Meta to end ‘overbroad’ ban on Arabic word ‘shaheed’ on Facebook, Instagram

Oversight board finds prohibition on the term for ‘martyr,’ sometimes used to honor terrorists, has failed to account for a broad range of meanings

People talk near a Meta sign outside of the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, March 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
People talk near a Meta sign outside of the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, March 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Meta Platforms META.O said on Tuesday it would lift its blanket ban on the Arabic word “shaheed,” or “martyr” in English, after a yearlong review by its oversight board found the social media giant’s approach was “overbroad.”

The company has been criticized for years over its handling of content involving the Middle East, including in a 2021 study Meta itself commissioned that found its approach had an “adverse human rights impact” on Palestinians and other Arabic-speaking users of its services.

Those criticisms have escalated since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, which erupted when Hamas-led terrorists rampaged through southern communities, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 251 hostages to Gaza.

The word is sometimes used to honor those killed while carrying out terror attacks or fighting in battle, but also has a broad range of religious uses, including referring to a “witness,” or numerous saints in Christianity.

The oversight board, which is funded by Meta but operates independently, started its review last year because the word accounted for more content removals on the company’s platforms than any other single word or phrase.

Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

Anti-Israel protesters hold a banner hailing the Hamas terror group’s military wing and calling for “jihad of victory or martyrdom,” across from the White House in Washington, June 9, 2024. (Screen capture: X, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The review found in March that Meta’s rules on “shaheed” failed to account for the word’s variety of meanings and resulted in the removal of content not aimed at praising violent actions.

Meta acknowledged the findings of the review on Tuesday and said its tests showed that removing content when “shaheed” was “paired with otherwise violating content ​​captures the most potentially harmful content without disproportionally impacting the voice.”

The oversight board welcomed the change, saying Meta’s policy related to the word had led to the censoring of millions of people across its platforms.

In April a prominent watchdog on antisemitism condemned the recommendation by the oversight board to allow the term to be used on Meta platforms.

“The word Shaheed is an honorific term for murderers. The recommendation by Meta’s Oversight Board could be seen as giving a green light for the glorification of murder,” Sacha Roytman Dratwa, the CEO of the Combat Antisemitism Movement, said in a statement.

Canaan Lidor and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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