Instagram removed posts and blocked hashtags about one of Islam’s holiest mosques because the content moderation system incorrectly linked the website to a label the company reserves for terrorist organizations. This is evident from internal communications from BuzzFeed News employees. The flaw is just the recent content moderation mistake by Instagram and its parent company Facebook, accused by users around the world of censoring content about Israeli aggression against Palestinians.
The bug, which was reported internally by disgruntled employees on Tuesday, resulted in Instagram removing or blocking posts with hashtags for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Islamic faith. Since Friday, the mosque has been the site of clashes between Israeli police forces and Palestinians, many of whom had visited the site to pray in the last days of Ramadan.
To draw attention to the violence, Instagram users posted videos tagged with the hashtag #AlAqsa or its Arabic counterparts # الاقصى or # الأقصى and found that their posts had been removed or hidden from search results. Some notifications showed that Instagram, owned by Facebook, removed the posts because they were associated with “violence or dangerous organizations”. When employees found out about the move and the reason, some internal complaints filed.
In one case, an employee saw that Instagram had removed an infographic describing the situation at Al-Aqsa because it was linked to “violence or a terrorist organization”. After filing a complaint, the employee wrote in an internal post that the image “removed a Facebook term referring to” dangerous people and organizations “based on a reference to” alaqsa “, a specific organization” has been . ”(The content was eventually restored after the complaint.)
“These two and many other mistakes are completely unacceptable,” wrote the Facebook employee on Tuesday on an internal communication platform. “Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and a central aspect of the faith for around 1.8 billion people.”
Facebook’s censorship of Al-Aqsa posts comes at a time of extreme tension and violence in the region. So far, 53 Palestinians, including more than a dozen children, and six Israelis have died, and more than 300 people have been injured since fighting broke out last week. While people have used Instagram and Facebook to spread information from the ground up – from the evictions of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah’s East Jerusalem neighborhood to the violence in Al-Aqsa – some have found their posts blocked or removed .
For critics and even some employees, Facebook’s recent content moderation mistakes are evidence of the American company’s lack of understanding and resources in the region, and how even negligent mistakes can have an oversized impact when its products are made by more than 3 billion people used the world.
Facebook previously informed the Middle Eastern news agency the National that posts with the Al-Aqsa hashtags were “erroneously restricted”. However, an internal BuzzFeed News post on Wednesday went further, stating that the content was removed because Al-Aqsa “is” also the name of an organization sanctioned by the United States government. “
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment beyond Wednesday’s internal post.
Last week, Palestinian Instagram users also complained that Instagram stories or short-lived videos and images that last 24 hours on the platform about the conflict were also removed. On Friday, the company attributed this bug to a social network bug that affected users sharing stories around the world.
These mistakes made some Facebook employees pause for thought. In a post over the weekend, an employee in an internal group wrote: “The external perception is that FB silences the political speech in time and apologizes later.”
“Some of these incidents are human verification errors, others are automated, and I don’t know which ones are more common, but why can’t decision-makers take advantage of local expertise in the EU.” [Middle East and North Africa] Region like Public Policy or Comms and consult them before making the decision to remove sensitive hashtags or political content, ”they wrote before sharing screenshots of various users complaining that their Instagram posts were censored. They also found that Instagram users around the world had launched a campaign to badly rate Instagram’s apps on the Google Play Store.
In response, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, wrote a day later that the company had teams that “review and resolve any issues as they arise.”
However, these efforts did not prevent the continued removal of content on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where the conflict began last Friday when Israeli police stormed Palestinians who had gathered to celebrate the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan . Complaints about the censorship of content using the Al-Aqsa hashtags continued until Tuesday, when the employee concerned reported the incorrect removal of a post.
While there is an armed Palestinian coalition known as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank, which has been classified as a terrorist entity by the United States and the European Union, and other similarly named organizations such as the Al-Aqsa Foundation are considered part of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades viewed critical Facebook employee, its support network through the US government, said it was no excuse for censoring the hashtags of the Al-Aqsa mosque.
“If there had been a certain group called Washington Troublemakers and Posts that only mentioned the word ‘Washington’ it would have been totally unacceptable,” they wrote. “I really want to emphasize that this part of our user base is already feeling alienated and censored, and that after so many problems like this – be it technical or product-based – our users are not going to give us the benefit of the doubt.”
On Wednesday, a member of the company’s policy team on dangerous organizations and individuals wrote in his internal post that the term Al-Aqsa (الأقصى) “should not and should not violate our policies”.
“As many of you have rightly pointed out, the use of the same name as a particular organization does not make the location and organization the same,” they wrote. “Our policies do not include removing people, places, or things that merely share a name with any particular organization. Therefore, any distances based solely on the mention of the name of the mosque are certain to be enforcement errors and should never have passed Our Regulations. “
Others were less confident in Facebook’s internal statement. Ashraf Zeitoon, who served as Facebook’s director of policy for the Middle East and North Africa from 2014 to mid-2017, noted that the company employed some of the best terrorism experts in the world who certainly could distinguish mentions of Al-Aqsa from Al -Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
“For them, identifying a word in a two-word name as linked to a terrorist organization is a lame excuse,” he said, noting that he was involved in the company’s development of guidelines for the identification of terrorist groups and their content was. “They are more qualified than this and more competent than this.”
Zeitoon cited an internal Facebook fear of disrupting Israeli interests and reporting the content as possible reasons why the Al-Aqsa videos and images were removed.
In response, a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that Al-Aqsa content was restricted due to human error, not government requests.
The removal and blocking of some Palestinian content by Facebook has resulted in the social network’s employees speaking up internally. Before a regular company-wide meeting on Thursday, which is expected to be chaired by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, some employees agreed on a question: “Our integrity systems fail marginalized groups (see: Palestine, BLM, indigenous women). What are we going to do about it? “
The question is at the bottom of the list of top questions, behind at least three different questions about Facebook’s work-from-home guidelines and a question of whether Mark Zuckerberg will ever host Saturday night liveAfter an appearance by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, on the variety show last weekend.
On another question, a staff member asked if Facebook would relocate its regional office from Tel Aviv, which some Palestinian-American staff cannot access due to Israeli restrictions. When they discovered that Human Rights Watch had designated Israel as an apartheid state, they asked if Facebook would ever reconsider its location in the Israeli city.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.