Tawakkol Karman, Facebook and Regimes..

Diana Moukalled- Lebanese writer and journalist
May 15, 2020
If we overlook the insulting and provoking reactions to appointing Tawakkol Kerman an Oversight Board member, we will be stunned by the shallow arguments, especially as these reactions did not come from those who care about democracy and freedom, but from opportunists..

I was shocked by Facebook’s decision to appoint the Yemeni activist, Tawakkol Karman, a member of the Supervision Board for Facebook Arabic Content.

There are many reasons behind the “negative” feeling I immediately experienced upon hearing this decision. This feeling is related to the policies of “Facebook” and its “supervisory” roles that we experience every day. I can’t help but wonder why such a controversial figure as Ms. Karman has been chosen. She has declared her biases for regimes, movements and figures, whose records in the field of public and individual freedoms are poor, and contain many violations and crimes.

It’s true that Ms. Karman is playing a prominent role , that can’t be ignored, in the Yemeni revolution. She has been active in key human rights issues, but this role has been immensely weakened when she made the decision to be fully aligned with the policies of certain regimes, such as the Qatari, Turkish regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Just like every issue that strikes the depth of division and polarization in these situations, the obscene campaign against Ms. Karman covered a debate that we really need to analyze regarding the world’s largest platform. Furthermore, the crazy systematic attacks―led by offenders who are supposedly media figures belonging to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE― undermined any meaningful debate requiring focus on Ms. Karman’s personality, with the aim of severely breaking her down, which has been absolutely nonsensical.

Now, the opportunity to discuss this vital issue has become constrained by a split between on the one hand, a trend that adopts insults and accusations of treason (Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia) and on the other, another trend (Qatar, Turkey and the Brotherhood) that is very welcoming and celebrating of the decision.

Dealing with Ms. Karman’s new position at Facebook in such a way almost excludes the actual dilemmas that we face, as individuals and groups, trying to find through “Facebook” a space to display and promote Arabic content that is different from what the authorities in the region impose along, with major media outlets that follow the dominant policies of regimes and social and religious streams.

If we overlook the insulting and provoking reactions to appointing Tawakkol Kerman an Oversight Board member, we will be stunned by the shallow arguments, especially as these reactions did not come from those who care about democracy and freedom, but from opportunists who want a liberal platform that’s shaped according to their interests.

Facebook Oversight

Regimes, along with their arms and cyber armies, are the first instruments of oppression across social media platforms. The Arabic version of “Facebook” was not too far from the opportunistic linkages with those regimes. Yes, “Facebook” pages are available but circumvention―through platform algorithms, by claiming to control content headlines―incites violence and hatred. Moreover, many practices have been infiltrated in the name of “standards,” starting from preventing the images of leaders and figures under international sanctions regulations, not the standards of publishing and expression―such as those images of Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and the Islamic State’s “ISIS” leader―as well as imposing restrictions on promoting content, no matter how serious and professional, if its title or audio materials contain words related to “Allah” or any controversial social or political issue. This has continued until we―the Arabs―are finding it impossible to locate a free space on Facebook, though the same space is wide open to any non-Arab user and reader. It’s worth mentioning that such discrimination has reached the level of epistemic and cultural racism.

We are still minors, in Facebook’s point of view, a platform that designates a “guardian” for us―through its Arab eyes―who has a set of values that we are constantly seeking to change and overcome.

For instance, one of the titles that ‘Facebook’ refrained from promoting was an investigative report on the suffering of women and LGBT under COVID-19, and Facebook’s response was that the content was controversial. In this case, will Ms. Karman take the Arab user’s side? Will she support a person who was deprived from his right? Or will she revert to her normal and expected position that we know, rejecting the values that allow raising claims for LGBT rights? In this sense, choosing Ms. Karman seems to be an extension of Facebook’s oversight attitude toward the Arab user.

There is a list of daily issues that content creators face in terms of being prevented from promoting and sharing, or blocking their pages or posts.

The board’s tasks―according to a post shared by Ms. Karman on her Facebook page―are as follows: “Facebook’s oversight board will make final and binding decisions on whether specific content should be allowed or removed from Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns) platforms. Moreover, the board will double check if the content meets the community standards of each. Furthermore, the board is bound to endorse and support freedom of expression within the framework of international norms of human rights..”

The most important criterion that must be considered in different contexts and countries is “power dynamics.” Who is the largest and most powerful group which we must be aware not to turn its speech into a tool that may lead to excluding the dissenter to an extent of physical violence? Who is the weakest and marginalized group whose right to expression and existence should be preserved?

What is the delivered speech? Is this speech inciting discrimination, hatred and murder?

Many groups are in deep need of protective measures as they suffer from legal and social discrimination. However, Ms. Karman’s appointment in such a position does not seem to limit any.

On the other hand, while Facebook is trying to enforce procedures of deletion and prevention of content that incites hatred, racial, religious, ethnic discrimination, etc., it destroys a fundamental part of people’s freedom to express and disseminate new ideas.

We are still minors, in Facebook’s point of view, and here is a platform that designates a “guardian” for us―through its Arab eyes―who has a set of values that we are constantly seeking to change and overcome. “Facebook” wants to take us back to an era that we mistakenly thought this platform would erase. However, “Facebook” is stronger than itself, and it is more likely to resist its own oversight tendency. At this time, we will not expect Ms. Karman to take our side while seeking to gain our right to share and post on such a platform. 

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