In response, Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of integrity, wrote a day later that the company had teams “triaging and unblocking any issues as they come up.”
That effort, however, did not prevent the continued removal of content about the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where conflict began last Friday when Israeli police stormed Palestinians who had gathered to observe the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Complaints about the censoring of content with the Al-Aqsa hashtags continued into Tuesday, when the concerned employee reported the incorrect removal of a post.
While there is an armed Palestinian coalition in the West Bank known as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades that’s been deemed as a terrorist entity by the United States and European Union, and other similarly named organizations like the Al-Aqsa Foundation are considered part of its support network by the US government, the critical Facebook employee said this was no excuse for censoring the Al-Aqsa Mosque hashtags.
“If there was a designated group called Washington’s troublemakers and posts that simply mentioned the word Washington were being taken down it would have been entirely unacceptable,” they wrote. “I really want to emphasize that this portion of our userbase already feels alienated and censored and after having so many issues like these — be they technical or product based — our users will not give us the benefit of the doubt.”
On Wednesday, an employee on the company’s Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy team wrote in their internal post that the term Al-Aqsa (الأقصى) “should not and does 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 call for the removals of people, places or things that simply share a name with a designated organization — so any removals based solely on a mention of the name of the mosque are certainly enforcement errors and they never should have happened under our policies.”
Others were less confident in Facebook’s internal explanation. Ashraf Zeitoon, who served as Facebook’s head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region from 2014 to mid-2017, noted that the company employed some of the top terrorism experts in the world who could surely distinguish mentions of Al-Aqsa from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.
“For them to go and identify one word of a two-word name as associated with a terrorist organization is a lame excuse,” he said, noting that he was involved in drafting policies on how the company designated terrorist groups and their content. “They are more qualified than this and more competent than this.”
Zeitoon cited an internal fear at Facebook of upsetting Israeli interests and overreporting of the content as potential reasons why the Al-Aqsa videos and images were removed.
In response, a Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the Al-Aqsa content was restricted due to human error, and not because of any government requests.
Facebook’s removal and blocking of some Palestinian content has caused the social network’s employees to speak up internally. Ahead of a regular companywide meeting on Thursday that is expected to be led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, some workers began upvoting a question that asked, “Our integrity systems are failing marginalized groups (see: Palestine, BLM, Indigenous women). What will we do about it?”
The question is low on the list of top questions, behind at least three different questions on Facebook’s work-from-home policies and one wondering if Mark Zuckerberg will ever host Saturday Night Live, following an appearance by Tesla CEO Elon Musk on the variety show this past weekend.
In another question, one employee asked whether Facebook would move its regional office from Tel Aviv, which cannot be accessed by some Palestinian American employees because of Israeli restrictions. Noting 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.