Tech

Facebook is once again getting in the way of necessary political criticism

The platform has been blocking content criticizing Zionism in the context of Israeli state policy.

Rockets are launched from Gaza City, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, towards Israel early on May 15, 2021. - Israel faced a widening conflict on May 14, as deadly violence erupted across the West Bank amid a massive aerial bombardment in Gaza and unprecedented unrest among Arabs and Jews inside the country. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is blocking content that criticizes Zionism, a movement that advocates for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and which led to the formation of Israel.

The removals are occurring as violence has erupted in Israel and Gaza following Palestinian protests over planned evictions in East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. More than 900 Palestinians have been injured since Monday, with more than 120 dead. In Israel, reports say seven have died and 500 have been injured.

Blunt instrument — Facebook, of course, has been forced to try and figure out how to moderate all discussion surrounding the events for any speech that might escalate the situation and lead to more violence. But the guidelines it provides to moderators are being criticized because they conflate reasonable political criticism of the Israeli state with hate speech targeted at a protected class, the Jewish people.

Facebook told The Intercept that some content documenting Israeli violence was deleted due to a combination of a “wider technical issue” and a series of “mistaken” deletions. But internal policy guidelines obtained by The Intercept, which were obtained by an anonymous moderator, suggest it wasn’t a mistake.

The following information is what moderators receive to help them determine whether a post mentioning Zionists is a proxy for “Israeli/Jew” and subject to deletion:

What are the indicators to determine if “Zionist” is used as a proxy for Israeli/Jew?We use the following Indicators to determine Proxy for Jew/Israeli: 1. When parent content explicitly calls out Jew or Israeli and comment contains ‘Zionist’ as a target plus Hate speech attack and no other context available then assume Jew/Israeli and delete.

Examples, per Facebook:

Delete: Parent Content, “Israeli settlers refuse to leave houses built on Palestinian territory”; Comment, “Fuck Zionists!” No Action: Parent Content, “Zionist movement turns 60”; Comment, “Zionists are awful, I really hate them all”. In scenarios of visual or textual designated dehumanizing comparisons where there are references to “rats”, should the references to Zionist(s) be considered as a proxy for “Jew(s)”? Yes, only in these scenarios please consider “Zionist(s)” as a substitute to “Jew(s)” and action appropriately.

Silencing legitimate speech — Critics point out the first example that’s subject to deletion. It’s clearly linked to real-world events of Israeli’s seizing Palestinian homes, carried out with the justification of Israeli government policy that the land belongs to them. If Facebook is going to remove this type of content criticizing Zionist ideology, it could effectively deem any denunciation of Israeli policy as hate speech against Jewish people, even if it isn’t. Facebook has denied in the past that it has any policy regarding the world “Zionist,” but clearly it was lying and using a definition that’s overly broad.

The problem with one company trying to referee a multi-billion person platform is that it repeatedly runs up against fraught issues like this conflict. Facebook has said that it wants automation to eventually take over moderation duty, but computers aren’t nearly smart enough to work through the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So low-paid moderators are expected to do the tough work, and they’re handed these mostly unhelpful guidelines with which to do it.

It’s pretty clear to most reasonable people that ethnic cleansing is occurring in occupied Jerusalem. If Facebook is trying to balance fighting hate speech with permitting reasonable criticisms, its policy position is just absurd and futile. The policy as it stands just supports silencing voices of oppressed voices in Palestine.

Just as an aside, but it doesn’t appear that Twitter is making the same sort of removal decisions.