There is a problem at Facebook. On May 8, the social media platform blocked and then shut down the pages of two popular moderate Muslim groups — on the grounds that their content was “in violation of community standards” — without explanation.
Had these pages belonged to the radicals who incite followers to violence, however, the move would have been welcome, and would have corresponded to Facebook’s Online Civil Courage Initiative, founded in Berlin in January 2016, to “challeng[e] hate speech and extremism online,” in the effort to prevent the use of social media as a platform for recruiting terrorists.
The pages that Facebook shut down, however — Ex-Muslims of North America, which has 24,000 followers; and Atheist Republic, with 1.6 million — do nothing of the sort. In fact, they are managed and followed by Arabs across the world who reject not only violence and terrorism, but Islam as a religion.
This, it turns out, is precisely the problem.
Angry Islamists, bent on silencing such “blasphemers” and “apostates,” troll social media and abuse Facebook’s complaint system. It’s a tactic that works like a charm every time, as conservative and pro-Israel individuals and groups — whose posts are disproportionately targeted by political opponents and removed by Facebook for “violating community standards” — can attest. As in most of those cases, the pages of the former Muslims were reinstated the next day, after their administrators demonstrated that the charges against them were false.
The president of Ex-Muslims of North America, Muhammad Syed, who is originally from Pakistan, complained about the practice in an open letter to Facebook, and demanded that the company do more to protect former Muslims from online harassment by Islamists:
“Ironically, the same social media which empowers religious minorities is susceptible to abuse by religious fundamentalists to enforce what are essentially the equivalent of online blasphemy laws. A simple English-language search reveals hundreds of public groups and pages on Facebook explicitly dedicated to this purpose [enforcing blasphemy laws online] — giving their members easy-to-follow instructions on how to report public groups and infiltrate private ones.”
Syed also started a Change.org petition, calling on Facebook to “prevent religious extremists from censoring atheists and secularists.” According to the website Heat Street, which broke the story, there are many other secular Arab groups that have been similarly flagged by religious Muslims on social media.
For its part, Facebook continues to claim that the sheer volume of material it deals with every day makes it virtually impossible even for its algorithms to distinguish accurately between posts that violate its own “community standards” and those that do not.
This claim has been refuted by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, head of Shurat HaDin – The Israel Law Center, who has been engaged in a billion-dollar class action lawsuit against Facebook for failing to prevent or halt anti-Israel incitement on its pages. Darshan-Leitner decided to put her premise to the test at the end of December 2015, by creating two fictitious Facebook pages — “Stop Palestinians” and “Stop Israelis” — and posting hate-filled comments and clips on each.
For two days, from December 28-30, Darshan-Leitner’s organization continued to increase the level of incitement on both pages. For example, a post on the “Stop Israelis page” featured an anti-Semitic cartoon and the phrase “death to all the Jews.” Simultaneously, a post on the “Stop Palestinians” page read, “Revenge against the Arab enemy. Death to all the Arabs.”
At this point, according to Darshan-Leitner, Shurat HaDin reported both pages to Facebook and requested that they be removed.
“Facebook was very quick to respond to our reports,” she said on a YouTube video.
“On the same day that we filed the report, the ‘Stop Palestinians’ page that incited against Palestinians was removed by Facebook. Facebook sent us a response stating that the page was removed for ‘containing credible threat of violence’ which ‘violated our community standards.’ On the other hand, the ‘Stop Israelis’ page that incited against Israelis, was not removed. We received a response from Facebook stating that the page was ‘not in violation of Facebook’s rules.'”
Six days later, after a huge outcry in the Hebrew press and on social media, Facebook changed its initial judgement and removed the anti-Semitic page.
This kind of behavior is just what Muhammad Syed is railing about.
“Arab atheists, Bangladeshi secularists, and numerous other groups have been under attack for years, as religious conservatives in the Muslim world learn to abuse Facebook’s reporting system to their advantage. Early last year, multiple atheist and secularist groups were targeted with mass, coordinated infiltration and reporting — leading to the closure of many groups. These groups were eventually restored, but only after a lengthy and sustained effort by organizers to draw public attention to the issue.”
Darshan-Leitner said that although she does not consider Facebook guilty of incitement, its insistence that it cannot control all the content on its pages is disingenuous, if not an outright lie. After all, its algorithms are very accurate when it comes to detecting users’ shopping habits — information that advertisers pay a lot of money for the privilege of obtaining.
Furthermore, Facebook has been aiding abusers of human rights — such as China, Turkey, Russia and Pakistan — to curb the freedom of expression of their people. As the New York Timesreported last November, the social media giant quietly developed software to enable the Chinese government to suppress posts. This was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s way of getting back in China’s good graces, after Facebook was banned from the enormous market in 2009.
Where Pakistan is concerned, the situation is just as delicate. In March, according to Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif warned that blasphemous content on Facebook would be “strictly punished.”
Sharif has been trying to get social media outlets to adhere to his country’s blasphemy laws, which state that anything deemed insulting to Islam or Muhammad is a crime, and those convicted of it can be sentenced to death. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan called blasphemy “an issue about the honor of every Muslim,” and threatened to “take strong action” against Facebook and other platforms that do not comply. He also mentioned, however, that Facebook had agreed to send a delegation to Pakistan to work something out.
This was a mere few months after Facebook signed a “Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online,” produced by the European Commission and also endorsed by Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, asserting “a collective responsibility and pride in promoting and facilitating freedom of expression throughout the online world.” This, it stated, “is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” (Emphasis added.)
This is a far cry from a whispered exchange, caught on a hot mic on the sidelines of a United Nations development summit in New York in 2015, between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Merkel confronted Zuckerberg about not doing enough to combat “xenophobic” posts relating to the influx of migrants into Europe in general and Germany in particular.
“We need to do some work on it,” Zuckerberg responded.
So far, all of Zuckerberg’s hard work seems to be paying off, but not for former Muslims such as Syed, seeking moral and intellectual support from the like-minded.
Ruthie Blum is a journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama and the ‘Arab Spring.'”