over-ruled when it came to Arabic content and enforced 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, nationality or religious hostility in governance teams” and noted that Meta “has employees representing different points of view, nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions relevant to this conflict.” .”
Instead, it found numerous instances of inadvertent bias 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 Hebrew “classifiers,” which help automatically delete infringing messages using artificial intelligence.
“There are no quick, overnight fixes to many of these recommendations, as BSR makes clear,” the Menlo Park, Calif., company said in a blog post Thursday. “While we have already made significant changes as a result of this exercise, this process will take time – including time to understand how best to address some of these recommendations and whether they are technically feasible.”
Meta, the report confirms, also made serious enforcement errors. For example, when the Gaza war raged last May, Instagram briefly banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, a flashpoint in the conflict.
Meta, owner of Instagram, later apologized, explaining that the algorithms had mistaken the third holiest site in Islam for the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular Fatah party.
The report echoed the issues revealed in internal documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last fall, showing that the company’s problems are systemic and have long been known within Meta.
A major shortcoming is the lack of moderators in languages other than English, including Arabic, one of the most common languages on Meta’s platforms.
For users in Gaza, Syria and other regions of the Middle East marred by conflict, the issues raised in the report are nothing new.
Israeli security forces and watchdogs, for example, have been monitoring Facebook and bombarding it with thousands of orders to delete Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to counter incitement.
“They are flooding our system and completely overwhelming it,” Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former Middle East and North Africa policy chief, who left in 2017, told The The US Express News last year. “That forces the system to make mistakes in Israel’s favor.”
Israel experienced an intense wave 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, with the country experiencing 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 the communal fighting. He called for social media to be shut down if similar violence reoccurs and said he had proposed blocking social media last year to reduce the flames.
“I’m talking about shutting down the networks completely, calming the situation on the ground, and reactivating them when it’s calm,” he was quoted as saying. “We are a democratic country, but there is a border.”
The comments caused a stir and the police clarified that his proposal was only intended for extreme cases. Omer Barlev, the minister who oversees the police, also said Shabtai has no authority to impose such a ban.
The US Express News reporter Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.