Facebook's Oversight Board to consider whether 'from the river to the sea' is hate speech

The independent Oversight Board that hears appeals about content decisions on Facebook and Instagram said Tuesday it would consider whether the pro-Palestinian phrase “from the river to the sea” violates the platforms’ rules, including their ban on hate speech.

The Oversight Board, which operates similarly to a court, said in a statement that it had agreed to hear three cases concerning the phrase as used in comments or posts on Facebook. The three cases all date to November, following Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct. 7 and the start of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

In each of the three cases, other Facebook users reported the phrase, saying it violated platform rules about hate speech, incitement or violent organizations. In one case, 937 users reported the phrase 951 times. In a second case, four users reported it seven times, and in a third case, one user reported it, the board said.

And in each of the three cases, Facebook did not take down the phrase. Automated systems handled the complaints initially, and when the complaints reached human moderators, they ruled that the phrase did not violate platform rules, according to the board. The users opposed to the phrase then appealed to the Oversight Board.

“The Board selected these cases to consider how Meta should moderate the use of the phrase given the resurgence in its use after October 7, 2023, and controversies around the phrase’s meaning,” the board said in a statement on its website. Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

The Oversight Board said it would accept public comment on the question for the next two weeks before it deliberates and issues a decision that would most likely be binding on Facebook and Instagram.

The phrase is often included as part of pro-Palestinian slogans and chants, including at protests across the country, and it has long been a point of controversy. It generally refers to the geographic area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — the region central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and its deeper meaning is sharply debated.

Some interpret the phrase 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.

The Oversight Board summed up the competing views this way: “On the one hand, the phrase has been used to advocate for the dignity and human rights of Palestinians. On the other hand, it could have antisemitic implications, as claimed by the users who submitted the cases to the Board.”

Among the people who have used the phrase is Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the sole Palestinian American in Congress. In November, the House voted 234-188 to censure her, saying she had called for the destruction of the state of Israel. She said that the censure resolution distorted her views and that the phrase “is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”

One of the Facebook posts the Oversight Board is reviewing received about 8 million views, the board said. It included “what appears to be a generated image of fruit floating on the sea that form the words from the phrase, along with ‘Palestine will be free,’” according to the board.

Human moderators reviewed the user reports and denied them, and Meta’s management has stood by those decisions, the board said.

“After that review, Meta determined that, without additional context, it cannot conclude that ‘From the river to the sea’ constitutes a call to violence or a call for exclusion of any particular group, nor that it is linked exclusively to support for Hamas,” the board wrote, summing up the position of Meta’s management.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg began talking about setting up the appeals board in 2018, saying social media companies needed an outside check on their decision-making about content moderation.

In one of its most significant decisions, the Oversight Board in 2021 upheld the suspension of former President Donald Trump from Meta’s platforms but ruled that it was inappropriate to make the ban indefinite. Meta last year reinstated Trump’s accounts.

The board has 22 members, including a former prime minister of Denmark, free speech advocates and law professors from around the world, according to its website.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com