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June 18, 2024

Meta’s Oversight Board flooded with comments about ‘from the river to the sea’ debate

More than 2,300 people and organizations have submitted comments to Facebook and Instagram’s independent Oversight Board on whether the apps should continue allowing the pro-Palestinian phrase “from the river to the sea,” a board spokesperson said. 

The board, which functions as a quasi appeals court for content moderation on the Meta-owned apps, agreed two weeks ago to consider whether the phrase qualifies as hate speech because some people interpret it as a call for the elimination of Israel. The board has been accepting public comment to help with its deliberations, with a deadline of Tuesday night. 

The thousands of comments are the second-most that the board has received on a matter, the board said in a statement to NBC News. Only the case related to former President Donald Trump, whose accounts on Facebook and Instagram were suspended after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, received more feedback, with 9,666 people and organizations weighing in then. 

The phrase “from the river to the sea” has seen a surge in interest since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel and the start of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. 

A spokesperson for the Oversight Board said in a statement: “Conflicts create unique content moderation challenges for social media platforms, where these situations are heavily debated, protested and reported on. The Board is deliberating three cases regarding this phrase because of the resurgence in its use after October 7 and controversies around its meaning. The Board will issue its decisions and may, as is typical in its cases, provide additional recommendations to Meta.” 

The Oversight Board, created in 2019 by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has 22 members from around the world. They include law professors, former government officials, journalists and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. 

The board is evaluating three instances in which people on Facebook used the phrase “from the river to the sea.” In all three cases, Facebook left up the phrase after users reported it. The users who opposed the phrase then filed appeals. 

The Oversight Board asked for public comment on an array of different questions including the origin of the phrase, how people use it, any trends in usage online, any harm caused by the phrase and how universities and other institutions have responded to the use of the phrase. 

The board says it aims to issue a decision within 90 days of announcing a new case, in accordance with its bylaws. The board’s decisions about individual posts are generally binding on Facebook and Instagram. The board also sometimes recommends policy changes, which Meta can accept or reject

Meta said it welcomed the board’s review.  

“While all of our policies are developed with safety in mind, we know they come with global challenges and we regularly seek input from experts outside Meta, including the Oversight Board,” the company said in a statement. 

“As we’ve said previously, we continually assess our policy guidance to better understand potential impacts on different communities. This work is ongoing, and we look forward to the board’s decision and recommendations,” it said. 

The phrase refers to the contested region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The area includes Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

Pro-Palestinian slogans and chants often include the phrase online and at protests across the country, and it has long been a point of controversy. Some interpret it as a general appeal to Palestinian nationalism, while others, including Hamas, have used it to call for a Palestinian state over the entire area, meaning Israel would not exist as an independent state. 

A spokesperson for the Oversight Board said the board was not immediately able to share a breakdown of how many comments supported the phrase or opposed it. 

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish anti-hate organization, submitted a comment calling the phrase antisemitic hate speech because it implies “the dismantling of the Jewish state.” 

“Usage of this phrase has the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracized,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in the letter, according to a copy provided by the ADL. 

“There are many ways to advocate for Palestinian justice and rights, including a Palestinian State, without resorting to using this hateful phrase, which denies the right of the State of Israel to exist,” he wrote. 

Greenblatt cited a poll commissioned by a University of California, Berkeley, professor, finding that many college students who embrace the phrase didn’t know which river or sea the phrase refers to. 

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, submitted a comment in defense of the phrase, which it said is a call for advancing Palestinian human rights. 

“Most Palestinian, Jewish, and other activists who use the phrase have explained that they are calling for Palestinians and Israelis to live together in a single state with equal rights for all,” wrote Robert McCaw, CAIR’s director of government affairs, according to a copy provided by CAIR. 

“No reasonable person would call this antisemitic, even if they disagree with that proposed solution,” he wrote. 

McCaw added that the Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had used similar wording in its original 1977 party platform, saying: “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” 

Some Jewish students have also been vocal about their belief that the phrase isn’t antisemitic. In February, a student argued in an opinion piece for Dartmouth’s student paper that “as a Jewish American grandson of a Holocaust survivor, I fully reject the undertones of racism and Islamophobia within the idea that the phrase ‘river to sea’ is antisemitic.”

Meta’s apps have been at the center of several controversies related to the war in Gaza. Some human rights advocates have accused the company of censoring pro-Palestinian voices, while Instagram in particular has been a go-to platform for many Palestinian journalists and photographers. Others have claimed that Meta has censored pro-Israel content.

David Ingram

David Ingram covers tech for NBC News.

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