'Bias' review for Israel-Palestinian Facebook posts

© Getty Images Some felt that posts about the Gaza conflict earlier this year were not treated equally

Facebook’s Oversight board has recommended an independent review into alleged bias in moderating posts related to Israel and Palestinians.

It comes after the board said the tech giant failed to answer all its questions around alleged censorship of Palestinian activists.

The case centred around a user who shared an Arabic-language post from a news outlet about a militant group.

In response, Facebook said it would look at the recommendations.

It added it “welcomed” the Oversight board’s decision.

“After conducting a review of the recommendations provided by the board in addition to their decision, we will update this post,” it added.

In May 2021, a Facebook user in Egypt shared an Arabic-language post from what the board said was a “news page” of the Al Jazeera media network, about escalating violence in Israel and the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.

The post also contained a photo showing two people in camouflage gear with their faces covered, wearing headbands with the insignia of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas militant group which controls Gaza.

The board said translated into English, it read: “The resistance leadership in the common room gives the occupation a respite until 1800 to withdraw its soldiers from the Al-Aqsa mosque and Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood otherwise he who warns is excused. Abu Ubaida – Al-Qassam Brigades military spokesman.”

The user added a single-word caption reading “ooh” in Arabic.

The al-Qassam Brigades has been designated as dangerous under Facebook’s Dangerous Organisations and Individuals community standard.

Facebook initially removed the post but later restored it after the user appealed directly to the Oversight board.

It was unable to explain why two human reviewers had originally judged the content to violate its policy, noting that moderators are not required to record their reasons for content takedown decisions.

The board agreed with its decision to restore the post which it said was the “re-publication of a news item from a legitimate news outlet on a matter of urgent public concern”.

Israeli requests

As part of its investigation, the Oversight board asked Facebook if it had received official or unofficial requests from the Israeli government to remove content related to Israel-Palestinian violence in April and May, which escalated into a conflict between Israel and Gaza.

While Facebook said it had not received any official requests, it did not answer whether it had had any unofficial ones.

Public comments submitted about the case included allegations that Facebook disproportionately removed or demoted content from Palestinian users and content in Arabic during the conflict. There were also criticisms that it was not doing enough to remove content that incited violence against Israeli civilians.

A Palestinian digital rights group found at the time of the conflict that nearly 500 posts related to the Gaza conflict were removed between 6 and 19 May.

Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs Nick Clegg later apologised to Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh for wrongly labelling some posts as incitement to violence.

As a result of its investigation, the Oversight board is recommending Facebook do several things, including:

  • set up an independent entity not associated with either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conduct a thorough examination to determine whether Facebook’s content moderation in Arabic and Hebrew, including its use of automation, have been applied without bias
  • make the report and conclusion on this public
  • develop a process outlining how it receives and responds to all government requests for content removal, and ensure that they are included in transparency reporting
  • the reporting should distinguish government requests that led to removals for violations of the Community Standards from requests that led to removal for violating local law, in addition to requests that led to no action.
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