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‘Death to Khamenei’ Posts Don’t Violate Policies, Meta Oversight Board Declares

Meta's Supreme Court said the phrase should be viewed as political expression and said removing it could silence speech aimed at protecting women's rights.

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A demonstrator holds a scarf like a noose around her neck during a One Law for All dance protest at Piccadilly Circus on December 17, 2022 in London, England
A demonstrator holds a scarf like a noose around her neck during a One Law for All dance protest at Piccadilly Circus on December 17, 2022 in London, England
Image: Hollie Adams (Getty Images)

Meta’s “Supreme Court” says posts calling for the death of Iran’s Supreme Leader do not violate the company’s policies against violent threats and should remain online. The “death to Khamenei” posts, the independent Oversight Board argues, should be viewed as a form of political expression rather than a direct call for violence. Meta’s decision to abide by the Oversight Board’s ruling could have far-reaching implications for politically contentious speech in other regions that are currently adrift in a policy morass.

The debate involves a July 2022 Facebook post of a cartoon version of Khamenei where his animated beard grasps hold of a chained and blindfolded woman wearing a hijab with the words “marg bar... Khamenei” appearing underneath. Though the flagged phrase literally translates to “death to Khamenei,” the Oversight Board says that narrow reading misses important context. Often, the group writes, protesters and political dissenters will evoke the slogan to mean, “down with Khamenei.” The Oversight Board, which operates independently of Meta but relies on the company to sign its checks, ultimately overturned Meta’s decision and called on the company to improve its respect for freedom of expression amid political protests.

“The Board is concerned that Meta has not taken action to allow use of ‘marg bar Khamenei’ at scale during the current protests in Iran, despite its assessment in this case that the slogan did not pose a risk of harm,’ The Oversight Board wrote in its ruling.

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Khamenei, who assumed power in 1979, has led a brutal crackdown against Iranian protesters following the September death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman detained by the country’s morality police for not wearing a hijab while visiting Tehran. As enraged Iranians flooded the streets, government officials moved to block major internet services like WhatsApp and Instagram, limiting the outside world’s peek behind the curtain.

In that context, the Oversight Board says Meta should have done more to prepare moderators for politically sensitive speech and should have “anticipated” issues likely to occur around removal requests for content including the “marg bar Khamenei” phrase. Meta’s unpreparedness here, the Oversight Board argues, may have, “led to the silencing of political speech aimed at protecting women’s rights,” since the removed phrases were widely used during the ensuing protests. Meta did eventually bring the post back online with a “newsworthiness” label attached to it, but the Oversight Board says that label was unnecessary since the posts didn’t violate Meta’s rules regarding violence and incitement in the first place.

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“In the Board’s view, in contexts of widespread protests, Meta should be less reluctant to scale allowances,” The Oversight Board wrote. “This would help to protect voice where there are minimal risks to safety. This is particularly important where systematic violations of human rights have been documented, and avenues for exercising the right to freedom of expression are limited, as in Iran.”

At the same time, the ruling’s authors find it unlikely any “universal” approach to other “death to_____”-style posts on the platform can be established. Death threats directed towards high-risk individuals like writer Salman Rushdie, for example, likely would violate the company’s policies. So too would posts calling for death during the January 6 attack on the U.S. capitol. It’s unclear, however, how Meta would respond to other phrases like “Death to America,” which gained prominence in recent decades, in some cases, as a political response to U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

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In a statement following the board’s decision, Meta said it plans to conduct a review of “identical content with parallel context.”

“We welcome the Oversight Board’s decision today on this case,” Meta wrote. “The board overturned Meta’s original decision to remove the content from the platform for violating our Violence and Incitement Policy, deeming the newsworthiness allowance unnecessary. Meta previously reinstated this content so no further action will be taken on it.”

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Meta’s decision to use certain politically evocative speech can have real effects on the company’s operations. In Russia, for example, Meta quickly found itself booted out of the country entirely and labeled an extremist organization after it tweaked its hate speech policies to temporarily allow calls for violence against president Vladamir Putin following his invasion of Ukraine. Those rule changes only applied to a handful of countries near Russia, Ukraine among them.

Update 1/9/2022 12:05 P.M.: Added statement a from Meta.