Mnemonic’s Engagement with the Oversight Board in efforts to ensure potential evidence of human rights violations are protected

By Salma Amer

Since 2017, Mnemonic has engaged with social media companies to ensure that content moderation tools and policies don’t lead to permanent destruction of potential evidence of human rights violations. As part of that program, Mnemonic engages with Meta’s Oversight Board 1 as one tool in our arsenal of strategies to influence Facebook and Instagram policies.

The Oversight Board was started by Meta in 2020. It is a legally independent body with its own staff, funded by an independent trust created by Meta, but it relies largely on information provided by Meta to make case decisions. Discussions about the creation of the board started years before it officially convened. Facebook CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg floated the idea of a “supreme court” that decides content moderation issues. The company held a series of meetings with stakeholders starting in May 2019 to discuss the creation of a Board “to help govern speech on its platforms.”2 The Board has the authority to make binding decisions that can reverse those made by Facebook and Instagram to take down or leave up individual pieces of content. Importantly, the Oversight Board also has the ability to provide broader policy recommendations, which is why we continue our engagement with it.

The Board is only able to accept a fraction of the appeals it gets. Its first annual report explained that in 2021, for example, it reviewed a mere 20 cases out of 1 million appeals. When the Board decides to take on a case, it gathers information, including public comments. Mnemonic provides comments on cases that address the policies and practices that lead to loss of potential human rights documentation and harm to human rights defenders. Mnemonic uses public comments as an opportunity to voice the concerns of those who don’t have the tools or resources to engage with such a body.

To date Mnemonic has submitted 5 public comments to the Board. Our first comment was on Facebook’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. The Board decided to uphold Facebook’s decision and also provided a list of recommendations to the company. Mnemonic sent a comment on 2021-001-FB-FBR case in which we ask for more transparency in regards to Facebook’s current “Violence and Incitement” policy. In our comment we asked Facebook to “treat speech by political leaders as MORE, rather than LESS, likely to incite violence”.3 We were happy to see that the suggested improvements by Mnemonic were included in the Board’s decision. These included increased transparency in dealing with influential accounts and more clarity in Facebook’s Community Standards.

Mnemonic urged the Board to take a closer look at Facebook’s “dangerous individuals and organizations” policy in case 2021-006-IG-UA. Facebook removed a post from Instagram that encouraged people to discuss the solitary confinement of one of the founding members of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan.4 Mnemonic pointed out that the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the US department that includes the PKK is extremely political, that there have been questions about PKK’s designation, and that mindlessly removing content from groups on that list endagers free expression and leads to removing important political content. Mnemonic stressed the importance of making the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations list by Facebook public. The Board decided the post should have been allowed and included in its recommendations Mnemonic’s suggestions. Unfortunately, Meta has not yet made the DIO list public, despite the fact that it was leaked to the public after this decision and that the Board has brought up the secrecy of the list multiple times since then.

In another comment to the Board, following the military coup in Sudan, a Facebook user in October 2021, posted a graphic video related to the violence that took place at that time. Meta removed this post claiming it violated Facebook’s Violent and Graphic Content Community Standard.5 The video that was removed showed “a person lying next to a car with a significant head wound and a visibly detached eye. A caption, also in Arabic, calls on people to stand together and not to trust the military, with hashtags referencing documenting military abuses and civil disobedience.”6 In our public comment to the Oversight Board we stressed the importance of ensuring Meta’s policies do not inadvertently lead to the loss of documentation that might rise to the threshold of evidence in a legal setting.7 For example, in August 2021, six members of the paramilitary forces were convicted in a court in Sudan for killing six protesters in 2019. Open source documentation helped investigators build the case that led to the aforementioned sentence.

Mnemonic stressed the importance of every single piece of content when it comes to open source investigations in Sudan. We know that documentation in Sudan doesn’t always come from experienced witnesses or legal experts. It comes from people filming in the middle of chaotic and extremely stressful conditions. Mnemonic additionally introduced Sudanese Archive and its work in preserving and enhancing open source documentation of and investigation into incidents in which human rights violations have allegedly occurred as well as its work training lawyers and legal practitioners on using open source documentation in legal case building.

The Oversight Board decided in June 2022 that Facebook should restore the post along with a warning screen concerning its graphic nature. In its decision, the Board argued that the post under discussion in fact raised awareness of human rights abuses and “carried public interest value”8 which is exactly what Mnemonic is campaigning for. The recommendations of the Board reflected the arguments in Mnemonic’s comment, including amending the Violent and Graphic Content Community Standard to allow posting of graphic content that carries information on human rights abuses. Mnemonic also added, which was later included in the Board’s recommendations, that Facebook must communicate more clearly with users when their content is at risk of being taken down, or has already been taken down.

While most of the comments sent by Mnemonic to the Oversight Board address specific cases, there are general concerns that apply to the majority of the cases that Mnemonic engages the Board with. These concerns include using the list of “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” as the basis on which data gets taken down. In several of our comments9, we mention to the Board that such a list must be made public and also explain and demand more clarity of the meanings of the very loose terms such as “praise”, “support”, and “representation”.10 Notably, the Board made the same recommendations to Facebook in the 2020-005-FB-UA case adding that Community Standards have to explain to users on how to clarify their intent in posts related to dangerous individuals or organizations. In its public advisory report, the Board recommended that Facebook “explain and provide examples of the application of key terms from the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” and to “provide a public list of the organizations and individuals designated as ‘dangerous’.”11

Another general top priority concern we have with Meta is its failures to invest resources in adequately moderating Arabic-content at the rates which we are seeing elsewhere in the world despite Arabic being the third or fifth most common language on the platform, according to Meta’s own internal documents that were revealed in the “Facebook Papers”12 Platforms have been using automated moderation processes which neglect cultural and linguistic backgrounds of users and content. Such automation has led to the continued high rates of data removal, hence, potential evidence of human rights violations. “Bad moderation, especially when combined with a poor understanding of dialects, is compounded by the use of automation.”13 Mnemonic has seen this over and over, from data coming from Palestine, to Sudan, to Syria, to many other Arabic speaking countries whose data is at risk of removal.

In another example, in May 2021 as Palestinians were anticipating their forcible removal from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, their protests were violently suppressed. Israeli forces arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters, used excessive force, and arbitrarily used sound and stun grenades at protesters and homes in Sheikh Jarrah.14 Much of that crackdown was documented and uploaded to social media platforms at great personal risk to Palestinian uploaders, but a large amount, uploaded both by those in country as well as by supporters worldwide, was taken down. Immense efforts were made by organizations and activists to advocate against the removal of data on Sheikh Jarrah, yet Facebook and other platforms slowly responded to such efforts identifying the removal as “technical errors” 15 which shows how little these platforms were willing to protect content.

In an emphasis to all the above, Mnemonic also sent a comment to the Board on the Policy Advisory Opinion 2021-02, calling on Meta not to invest resources in bandaids like its cross-check system, Xcheck. Arguing that there are more urgent areas for Meta’s investment and amendment such as fixing Meta’s language program especially when it comes to non-English language and “addressing the failures in moderation of Arabic-language content in consultation with civil society and investing in the myriad fixes already suggested by their employees”.16

While there are shortcomings to the Board’s approach, we still believe that the Oversight Board is making good decisions. Most importantly, Meta must provide the Board with the information it needs to make decisions and assess the implementation of those decisions. Instead, the Board has met with resistance from Meta. Similarly, Meta must take the Board’s recommendations more seriously. According to the Board’s first annual report, between October 2020 to December 2021, the Board submitted 86 recommendations to Meta, and Meta claims it is committed to fully implementing 28 of them, and partially implementing 27.17 Despite all of the challenges, Mnemonic will continue engaging with the Board for the time being- especially considering the continuing influence of Mnemonic’s comments and recommendations on the Board’s decisions. At the end of the day, having a third party with Meta’s stamp of approval echo Mnemonic’s policy positions so clearly is still meaningful. Only time will tell if it will lead to more meaningful changes at Meta.

  1. https://oversightboard.com
  2. Klonick, Kate, Inside the Making of Facebook’s Supreme Court, https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/inside-the-making-of-facebooks-supreme-court
  3. https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/Mnemonic-Comment-2021-001-FB-FBR.pdf
  4. Case Decision 2021-006-IG-UA: https://oversightboard.com/decision/IG-I9DP23IB/
  5. Sudan graphic video (2022-002-FB-MR): https://oversightboard.com/decision/FB-AP0NSBVC/
  6. Ibid
  7. Dia Kayyali, Oversight Board Case on Graphic Human Rights Documentation from Sudan has Big Implications, https://mnemonic.org/en/content-moderation/Oversight-Board-Case-on-Graphic-Human-Rights-Documentation-from-Sudan-Has-Big-Implications
  8. Sudan graphic video (2022-002-FB-MR): https://oversightboard.com/decision/FB-AP0NSBVC/
  9. https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/Mnemonic_Facebook_Comment_2021-006-IG-UA.pdf, https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/Mnemonic-Comment-2021-001-FB-FBR.pdf, https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/2021-009-FB-UA%20Mnemonic%20comment.pdf
  10. https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/Mnemonic-Comment-2021-001-FB-FBR.pdf
  11. Case Decision 2020-005-FB-UA: https://oversightboard.com/decision/FB-2RDRCAVQ/
  12. https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-10-25/facebook-language-gap-poor-screening-content
  13. Dia Kayyali, Oversight Board Case on Graphic Human Rights Documentation from Sudan has Big Implications, https://mnemonic.org/en/content-moderation/Oversight-Board-Case-on-Graphic-Human-Rights-Documentation-from-Sudan-Has-Big-Implications
  14. Israel/OPT: End brutal repression of Palestinians protesting forced displacement in occupied East Jerusalem: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/05/israel-opt-end-brutal-repression-of-palestinians-protesting-forced-displacement-in-occupied-east-jerusalem/
  15. Dia Kayyali, Mnemonic Joins Open Letter Calling on Social Media Platforms to Improve Practices Globally https://mnemonic.org/en/content-moderation/Mnemonic-open-letter-social-media-platforms
  16. https://mnemonic.org/assets/files/Mnemonic_Public_Comment_Policy_Advisory_Opinion_2021-02.pdf
  17. https://oversightboard.com/news/322324590080612-oversight-board-publishes-first-annual-report/

Mnemonic is an NGO dedicated to archiving, investigating and memorialising digital information documenting human rights violations and international crimes. Mnemonic also provides trainings, conducts research, engages in content moderation advocacy, and develops tools to support advocacy, justice and accountability.