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Crackdown on protests in Iran

Meta Oversight Board overturns decision to remove Iran protest

Facebook should better protect political speech in critical situations such as that in Iran, where historic, widespread, protests are being violently suppressed, Meta Oversight Board says overturning Meta’s original decision to remove a Facebook post protesting the Iran government which contains the slogan “marg bar… Khamenei.” This literally translates as “death to Khamenei”. The board stresses that the slogan is often used as political rhetoric to mean “down with Khamenei.”

Citizens, and especially women, have repeatedly protested against authorities since 22-year old Mahsa Amini died in a hospital in Iran on September 16. She had  been arrested by the morality police for not wearing her hijab correctly. Authorities said she had suffered a heart attack while eyewitnesses, including women arrested together with Amini, said she had been badly beaten by the police and that she died because of police brutality. Her death has led to widespread protests. Authorities’ attempts to stop the protests have led to violence and a number of deaths.

The Facebook post contains a cartoon of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in which his beard forms a fist grasping a chained, blindfolded woman wearing a hijab. A caption below in Farsi states “marg bar” the “anti-women Islamic government” and “marg bar” its “filthy leader Khamenei.”

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The content was posted days before Iran’s “National Day of Hijab and Chastity,” around which critics frequently organize protests against the government, including against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. In September 2022, Jina Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Iran, following her arrest for “improper hijab.” Her death sparked widespread protests which have been violently suppressed by the state. This situation was ongoing as the Board deliberated this case.

After the post was reported by a user, a moderator found that it violated Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard, removed it, and applied a “strike” and two “feature-limits” to its author’s account, the board reports. 

The feature-limits imposed restrictions on creating content and engaging with groups for seven and 30 days respectively. The post’s author appealed to Meta, but the company’s automated systems closed the case without review. They then appealed to the Board.

After the Board selected the case, Meta reviewed its decision. It maintained that the content violated the Violence and Incitement Community Standard but applied a newsworthiness allowance and restored the post. A newsworthiness allowance permits otherwise violating content if the public interest outweighs the risk of harm.

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The board’s key findings:

  • Removing the post does not align with Meta’s Community Standards, its values, or its human rights responsibilities.
  • In the context of the post, and the broader social, political and linguistic situation in Iran, “marg bar Khamenei” should be understood as “down with.” It is a rhetorical, political slogan, not a credible threat.
  • The Board emphasizes the importance of context in assessing slogans calling for “death to,” and finds that it is impossible to adopt a universal rule on their use. For example, “marg bar Salman Rushdie,” cannot be equated with “marg bar Khamenei,” given the fatwa against Rushdie, and recent attempts on his life. Nor would “death to” statements used during events such as the January 6 riots in Washington D.C be comparable, as politicians were clearly at risk and “death to” statements are not generally used as political rhetoric in English, as they are in other languages.
  • The centrality of language and context should be reflected in Meta’s policies and guidance for moderators. This is particularly important when assessing threats to heads of state, who are legitimately subject to criticism and opposition.
  • In the Iranian context, the Board finds that Meta must do more to respect freedom of expression, and permit the use of rhetorical threats. The Iranian government systematically represses freedom of expression and digital spaces have become a key forum for dissent. In such situations, it is vital that Meta supports users’ voice. Given the “National Day of Hijab and Chastity” was approaching, Meta should have anticipated issues around the over-removal of Iranian protest content, and prepared an adequate response. For example, by instructing “at-scale” reviewers not to remove content containing the “marg bar Khamenei” slogan.
  • As this case shows, its failure to do so led to the silencing of political speech aimed at protecting women’s rights, including through feature-limits, which can shut people out of social movements and political debate. Public comments submitted to the Board indicate that “marg bar Khamenei” has been used widely during the recent protests in Iran. This is supported by independent research commissioned by the Board. Many of these posts would have been removed without benefitting from the newsworthiness allowance, which Meta rarely applies (in the year to June 2022 it was used just 68 times globally).

The Board says it is concerned that Meta is automatically closing appeals, and that the system it uses to do so fails to identify important cases. It recommends the company takes action to improve its respect for freedom of expression during protests, and in other critical political contexts.

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