By Nadia Hussein
Modern social media platforms are plagued by a vast array of issues, from fake news and echo chamber discussions to cyber bullying and improperly moderated content. Despite these very real concerns, social media has never been more influential with companies like Facebook and Twitter now acting as the go-to platforms for COVID-19 public health bulletins and news reports. Alarmingly, Facebook, the grandfather of social media, has now established a new oversight committee to update and directly administer the platform’s content. Yet the composition of this board, notably the presence of religious extremists, is what causes the most concern.
In its earlier iterations, Facebook was a largely unrestricted platform, one that allowed and encouraged users to publish content they enjoyed. In this way, it functioned as a platform rather than a publication. However, Facebook’s new oversight committee changes this entirely as it creates a reality where content is accepted or denied in accordance with the views of the committee members.
While Facebook’s aggressive approach to policing content is certainly cause for concern, the more immediate problem lies in the brazen political bias that has already crept into the company’s apparently impartial oversight committee.
According to the political risk firm Cornerstone Global, the ideological composition of Facebook’s 20-member oversight committee is clearly skewed. It hosts 9 left-wing members, 2 Islamist members, and one conservative – the rest are unknown. By far the most concerning aspect of this analysis is Facebook’s readiness to appoint at least two publicly identified Islamists to their fledgling oversight committee.
To deter the looming accusations of race-baiting or Islamophobia, it’s important to note that criticism of Islamism—the formal Islamic political movement to attain political power, regularize sharia principles, and enforce Islamic social doctrines—is not analogous to anti-Muslim bigotry, nor is it a criticism of the adherents of Islam or an assault on the freedom of religious expression. The criticism, as it stands, is that an Islamist member of a major multinational oversight committee cannot be relied upon to consistently react impartially when confronted with issues of politics and religion.
To illustrate the potential risks of elevating Islamists to content oversight positions in Facebook’s corporate structure, consider the appointment of Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and influential political activist in Egypt and Yemen.
As a member of the oversight committee for the largest social media platform on the planet, Ms. Karman is expected to make decisions in an objective and impartial fashion, an increasingly important responsibility given Facebook’s tremendous sway over everything from cultural trends to electoral victories.
On the surface, Ms. Karman’s background as an advocate for press freedoms seemingly makes her an excellent choice for this role. However, a deeper dig into her past puts this judgement in doubt. Specifically, Ms. Karman’s past ties to the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—an organization that is directly responsible for inciting sectarian violence and offering theological justification for suicide bombers—makes her a particularly poor choice for membership on Facebook’s oversight committee.
Further examination uncovers other troubling connections in Ms. Karmen’s past. During her association with the Muslim Brotherhood,
Ms. Karman also developed ties with Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent thought leader in Islamic jurisprudence and a high-profile figure in the world of political Islam. With connections to at least two terrorist financiers, Al-Qaradawi is currently banned from entering the UK, the US, and France.
In truth, it’s still not clear if the composition of Facebook’s oversight committee was the result of shrewd identarian politics or a naïve understanding of political Islam. Regardless, the sad reality is that Facebook’s support for Islamists, threatens to derail much of the groundbreaking anti-extremist work that social media companies have made in recent years.
Playing Politics Exposes Facebook to New Vulnerabilities
By stacking its oversight committee with a cabal of vocal political activists, Facebook is signaling to the world that it has taken an active position in global politics. Far from strengthening Facebook’s hand, this announcement may even harm the legacy social media platform, shattering its commercial façade of impartiality and drawing unwanted attention from activists who are more than willing to exploit the biases of committee members to push Facebook’s content in a particular political direction.
This concern has already been voiced by international media experts like Paul Tweed. In a recent online discussion, hosted by Cornerstone Global, Mr. Tweed expressed these fears:
“What I’m really concerned about at the moment…Facebook and Twitter have left themselves open to a situation where they can be accused of giving in to who shouts the loudest or whoever can exert the most influence or pressure in order to encourage the suspension or closure of an account.”
When you consider that extremist elements like Tawakkol Karman who are already inside Facebook’s oversight committee, it’s not outrageous to suggest that, given enough outside activist pressure, Facebook may become an even more powerful political influence medium for extremist organizations. Although the full picture is still far from complete, the coordinated manipulation of social media platforms during the 2016 U.S. presidential election can provide some clue to the tremendous amount of latent political influence that is already at Facebook’s disposal.
By allowing Islamists like Tawakkol Karman to take on active roles in its own oversight committee, Facebook is willfully relinquishing a significant share of its political, social, and cultural cachet. Ultimately, if Facebook proves unwilling or unable to decouple its oversight committee from vicious partisanship and ideology-driven politicking, it risks becoming a useful idiot for an organized movement of career politicians and religious radicals.
Nadia Hussain is political analyst and researcher based in Norway
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.