“Death to Khamenei” messages are not against policy, the Meta Oversight Board declares

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A protester holds a scarf around her neck like a noose during a One Law for All dance protest at Piccadilly Circus on December 17, 2022 in London, England

Meta’s “Supreme Court” says messages calling for the death of Iran’s Supreme Leader do not violate the company’s policy against violent threats and must remain online. The “death to Khamenei” posts, TBEN Oversight Board argues, should be seen as a form of political expression rather than a direct call to violence. Meta’s decision to abide by the Oversight Board’s ruling could have far-reaching implications for politically contentious rulings in other regions currently adrift in a policy quagmire.

The debate centers on a July 2022 Facebook post of a cartoon version of Khamenei, where his animated beard grabs hold of a shackled and blindfolded woman wearing a hijab with the words “marg bar…Khamenei” written underneath. While the highlighted phrase literally translates to “death to Khamenei,” the Oversight Board says a narrow reading lacks important context. Often, the group writes, protesters and political dissenters will invoke the slogan to mean:down with Khamenei.” The Oversight Board, which operates independently of Meta but relies on the company to sign its checks, ultimately overturned Meta’s decision and called on the company to improve its respect for free speech during political protests.

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“The council is concerned that Meta has taken no action to allow the widespread use of ‘marg bar Khamenei’ during the current protests in Iran, despite its assessment in this case that the slogan posed no risk of harm.” , the supervisory board wrote in its ruling.

Khamenei, who came to power in 1979, has led a brutal crackdown on Iranian protesters following the September death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was detained by the country’s vice squad for not wearing a hijab while visiting Tehran . As irate Iranians flooded the streets, government officials began blocking major internet services such as WhatsApp and Instagram, blocking the outside world from seeing behind the scenes.

In that context, the Oversight Board says Meta should have done more to prepare moderators for politically sensitive comments and “anticipate” issues likely to arise around content takedown requests, including the phrase “marg bar Khamenei.” Meta’s unpreparedness here, the Oversight Board argues, may have “led to the silencing of political speeches protecting women’s rights,” as the deleted sentences were widely used during the ensuing protests. Meta eventually brought the post back online with a “newsworthiness” label attached to it, but the board of trustees says that label was unnecessary because the posts didn’t violate Meta’s rules regarding violence and incitement in the first place.

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“In the board’s view, in the context of widespread protests, Meta should be less reluctant to scale grants,” the Oversight Board wrote. “This would help protect the voice where there are minimal risks to security. This is particularly important where systematic human rights violations have been documented and opportunities to exercise the right to freedom of expression are limited, as in Iran .”

At the same time, the authors of the ruling find it unlikely that a “universal” approach to other “death to_____”-type messages on the platform can be established. Death threats directed at high-risk individuals, such as author Salman Rushdie, would likely violate company policy. So did messages calling for death in the January 6 attack on the US capital. However, it’s unclear how Meta would respond to other phrases like “Death to America,” which have gained prominence in recent decades, in some cases as a political response to US involvement in the Middle East.

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In a statement following the board’s decision, Meta said it plans to conduct an assessment of “identical content with parallel context.”

“We welcome the Oversight Board’s decision today on this matter,” Meta wrote. “The board overturned Meta’s original decision to remove the content from the platform for violating our policies on violence and incitement, deeming the newsworthiness allowance unnecessary. Meta has previously restored this content, so no further action will be taken against it.

Meta’s decision to use certain politically suggestive speeches could have real-world implications for the company’s business. In Russia, for example, Meta was quickly expelled and labeled an extremist organization after it modified its hate speech policy to temporarily allow calls for violence against President Vladamir Putin following his invasion of Ukraine. Those rule changes only applied to a handful of countries close to Russia, including Ukraine.

Update 1/9/2022 12:05 PM: Added statement a of Meta.

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