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Report finds Facebook breached the rights of Palestinian users

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Report finds Facebook breached the rights of Palestinian users
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According to a research commissioned by the social media firm, Facebook and its parent company Meta's actions during the 2014 Gaza War breached the rights of Palestinian users to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, political engagement, and non-discrimination.

In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report released on Thursday by independent consulting firm Business for Social Responsibility supported long-standing complaints about Meta's policies and their inconsistent application: It discovered that the business overly enforced regulations for content in Arabic and under-enforced standards for content in Hebrew.

However, it did not uncover any evidence of deliberate bias at Meta, either on the part of the business as a whole or specific workers. There was "no evidence of racial, ethnic, nationality or religious animus in governing teams," according to the report's authors, who also observed that Meta has "employees representing different viewpoints, nationalities, races, ethnicities, and religions relevant to this conflict."

Instead, it uncovered several instances of unintentional bias that violated the rights of Palestinians and Arabic-speaking individuals.

In response, Meta stated that it intended to put some of the report's suggestions into practice, including enhancing its Hebrew "classifiers," which support the automatic removal of violating posts using artificial intelligence.

"There are no quick, overnight fixes to many of these recommendations, as BSR makes clear," the company based in Menlo Park, California, said in a blog post Thursday. "While we have made significant changes as a result of this exercise already, this process will take time — including time to understand how some of these recommendations can best be addressed, and whether they are technically feasible."

The research indicated that Meta also committed severe enforcement mistakes. For instance, Instagram briefly outlawed the hashtag #AlAqsa, which refers to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, a flashpoint in the conflict, when the Gaza War raged last May.

Instagram's owner, Meta, later issued an apology, stating that its algorithms had mistaken the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed wing of the secular Fatah party, for the third-holiest mosque in Islam.

The report confirmed concerns highlighted in internal documents released by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last year, demonstrating that the company's troubles are widespread and have been well-known within Meta for a long time.

The absence of moderators who speak languages other than English, particularly Arabic, one of the most widely used languages on Meta's platforms, is a major problem, Associated Press reported.

The concerns identified in the research are nothing new for users in Gaza, Syria, and other conflict-torn Middle Eastern countries.

For instance, in an effort to combat incitement, Israeli security agencies and watchdogs have been monitoring Facebook and have sent hundreds of requests to remove Palestinian accounts and posts.

"They flood our system, completely overpowering it," 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 favour."

May 2021 saw a spike in violence in Israel, with weeks of unrest in east Jerusalem leading to an 11-day conflict with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel itself was the scene of the greatest intercommunal violence between Jewish and Arab residents in years as a result of the violence spreading there.

Israel's national police commander, Kobi Shabtai, told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper this week that he thought social media had fanned the inter-communal conflict in an interview. He urged social media to be turned off in the event of similar violence and recalled last year's suggestion to stop social media to put out the fires.

"I'm talking about fully shutting down the networks, calming the situation on the ground, and when it's calm reactivating them," he was quoted as saying. "We're a democratic country, but there's a limit."

The police issued a statement noting that his idea was only intended for extreme instances after the comments generated a stir. According to Omer Barlev, the Cabinet minister in charge of the police, Shabtai lacks the jurisdiction to enact such a restriction.


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