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Rights groups say Meta’s moderation of Iran content hurting citizenry

Activists say tech giant has taken down posts uploaded by demonstrators, impeding Iranians’ ability to share information with the outside world

In this file photo taken on November 19, 2021, Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan. (Fatmeh Nasr/ISNA/AFP)
In this file photo taken on November 19, 2021, Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan. (Fatmeh Nasr/ISNA/AFP)

PARIS, France — Three rights groups have urged Facebook and Instagram owner Meta to overhaul its policies for Persian-language content on Iran, complaining restrictions have impeded the ability of Iranians to share information during ongoing protests.

London-based freedom of expression group Article 19, global digital rights group Access Now and the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said Meta had to change policies on potentially sensitive content as well as human and automated moderation.

With the internet heavily censored in Iran, Instagram is now the main platform for communication in the Islamic Republic as it remains unblocked.

Other social media services such as Telegram, YouTube and Twitter as well as Facebook are all blocked inside Iran.

The groups said Instagram “suffers from a deficit in trust and transparency” among Persian-language users and Meta needed to ensure “its content moderation practices uphold and protect human rights and freedom of expression.”

All these concerns have been raised at a discussion with a Meta content policy manager, they added.

Screengrab of a video apparently showing a protest in Kamyaran, Iran after the execution of Heidar Ghorbani, December 19, 2021. (Screengrab)

Iran has seen several weeks of protests against its leadership under supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, triggered by price rises.

But activists complain Meta has taken down some content documenting the protests uploaded to Instagram, depriving users of a key resource of what is happening inside the country.

The temporary blocking earlier this year of #IWillLightACandleToo to remember the victims of a Ukrainian airliner shot down by Iran in 2020 also triggered anger.

The statement expressed concern over takedowns of content on Instagram containing the protest chant “Death to Khamenei” or similar slogans against the Iranian leadership.

Meta previously issued a temporary exception for such chants in July 2021 and has also now granted exemptions related to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Calling for consistency from Meta, the organizations expressed concern that “this lack of nuance… causes problematic takedowns of newsworthy protest posts or posts that could help directly or indirectly corroborate human rights abuses.”

The groups also called for “more transparency” on automated processes, where media banks are used for automatic takedowns based on certain phrases, images or audio.

Following allegations in a report by BBC Persian that Iranian officials tried to bribe Persian-language moderators for Meta at a Germany-based content moderation contractor, concerns were also raised “about the oversight of human moderation processes,” they said.

Meta at the time denied ever having ties to the Iranian government and said moderators review a randomized selection of content to check if it violates rules “removing any room for subjectivity.”

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