Written by Jessica Corbett
(CD) — After the New York Times on Thursday published an exposé of Facebook‘s global censorship rulebook, journalist Rania Khalek called out the social media giant for taking down a video in which she explains how, “on top of being occupied, colonized territory, Palestine is Israel’s personal laboratory for testing, refining, and showcasing methods and weapons of domination and control.”
Tweeting out the Times report—and noting that while, according to the newspaper, “moderators were told to hunt down and remove rumors wrongly accusing an Israeli soldier of killing a Palestinian medic,” Israeli soldiers did fatally shoot an unarmed 21-year-old female paramedic earlier this year—she announced Friday morning that Facebook had “just removed” her video.
After she and other prominent reporters issued public complaints, Khalek announced a couple hours later that Facebook had restored the video. “Still this is a good reminder that at the moment these social media giants have the ability to disappear content as they please,” she said in a tweet. “It’s creepy and alarming and should be loudly opposed.”
“In Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Sheryl Sandberg, and Eric Schmidt we trust to censor and regulate the internet with the most benevolent of motives, devoted as they’ve been their entire lives to safeguarding the voiceless and protecting the marginalized,” Greenwald sarcastically added, referring to Facebook’s CEO, Google’s CEO, Facebook’s COO, and the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
The short and successful fight to restore Khalek’s video, however, is just one of countless instances of Facebook taking down content without providing an explanation to the user or the public. Max Fisher’s report for the Times offers a glimpse into its secretive but widely criticized censorship practices.
A review of 1,400 pages provided to the newspaper by a concerned employee—and verified as authentic by Facebook, which supposedly has made some updates—”revealed numerous gaps, biases, and outright errors,” Fisher wrote. “The closely held rules are extensive, and they make the company a far more powerful arbiter of global speech than has been publicly recognized or acknowledged by the company itself.”
While Facebook claimed the rulebook is for training, moderators—who “describe feeling in over their heads” as they try to make decisions in as little as eight-to-10 seconds—told Fisher they reference it regularly. And though Facebook staff reportedly craft moderation rules in meetings every other week, “the company outsources much of the actual post-by-post moderation to companies that enlist largely unskilled workers, many hired out of call centers.”
The lengthy and arguably confusing guidance that Facebook gives to moderators has produced mixed and, at times, alarming results. As Fisher noted, “They have allowed extremist language to flourish in some countries while censoring mainstream speech in others.” He explained:
Moderators were once told, for example, to remove fundraising appeals for volcano victims in Indonesia because a co-sponsor of the drive was on Facebook’s internal list of banned groups. In Myanmar, a paperwork error allowed a prominent extremist group, accused of fomenting genocide, to stay on the platform for months. In India, moderators were mistakenly told to take down comments critical of religion.
The key takeaway from his report, Fisher said on Twitter, is two-fold: Facebook “is intervening into political and social matters the world over,” acting “like an unseen branch of government,” and “is doing this all on the cheap, shipping disorganized PowerPoint slides to outsourcing companies it can barely control. And it is making many, many mistakes along the way.”