The recent decision by Facebook to appoint Yemeni national, Tawakkol Karman, to its new Oversight Board was met with a backlash from social media users in the Middle East.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Karman, who is known as the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was also a senior leader of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah party.
The newly established Facebook Oversight Board is an external entity with the sole purpose of dealing with complaints about content management. The board will have the final say over the enforcement of hate speech regulations, and would be able to overturn decisions by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on whether individual pieces of content should be allowed on Facebook and Instagram.
One should assume that appointees for such an essential role should at least not be polarising characters. But that’s not the case with Karman.
Although she was considered an icon of the Yemeni revolution against Abdallah Saleh, since then the perception of her has changed. She is, instead, now associated with intolerance, discrimination and a lack of neutrality.
But what is the true face of Tawakkol Karman? To understand her hardcore Islamist ties, one can not ignore that her former party, Al-Islah, did not only have ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, but the US government also identified it as supportive of Al-Qaeda. The party’s founder, Majid Al-Zindani, is a designated Osama bin Laden loyalist and terrorist by the US authorities.
The party’s leader, Mohammed Al-Yadomi, stated in January 2018 that his party “has no organisational or political ties with the Muslim Brotherhood”, and Karman’s party membership was “frozen” for vitriolic remarks aimed at the Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2018. Yet, that does not make the choice less controversial.
According to Brent Harris, Facebook’s director of public policy, “The board’s decisions will be implemented unless doing so violates the law.”
Over the next few months, the body expects to grow to around 40 members in total.
Facebook announced that the Oversight Board is “an external body that members of the community can appeal to on some of the most significant and challenging content decisions we face”.
With such appointment, how can Facebook claim impartiality? Who can guarantee that Karman will not have a direct editorial influence on what Facebook allows to be published.
Giving such authority to as divisive figure as Karman contradicts what Facebook is claiming to be doing. Obviously one should not expect neutrality from some one with a clear extreme political bias.
Karman’s views are no secret, as her Twitter and Facebook accounts attest to her desire to see specific Arab governments destabilised and toppled.
Seeking diversity should not mean harbouring extremist agendas, as, with this appointment, Facebook is siding with someone who called on Bahraini, Algerian and Tunisian citizens to revolt against their governments, and accused the Egyptian army of being full of terrorists.
She even had the impudence to claim that the outrage of the Arab social media against her appointment was a “smear campaign and widespread bullying”.
As if it is unnatural for social media users from several countries in the region, and elsewhere including Egypt, Russia, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, to denounce her appointment, especially that these countries have branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
Accordingly, social media users and activist launched the hashtag “#RefuseTawakulKarman”, demanding the withdrawal of her appointment, as she is known for her lack of neutrality as well as her extremist views. Also several petitions were launched demanding her removal.
Facebook said, “We know that social media can spread speech that is hateful, harmful and deceitful. In recent years, the question of what content should stay up or come down on platforms like Facebook, and who should decide this, has become increasingly urgent.”
It is not a matter of whether some speech is “hateful, harmful and deceitful”. The question is who gets to define it. Personally, I am extremely uncomfortable with a supporter of the radical, violent Muslim Brotherhood passing judgment on anything I would write.
With this choice, Facebook risks becoming the platform of choice for extremist Islamist ideology. I still hope that Facebook backtracks on this decision and cut their ties with Karman, replacing her with a non-divisive figure.
Mohamed Samir is an economic and political journalist and analyst specialising in the Middle East. He is currently the Deputy Executive Editor of the Daily News Egypt.