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Oversight Board Urges Meta to Lift ‘Shaheed’ Ban for Free Expression

The Board said that Meta’s approach to moderating content using “shaheed” to refer to individuals designated as dangerous “substantially and disproportionately restricts free expression.”

“Meta’s approach to moderating the word “shaheed” is overbroad, and disproportionately restricts freedom of expression and civic discourse,” said the Oversight Board in a public advisory opinion asking the company to lift the ban on the word.

Earlier, Meta had said that any content using the word “shaheed” will be removed under its Dangerous Organisations and Individuals policy. It did so believing that referring to a designated individual as “shaheed” always constituted “praise.” However, in February 2023, the company asked the Oversight Board if it should continue the blanket ban. Concluding its investigation, the Board said on March 26, 2024:

“The Board has found that Meta’s current approach disproportionately restricts free expression, is unnecessary, and that the company should end this blanket ban.”

Ban restricts free speech on platform: The Board said that Meta’s approach to moderating content using “shaheed” to refer to individuals designated as dangerous “substantially and disproportionately restricts free expression.” Further, Meta too said, “It is likely that “shaheed” accounts for more content removals under the Community Standards than any other single word or phrase on its platforms.”

The Board said the company’s approach failed to consider the various meanings of “shaheed,” many of which are not intended to glorify or convey approval. As such, a blanket ban results “all too often” in the post removal of content uploaded by Arabic speakers and speakers (many of them Muslim) of other languages.

7 recommendations by the Board: After considering Meta’s request to share its opinion on the matter, the Board suggested the following:

  1. Meta should stop presuming that the word “shaheed,” when used to refer to a designated individual or unnamed members of designated organizations, is always violating and ineligible for policy exceptions.
  2. To clarify the prohibition on “unclear references,” Meta should include several examples of violating content, including a post referring to a designated individual as “shaheed” combined with one or more of the three signals of violence [a visual, a statement or reference to violence] specified in recommendation no. 1.
  3. Meta’s internal policy guidance should also be updated to make clear that referring to designated individuals as “shaheed” is not violating except when accompanied by signals of violence, and that even when those signals are present, the content may still benefit from the “reporting on, neutrally discussing or condemning” exceptions.
  4. Explain in more detail the procedure by which entities and events are designated under its Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy to improve transparency around this list.
  5. Introduce a clear and effective process for regularly auditing designations and removing those no longer satisfying published criteria to ensure its Dangerous Organizations and Individuals entity list is up-to-date, and does not include organizations, individuals and events that no longer meet Meta’s designation definition.
  6. Explain the methods it uses to assess the accuracy of human review and the performance of automated systems in the enforcement of its Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy.
  7. Clearly explain how classifiers are used to generate predictions of policy violations and how Meta sets thresholds for either taking no action, lining content up for human review or removing content.

While the move has been appreciated by rights activists, some have raised concerns about the non-binding nature of the advisory opinion and asked Meta to lift the ban soon.

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Written By

I'm interested in the shaping and strengthening of rights in the digital space. I cover cybersecurity, platform regulation, gig worker economy. In my free time, I'm either binge-watching an anime or off on a hike.

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