What’s in a Word? Shaheed, Martyr or Terrorist?

The Oversight Board has opened public comment on Meta’s approach to moderating the Arabic word “shaheed” (martyr), but what we need is an accurate and global definition of “terror”

Palestine Funeral

A funeral for four Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in Jenin on Sept. 28. Credit: Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Meta’s Oversight Board has just accepted a request for a policy advisory opinion on Meta’s approach to moderating the Arabic word “shaheed” when that word is used to refer “to individuals it classifies as ‘dangerous,’ including terrorists.” The word “shaheed” is an honorific often translated as “martyr.”

The Oversight Board’s announcement states that the word “accounts for more content removals under Meta’s Community Standards than any other single word or phrase on Meta’s platforms.” In other words, there is a tidal wave of suspensions and account deletions on Meta’s part that is now hurting it economically. But rather than examining the larger political vision and imagined social order that Meta’s economic formula contains, Meta is seeking to tinker with interpretations of its community standards and parse definitions of words in the manner of Bill Clinton when he responded to sexual harassment allegations by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Meta’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy prohibits “praise, substantive support, or representation of designated entities and individuals.” Its definition of praise includes, giving “a designated entity or event a sense of achievement,” legitimizing “the cause of a designated entity,” and aligning “oneself ideologically with a designated entity or event.”

It’s important to note here that the Oversight Board itself suggested this definition of praise, etc. to Meta in what it calls its “Nazi quote” case. And Meta, as I know from personal experience (see “My plea to Facebook’s Oversight Board: Stop criminalizing Palestinian armed resistance), has been zealously applying this policy to silence and stamp out Palestinian revolutionary speech. (Update: ironically, Facebook “temporarily restricted” me from joining and posting to groups I do not manage” as I was sharing this blog post.)

The Oversight Board also recommended that Meta publish its list of entities designated as dangerous, but Meta has “not published the list and provided no further updates on this recommendation following a feasibility assessment.”

According to the Oversight Board, “Given the multiple meanings of ‘shaheed’ and difficulties in accounting for context at scale, Meta accepts that it may be removing speech that is ‘not intended to praise a designated individual’ … Meta identified two scalable policy options for use of the word ‘shaheed.’ However, each had drawbacks, there was no consensus among stakeholders, and Meta did not settle on a new approach. The company emphasizes that due to the volume of content on its platform, a key practical concern is whether enforcement works at scale.”

So, here we have it. Meta is faced with “competing values,” (“Safety” on the one hand and minimizing the restriction on users’ voice, i.e., minimizing the mass disabling of users’ accounts to its economic detriment, on the other) complicated by the difficulty of “operating” (i.e., applying) a scalable policy.

Now, Meta is suggesting three options on how to deal with this problem and wants a recommendation from the Oversight Board, which in turn is requesting public comments that address the following points (Shaheed PAO, closing at 3pm GMT on Monday 10 April):

  • Examples of how Meta’s current approach to “shaheed” as praise impacts freedom of expression on Instagram and Facebook, especially for civil society, journalists, and human rights defenders in regions where the word is commonly used.
  • Research into the connection between restricting praise of individuals associated with terrorist organizations on social media and the effective prevention of terrorist acts.
  • How Meta should account for the variety of meanings and diverse cultural contexts for using the term “shaheed” in different regions, languages and dialects, given the trade-offs inherent to enforcing content policies at scale, and the implications for Meta’s responsibility to respect human rights.
  • What processes and safeguards should be in place to mitigate the risks of under- or over-enforcement of the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, in particular across diverse cultures, languages and dialects.
  • How to measure the accuracy of policy enforcement in this area, including in the use of automation, to counter the potential for bias or discrimination, and how to reflect this in transparency reporting and/or enable independent researchers access to relevant data.

In approaching these issues, the first order of business, in my view, is to tackle the problem of the list. If Meta has “got a little list,” of “dangerous individuals and groups,” let’s see it and let us find out what the political vision behind it is.

I respectfully submit to the Board that, in trying to resolve Meta’s censorship in this case, it is focusing on the wrong word. “Shaheed” is not the issue here, nor is it cultural confusion that is driving Meta’s practice and missteps. Rather, it is politics on which “stakeholders” cannot agree. What we are sorely in need of is an accurate and global definition of the term “terror.” In a paper titled “Terror,” the late philosopher Tomis Kapitan wrote: “Terrorism is deliberate, politically-motivated violence, or the threat of such, directed against civilians. By contrast, Ted Honderich describes terrorism as small-scale violence, driven by a political aim, that violates national or international law and is prima facie morally wrong. He thereby counts a good deal of resistance activity and guerilla warfare as terrorist, even when directed against military personnel, while excluding the large-scale military actions of governments.”

How about it? Let’s focus on the word “terror” instead of “shaheed” and let’s accept Tomis Kapitan’s definition instead of Ted Honderich’s.

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Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank

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