Actions by Facebook and its parent Meta during last year’s war in Gaza violated Palestinian users’ rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association, political participation and non-discrimination, a report commissioned by the social media company said.
A Thursday report from independent consulting firm Business for Social Responsibility confirmed long-standing criticism of Meta’s policies and their lack of consistent enforcement as they relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It found that the company over-enforced the rules when it came to Arabic content and under-enforced Hebrew content.
However, it found no deliberate bias at Meta, either by the company as a whole or among individual employees. The authors of the report said they found no “evidence of race, ethnicity, nationality or religion in the ruling parties” and noted that Meta “has employees who represent different views, ethnicities, races, races and religions associated with this conflict.”
Instead, it found many instances of unintentional 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 its Hebrew language “categories” that help remove infringing spaces automatically using artificial intelligence.
“There are no quick, overnight fixes for many of these recommendations, as BSR makes clear,” the Menlo Park, California-based company said in a blog post Thursday. “Although we have made significant changes as a result of this action, 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 enforcing the law. For example, as the war in Gaza raged last May, Instagram briefly disabled the hashtag. AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, is a point of contention.
Meta, who owns Instagram, later apologized, explaining that its algorithms had mistaken the third holiest site in Islam for the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the Fatah group.
The report echoes stories raised in internal documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last fall, indicating that the company’s problems are systematic and long known within Meta.
A key failure is the lack of moderators in languages other than English, including Arabic – among the most common languages on Meta forums.
For users in Gaza, Syria and other conflict-torn 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 take down Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to quell the violence.
“They flooded our system, it was completely overwhelming,” Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left in 2017, told the Associated Press last year. “That forces the system to make mistakes in Israel’s favor.”
Israel faced heightened violence in May 2021 – as weeks of conflict in East Jerusalem escalated into an 11-day war with Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip. The violence spread to Israel itself, the country experiencing its worst violence between Jewish and Arab citizens in years.
In an interview this week, Israel’s police chief, Kobi Shabtai, told the Yediot Ahronot daily that he believes social media has fueled communal clashes. He called for social media to be closed if similar violence happens again and he said that he suggested blocking social media to reduce the flames last year.
“I’m talking about completely shutting down the networks, calming the situation down, and when it cools down, reviving them,” he was quoted as saying. “We are a democratic country, but there is a limit.”
This comment caused an uproar and the police released an explanation saying that his proposal was only intended for serious cases. Omer Barlev, the Cabinet minister in charge of the police, also said that Shabtai does not have the authority to impose such a law.
Associated Press reporter Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.