Facebook has told Iranian activists that it will allow people to post the words "Death to Khamenei" or feature video of people saying or chanting this phrase for a limited two-week period of time in a bizarre choice that highlights Facebook's power and often confusing content moderation rules.
In the last few days, Iranians in the southwest region of Khuzestan have been taking to the streets over water shortages, sparking anti-government protests in Tehran, fuelled also by a fifth wave of COVID-19 and economic struggles due to American sanctions. Iran's government, as many times before, has responded with violence, leaving several people dead.
Iranians have been turning to social media platforms like Instagram to document the unrest. But some popular Instagram accounts, such as a group that calls themselves 1500tasvir—or "1500images" after the death toll in the November 2019 protests—have had some of their posts containing videos of the recent protests taken down.
Not by Iran's regime, but Instagram's content moderators.
A group of internet censorship researchers and activists have flagged these takedowns to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. The company's response was that the posts were correctly removed because they contained calls for "death to Khamenei," the country's ruler Ali Khamenei. Such chants, the company argued in an email viewed by Motherboard, violate Facebook's community standards around incitement of violence.
A "death to Khamenei" chant is an extremely common way to show discontent with Iran's regime, especially at a protest, according to Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher and expert on censorship in Iran working with ARTICLE19, a non-profit that focuses on freedom of expression around the world, and one of the activists who had their posts taken down. In Iran's context, it's more akin to chanting something like "Fuck Trump."
After the activists' complaints, Facebook changed its stance.
"We recognize that in the current context of protests against water shortages, 'Khamenei' is being used largely as a stand-in for the Iranian regime in these statements, rather than as a direct threat or call for violence against him as an individual," a company representative told activists in an email, which Motherboard viewed. "Accordingly, we have made a limited, time-bound newsworthiness exception to allow this content. For the next two weeks (subject to further review based on the situation on the ground), we will allow use of 'death to Khamenei' in the context of political protests in Iran."
The representative also added that the company has made the same exception regarding the "death to Khamanei" chants in the past, without saying when exactly.
In a statement to Motherboard, a Facebook spokesperson said that "we are aware the phrase #deathtokhamenei is used as a proxy to criticize and protest against the government, rather than as a violent threat and have restored posts that were initially removed."
In other words, Facebook knows the chant is not a literal call to kill Khamenei, and has made this exception before. And yet, it took down several posts in the last few days, and is now going to be temporarily allowing people say it, but only for as long as a terrible water shortage persists in the country.
"They are removing protest footage from Iran because protestors are saying 'death to Khamenei.' This is something that is said in almost every protest in Iran alongside 'death to the dictator,'" Alimardani told Motherboard. "I can't think of a clearer example of a lack of contextual understanding than this."
Alimardani said she sent a form to the people from 1500tasvir and other Persian speaking users, asking if they witnessed any takedowns. As of Thursday, she said she has collected 249 responses, 227 of which reported posts being taken down, some included the chant, some did not.
The Facebook spokesperson however, did not answer to questions on when the company has made this exception before, nor why it didn't make the exception this time, before posts were removed and activists both on the ground and online pointed out the mistake.
A person involved with the 1500tasvir activist group, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid government reprisal, told Motherboard that "people DO see Khamenei being responsible for these killings and shootings as the supreme leader. His role is very clear and he must be held accountable."
"Facebook and Instagram seeing people's slogans and language as death threats must be reconsidered and changed permanently, not just for two weeks, it is very important that the context and the variety of language notions be considered in the rules of these platforms," they added.
Alimardani mentioned recent incidents in Israel, where some nationalist right-wingers chanted "death to Arabs," saying there were several posts documenting the chants and events on Facebook. The company's response to those chants, and the chants in Iran seems contradictory and confusing, according to her.
"In this case we have this collective trying to document scenes of the protests, like 1500tasvir, and they're just posting a video, they obviously don't have control when there's crowds of hundreds of people, you can't control what everyone says. So how do you decide that that was newsworthy? When [Al Jazeera] posts the 'death to Arabs' video, that's okay, it's newsworthy. But then when a citizen media collective posts a video saying 'death to Khamenei,' how did they decide that newsworthiness?"
Jillian York, the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the author of the recent Silicon Values, said this is yet another example that Facebook doesn't know how to deal with free speech issues related to politics, and not just in Iran.
"This is why we have values around free expression in the first place, because who, or what authority, is to decide what is an appropriate use of 'death to' or not?” York told Motherboard. "While wishing for someone’s death is not necessarily a good thing, at the same time, the state wields ultimate power in most of these places, what other option do the people have than to chant that?”
In the meantime, if you dislike Iran's authoritarian regime, get your chants or hashtags in while you can.
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