Photo: AFP/Loic Venance

Following years of political and public pressure to maintain a safe and open platform for the free expression of ideas, Facebook has developed a controversial response to content review on its site: a 20-person oversight committee. 

Social media’s exponential growth over the last decade has led to numerous questions about the free expression of ideas. Some claim that these are private companies and therefore can allow or deny any content they want. Others hold to the notion that because of their prolific nature, they are public squares and subject to the same freedom of expression protections millions of people around the world enjoy.

This clearly opened the door to potential challenges from those deeming content to be offensive or be classified as hate speech. 

While Facebook had attempted to police its own content, after facing repeated inquiries by the US government and increased public scrutiny over allegedly hypocritical decisions, the company decided to separate itself from this responsibility with a content committee.

On the surface, it seems like a reasonable option, but in reality, an oversight board that is accountable to no authority other than itself becomes a contradiction. Therein lies the problem, especially when companies as influential as Facebook appoint political and religious zealots to such powerful positions.

Such is the case with Tawakkol Karman, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for political activism in her home country of Yemen even though her affiliations with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have been repeatedly exposed. Her Brotherhood connections make her a particularly divisive figure, and many in her homeland have denounced her appointment to Facebook’s committee. The Yemeni Association for Human Rights and Immigration labeled her a “warmonger and not a peace messenger.”

An analysis by Cornerstone Global, a political risk and advisory firm, found that this oversight committee is neither impartial nor unbiased as Facebook initially intended. In fact, according to Cornerstone’s findings, nine of the 20 board members are politically left, with another two being Islamist, and one is openly conservative. This is not a cross-section of the real world, but represents a dangerously small cross-section of society and cannot possibly be considered impartial.

Now, with Karman sitting on the board, there’s a growing chorus of people concerned about how their right to free expression on the Facebook platform will be destroyed.

Yemeni journalist Kamel Al Khodani, a human rights advocate, immediately copied all his Facebook posts in light of Karman’s announcement. Karman, according to Khodani, does not allow dissent and bans anyone who holds different opinions to hers.

It sets a dangerous precedent when a person such as Karman is given any voice of authority within the democratic tenets of freedom, free speech, and human rights. Because of her direct affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned by numerous countries including several in the Middle East, Karman has herself been barred from entering Egypt since 2013

Karman has been publicly seen with the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Yusuf Qaradawi, a known extremist who frequently justified suicide bombings and who is banned from the UK, France, and the US. These associations should have immediately warranted her dismissal from consideration for such an oversight committee, but instead, she will now sit in judgment over billions of Facebook users’ views, most of whom will certainly not share her hardline and religiously conservative views.  

Facebook is used by 2.6 billion people around the world each month, with 1.73 billion checking-in daily on the platform. That represents incredible reach and without any solid oversight from any government or international agency, a committee member like Tawakkol Karman represents a bizarre and dangerous authority to combat online hate and extremists. 

As her vocal opponents have consistently pointed out, Karman is quick to remove or block people from her personal social media platforms if they have anything to say that counters her own opinions.

Adding Karman to this board is a step in the wrong direction for a company that claims to want to monitor and protect its users from hate speech. Her hate speech has become a type of rally cry for the hardline Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers. There is a reason many nations have labeled this group a terrorist organization. Now, Facebook has, perhaps unwittingly, added that organization to its apparently impartial and autonomous advisory board. Indeed, a Middle East expert commented recently that this move will transition Facebook into a “platform of choice for extreme Islamist ideology.”

Perhaps Facebook has yet to address practical considerations of Karman’s appointment. If users post content that offends the Brotherhood or similar religiously conservative organizations, will that mean their account is blacklisted? Will their account be placed under suspension or terminated outright? Will they need to be “re-educated” on proper dialogue or content based on Karman’s say-so?

In an online discussion hosted by Cornerstone Global in May, Senator Natalie Goulet of France lamented Karman’s appointment, saying she is far too divisive and the wrong choice for Facebook. “If they need a Muslim woman for the board, which is very understandable… they can find anybody else but this one,” she said. 

Claiming to want to combat extremism, Facebook has taken an interesting approach that raises more problems than it solves. If its intention was to provide a diverse oversight committee that represents a broad cross-section of society, it has failed through its appointment of Karman. 

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Lin Nguyen

Lin Nguyen is an analyst in South Asian regional security, focusing on economic and political developments. Nguyen works on projects advising South Asian government ministries and also private enterprises seeking to do business in the region. She leverages her experience to write publicly about pressing economic and political issues that concern Asia at large.