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A step in the right direction: Meta Oversight Board’s opinion on the term “shaheed”

Access Now welcomes the long-awaited Oversight Board’s policy advisory opinion calling on Meta to end its blanket ban on use of the Arabic-language term “shaheed” when referring to individuals designated as dangerous, and demands that Meta adopt a more contextually nuanced and rights-respecting content policy.

As the Board confirms, the company’s current approach to the term “substantially and disproportionately restricts free expression,” unduly limits civic discourse, and has serious negative consequences for equality and non-discrimination. 

Meta is holding the wrong end of the stick. Preventing real-world harm cannot be achieved through the wholesale ban of a word. Meta’s association of such a culturally and religiously significant term with terrorism has further stigmatized Arab and Muslim communities, and disproportionately censored their voices online. Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy and Advocacy Director at Access Now.

Meta’s current Dangerous Organizations and Individuals (DOI) policy prohibits the “glorification” of designated entities and individuals as part of efforts to “prevent and disrupt real-world harm.” To date, the company has deemed all content featuring the term “shaheed” as constituting praise for such designated individuals, and consequently removed it. According to Meta, the term has resulted in more content removals under its Community Standards than any other single term or phrase used on its platforms. 

In February 2023, Meta sought the Board’s opinion on whether it should continue removing content featuring this term. The Board concluded that the company fails to consider the various different meanings and uses of “shaheed,” and disproportionately censors Arabic and Muslim speakers. It recommends that Meta overhauls its policy to allow for content referring to designated individuals as “shaheed,” except when the post is accompanied by violent language or imagery, such as visuals of weapons, or by statements of violent intent. 

Meta has an opportunity to address its deeply problematic track record in moderating Arabic content. It is crucial for Meta to understand that basing content moderation decisions on the use of specific words or slogans inevitably fails to capture wider contexts and subtle nuances, ultimately infringing on free speech. Aymen Zaghdoudi, MENA Senior Policy Counsel at Access Now.

Access Now once again calls on Meta to refrain from banning use of the term “shaheed,” and to ensure transparency by disclosing any other words banned or added to their blocklist under its DOI policy, while also publishing its DOI list in full. All counter-terrorism measures must adhere to international human rights standards and involve meaningful consultations with civil society organizations and local communities impacted by such measures.