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Meta’s ‘shaheed’ deliberations have national security ramifications

There is a worrying trend of romanticizing terrorists and normalizing terror organizations online.

Metaverse. Credit: TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay.
Metaverse. Credit: TheDigitalArtist/Pixabay.
Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor. Credit: Courtesy,
Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor
Tal-Or Cohen Montemayor is the founder and executive director of CyberWell, an international nonprofit working with social-media platforms to monitor and catalog antisemitic rhetoric while improving enforcement and enhancement efforts vis-à-vis community standards and hate-speech policies.    

Just weeks ago, Congress passed H.R.7521, a bill to “Protect Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications,” which effectively forces the divestiture of TikTok from Chinese ownership. It was the first substantial move in the slow-moving attempts to legislate social-media policy reform in the United States without getting trapped in the 47 U.S. Code § 230 sinkhole. Effectively, the bill balanced freedom of speech against another paramount concern—national security. This same balancing principle should be applied to all major social-media platforms, and the sooner the better, since national security risks are being exacerbated by current efforts to relax existing anti-terrorism policies on such platforms.

Last month, Meta’s Oversight Board released its fourth-ever “Policy Advisory Opinion” that, if adopted in full, would compel Meta to allow the widespread use of the Arabic word shaheed, which translates to “martyr” or “witness,” when used in conjunction with known terrorists or affiliated with terror attacks on civilians. This is the latest development in digital policies governing pro-terror content since the viral #LettertoAmerica trend.

The Oversight Board (OSB), sometimes referred to as the “Supreme Court of Facebook,” was established in 2019 to “promote free expression by making principled, independent decisions regarding content on Facebook, Instagram and Threads.”

In the absence of clear government regulation on the limitation of freedom of speech or fake news spreading on algorithmic machines that boast more than 3 billion users on Meta’s apps alone, the OSB in its conception was meant to be an independent forum that would assist Meta with tough decisions on limiting the spread of nefarious conspiracy theories, misinformation and hate speech, among other issues.

Meta’s current Dangerous Organizations and Individuals Policy (anti-terror policy) removes content praising or glorifying terrorism online. As it stands today, when the word shaheed is used in conjunction with a known terror organization, affiliated terrorist or someone involved in carrying out a terrorist attack, that content would be removed. The OSB Advisory Opinion characterizes the implementation of this policy as overbroad, claiming that Meta says this will likely result in shaheed being one of the most removed words on the platform, even though no data on the actual removal rates of this word was shared with the public as part of the process.

The advisory opinion on shaheed is nonbinding. It is the first of only four published opinions that directly clashes with the implementation of an existing anti-terror policy and specifically focuses on a point of speech. Meta now has less than 60 days to produce a response. The results of the recommended change to Meta’s policy given the current pro-terror climate online and heightened national security threats are puzzling and dangerous.

CyberWell, the first open database of online antisemitism, was the only nonprofit that submitted a Public Comment based on a dataset of 300 Facebook examples that violated Meta’s anti-terror policies while using the word shaheed, demonstrating the efficacy of the status quo policy already has its limitations and recommending concrete keyword queries that could increase removal rates of content praising terrorism. Some of the examples that CyberWell flagged for both the Oversight Board and Meta almost a year ago are still online. Shaheed still appears in content that is flagged as highly likely to be violently antisemitic in CyberWell’s monitoring efforts.

All this was submitted before the massacre in Israel on Oct. 7, the largest hijacking of social-media platforms by a terrorist organization. Hamas exploited the vulnerabilities of Facebook, X, Instagram and TikTok far beyond the point and time of the attack—holding the civilian population of Israel and Jewish communities abroad hostages of terror for weeks. Executions of entire families were live-streamed to people’s personal Facebook accounts; innocent women were taken hostage and paraded naked through the streets of Gaza; massacres of entire villages flooded the digital platforms; and large parts of the world celebrated and still celebrate online today.

Oct. 7 was a pivotal moment in the development of national security issues in the digital era, and the OSB recognized this by pausing the publishing of this opinion to conduct additional research and stress-test their recommendations. This additional data was not shared with the public.

Since the attacks, CyberWell tracked that online antisemitism nearly doubled in the following weeks, with a clear surge in calls to violence against Jews online in Arabic (61% of the verified dataset). Yet the OSB’s position remained steadfast as it published its opinion this week: more context and less removals are required for the word shaheed when it’s used to praise terrorists, terror attacks and terror organizations.

From young influencers gaining millions of views on pro-Houthi content to amplifying the words of Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” there is a worrying current trend of romanticizing terrorists and normalizing terror organizations online. The implementation of the latest Oversight Board’s Advisory opinion will reinforce and warrant the celebration and praise of terrorism on Meta’s platforms.

Radical groups have and will continue to exploit favorite apps to psychologically terrorize entire populations and even mobilize dissident sympathizers on American soil.

Congress has already recognized that there are legitimate national security concerns that should guide and govern social media. As Meta deliberates on the implementation of this Policy Advisory Opinion, lawmakers and intelligence experts must weigh the impact that these content moderation and digital policy adjustments will have on national security concerns in the United States.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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