Meta and human rights in Palestine
People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather after performing the last Friday of Ramadan to protest over the possible eviction of several Palestinian families from homes on land claimed by Jewish settlers in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 7, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
An independent report commissioned by Meta recognises there was bias in its content moderation policies toward Palestinians and their supporters.
By Nadim Nashif, the founder and executive director of 7amleh,The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, a Palestinian digital rights organization.
The long-awaited report assessing the impact of the content moderation policies of Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram - on Palestinian human rights during the surge in violence in Israel and Palestine in May 2021, might well be a landmark in the struggle for digital justice. It reinforces what civil society organisations and human rights defenders have been saying and documenting for years about the company’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians and their supporters.
The report produced by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), an independent consulting firm commissioned by Meta, recognises there was bias in the platforms’ moderation practices, with significantly disproportionate consequences for the digital rights of Palestinian and Arabic-speaking users. One of its primary takeaways is that Meta’s practices contributed to the violation of Palestinians’ right to freedom of expression and assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination.
The due diligence contains specific recommendations that Meta should follow to ensure that it is putting human rights front and centre.
During Israel’s attempts to forcibly evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem, 7amleh’s monitoring of digital rights violations and the responses of social media companies during that period noted the removal of posts and accounts documenting Israel’s breaches of Palestinian rights in Arabic, and the spread of incitement against Palestinians in Hebrew, among other transgressions.
Meta allocates insufficient resources to contextually aware and culturally-specific content moderation. Palestinians find themselves systematically censored every day, with no genuine right to appeal. What’s more, their freedoms are extremely vulnerable in periods of crisis, when their shedding light on the reality on the ground is vital. The blatant violation of fundamental freedoms caught the public’s attention thanks to heightened online pressure.
It was only after Meta’s Oversight Board recommended an independent review, however, that the company responded. Meta put together a Human Rights team and adopted a Human Rights Policy. It showed a willingness to engage with human rights defenders. Last July, the firm published its first annual human rights report.
Those actions could have been a positive step, but ended up being a missed opportunity, amounting to minor progress at best.
BSR's independent assessment addresses Meta’s systemic insufficiencies. The pressing need for the social media company to take action and protect basic freedoms not only concerns Palestinians, but others across the world. The firm’s actions have devastating real-life consequences.
Israeli WhatsApp groups routinely call for attacks against Palestinians. Meta has failed to disclose the full conclusions regarding its role in spreading hate speech in India. Its negligence led to further violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
It is essential for us to stress that digital rights are human rights. The violation of Palestinian rights in the online sphere goes hand in hand with the systematic violation of their rights on the ground.
Nonetheless, a different response is possible. After Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, a number of online platforms took unprecedented action to counter disinformation. They even blocked state-affiliated media to uphold Ukranians’ human rights and international law, but allowed calls for violence against Russian leaders and soldiers. Double standards are something that these corporations should rectify by adopting transparent and fair policies that are equal for users worldwide.
Meta should not evade its responsibility any longer. The BSR report represents a golden opportunity for the company to decide whether it will implement meaningful changes based on what right defenders have been demanding for years. The firm must articulate, implement and enforce human rights-respecting policies, so that other tech companies can follow suit in protecting and promoting human rights online, and working hand in hand with civil society.
The future of our shared humanity is at stake, and that indisputably encompasses the right to access a free, fair, and equal digital space.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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