Instagram removed posts and blocked hashtags about one of Islam’s holiest mosques because its content moderation system mistakenly associated the site with a designation the company reserves for terrorist organizations, according to internal communications of employees seen by BuzzFeed News. The mistake is just the latest failure to moderate content on Instagram and its parent company Facebook, which has faced accusations from users around the world who it is censored content about Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians.
The mistake, which was marked internally by annoying employees on Tuesday, caused Instagram to remove or block posts with hashtags for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Islamic faith. Since Friday, the mosque has been the location of the clashes between Israeli and Palestinian police forces, many of whom had visited the site to pray during the last days of Ramadan.
To try to draw attention to the violence, Instagram users posted videos tagged #AlAqsa or their Arab counterparts # الاقصى or # الأقصى, only to find that their posts had been removed or hidden from the results. of the fence. Some notifications showed that Instagram, owned by Facebook, removed posts because they were associated with “violence or dangerous organizations.” When employees learned of the removals and justification behind it, some filed internal complaints.
In one case, an employee saw that Instagram had removed an infographic describing Al-Aqsa’s situation, due to its association with “violence or a terrorist organization”. After the employee filed a complaint, they wrote in an internal post, they were informed that the image was removed “based on a reference to“ alaqsa ”which is a designated organization,” a Facebook term that refers to “dangerous people and organizations(Content was finally restored after the complaint.)
“Both mistakes and many others are totally unacceptable,” the Facebook employee wrote on Tuesday on an internal communications platform. “Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam and is a central aspect of the faith for some 1.8 billion people.”
Facebook’s censorship of posts about Al-Aqsa comes during a period of extreme tensions and violence in the region. Bye now 53 Palestinians, including more than a dozen children, and six Israelis have been killed, and more than 300 people have been injured since fighting began last week. While people have used Instagram and Facebook to spread information from the ground up, from the forced evictions of Palestinians in the East Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem to the violence of Al-Aqsa, some have found their posts blocked or removed.
For critics and even for some employees, Facebook’s latest content moderation failures are proof of the U.S. company’s lack of understanding and resources in the region, and show how even negligent mistakes they can have an excessive impact when their products are used by more than 3 billion people worldwide.
Facebook said it before Middle East Press The National that posts with Al-Aqsa’s hashtags “were restricted by mistake,” but an internal post obtained by BuzzFeed News on Wednesday went further, noting that the content was removed because Al-Aqsa “is also name of an organization sanctioned by the United States government. “
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment beyond what was in Wednesday’s internal post.
Last week, Palestinian Instagram users also complained that Instagram stories, or ephemeral images and videos that last 24 hours on the platform, about the conflict were also being removed. On Friday, the company attributed this error to a bug on the social network that affected users who shared stories around the world.
These mistakes have triggered reflection among some Facebook employees. In a weekend post, an employee wrote in an internal group that “the external perception is that FB is silencing political discourse and apologizing later.”
“Some of these incidents are human review errors and others are automated and I’m not familiar with which ones are the most common, but why decision makers can’t use local experience in [Middle East and North Africa] such as Public Policy or Communications and consult them before making the decision to remove sensitive hashtags or political content, ”they wrote, before sharing screenshots of several users complaining that their Instagram posts had been censored. They also noted that Instagram users around the world had launched a campaign to give bad scores to Instagram apps in the Google Play Store.
In response, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, wrote a day after the company had equipment “selected and unlocking any issues as they appeared.”
This effort, however, did not prevent the continued withdrawal of content on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where the conflict began last Friday when Israeli police assaulted Palestinians. who had gathered to observe the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Complaints about content censorship with Al-Aqsa hashtags continued until Tuesday, when the employee in question reported the wrong removal from a site.
Although in the West Bank there is an armed Palestinian coalition known as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, considered a terrorist entity by the United States and the European Union, and other similarly named organizations such as the Al-Aqsa Foundation. they are considered part of their support network by the United States government, the critical Facebook employee said this was no excuse to censor Al-Aqsa mosque hashtags.
“If there was a designated group called‘ Washington Conflicts ’and publications that simply mentioned the word that Washington was being removed, it would have been completely unacceptable,” they wrote. “I want to emphasize that this part of our user base already feels alienated and censored, and after having as many problems as these, whether technical or product-based, our users will not give us the advantage of doubt.”
On Wednesday, an employee of the company’s policy team on dangerous organizations and individuals wrote in his internal message that the term Al-Aqsa (الأقصى) “should not violate our policies.”
“As many of you have rightly pointed out, simply using the same name as a designated organization does not make the place and the organization the same,” they wrote. “Our policies do not require the removal of people, places or things that simply share a name with a designated organization, so removals based solely on a mention of the mosque’s name are certainly errors of application and should never be having occurred in our policies “.
Others were less sure of Facebook’s internal explanation. Ashraf Zeitoon, who served as Facebook’s chief policy officer for the Middle East and North Africa region from 2014 to mid-2017, noted that the company employed some of the world’s best terrorism experts. which could surely distinguish the mentions of Al-Aqsa from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
“Going to identify a word from a two-word name associated with a terrorist organization is an excuse,” he said, noting that he was involved in policy-making on how the company designated terrorist groups and their content. “They’re more skilled than that and more competent than that.”
Zeitoon cited an internal fear on Facebook of disrupting Israeli interests and over-reporting the content as possible reasons why Al-Aqsa’s videos and images were removed.
In response, a Facebook spokesman told BuzzFeed News that Al-Aqsa’s content was restricted due to human error and not due to any government request.
The removal and blocking of Facebook of some Palestinian content has caused social media employees to speak internally. Faced with a regular company-wide meeting expected to be led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, some workers began voting on a question that asked, “Our integrity systems are failing in marginalized groups (see Palestine, BLM, indigenous women). What will we do with it? ”
The question is low on the list of top questions, behind at least three different questions about work policies from home Facebook and one that asks if Mark Zuckerberg will ever host Saturday night live, following an appearance by Tesla CEO Elon Musk on this weekend’s variety show.
In another question, an employee asked if Facebook would relocate its Tel Aviv regional office, which some Palestinian American employees cannot access due to Israeli restrictions. Noting that he had Human Rights Watch designated Israel as an apartheid state, asked if Facebook would ever reconsider its location in the Israeli city.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.