Actions by Facebook and its parent Meta during last year’s Gaza war violated Palestinian users’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly, political participation and non-discrimination, a report commissioned by the social media company has found.
The report Thursday from the independent consultancy Business for Social Responsibility confirmed longstanding criticism of Meta’s policies and their uneven enforcement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: It found the company over-enforced rules when it came to Arabic content and under-enforced Hebrew content.
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 bias in the ruling team” and noted that Meta has “employees representing different viewpoints, nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions relevant to this conflict.”
Rather, it found numerous 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 “classifiers,” which help remove offending posts automatically using artificial intelligence.
“There are no overnight quick 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 already made significant changes as a result of this exercise, 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 errors in enforcement. For example, as 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, which owns Instagram, later apologized, explaining that its algorithms had confused the third holiest site in Islam with the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular Fatah party.
The report repeated questions raised in internal documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last autumn, which show 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 Middle East regions affected by conflict, the issues raised in the report are nothing new.
Israeli security agencies and watchdogs, for example, have been monitoring Facebook and bombarding it with thousands of orders to take down Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to crack down on incitement.
“They’re flooding our system and completely overpowering it,” Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of Middle East and North Africa policy, who left in 2017, told The Associated Press last year. “It forces the system to make mistakes in Israel’s favor.”
Israel experienced an intense spasm of violence in May 2021 – with weeks of tension 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 daily Yediot Ahronot that he believed social media had fueled the communal struggles. He called for social media to be shut down if similar violence occurs again and said he had proposed blocking social media to quell the flames last year.
“I’m talking about shutting down the networks completely, calming down the situation on the ground, and when it’s calm reactivating them,” he was quoted as saying. “We are a democratic country, but there is a limit.”
The comments caused an uproar and the police clarified that his proposal was only intended for extreme cases. Omer Barlev, the minister who oversees the police, also said Shabtai does not have the authority to impose such a ban.
Associated Press reporter Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.