Facebook blocks “Palestinian” ?

Posted: July 25, 2010 by Rex Brynen in Facebook

I thought it might be a good idea to make a Facebook “page” for Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet—a straight-forward thing to do, right? Apparently not, since it seems the very word Palestinian may “violate or page guidelines or contain a word or phrase that is blocked” (click images to enlarge, I’ve added the red circles for clarity).

A mistake, perhaps? Well, Afghan Refugee ResearchNet is OK. So too is DR Congo RefugeeResearchNet. No threats to innocent Facebook users lurking in those terms, it seems.

Perhaps it’s an even-handed attempt to reduce Middle East tensions online? Well, even-handed it’s not, since Israeli Refugee ResearchNet works fine. (The red text at the top indicates that the page would have been created had I checked the tick box at the bottom left–which I didn’t, because I didn’t really want to create the page, just highlight the blocking filter.)

Are Palestinians the only group so blocked from making pages? Well, not really… after a little fiddling around, I discovered that al-Qaida Refugee ResearchNet and Nazi Refugee ResearchNet are filtered too.

It does seem a bit odd, however, that a population of up to 12 million people, receiving more than a billion dollars in international aid each year, recognized by the UN, and enjoying a degree of formal diplomatic recognition from the United States—is placed in the same filtered category as Nazis and al-Qaida.

I’ve sent an email to Facebook customer service—we’ll see what they say.

Update

Well, I’ve had the first reply from Facebook, from what looks like the no-Palestinians-here-please bot:

Unfortunately, we cannot process this request. Your Page name must comply with the following standards:

  • Accurately and concisely represent a musician, public figure, business or other organization
  • Not contain terms or phrases that may be abusive
  • Not be excessively long
  • Not contain variations of “Facebook”

If you believe your Page name fits within these guidelines, please respond to this email and we will re-evaluate your request.

Since PRRN clearly meets requirements #1, 3 and 4, that leaves only #2–”Not contain terms or phrases that may be abusive.” I’ve responded to the email, and suggested that they remove the Palestini-o-filter. Let’s see what happens.

For those of you have mentioned that there are Facebook “groups” containing the word Palestinian–yes, I know that. The filter above is on the “page” creation interface (which is different from a “group”).

Update 2:

A reminder: we’re talking about Pages here, folks. Not Groups, nor Fan pages—they’re entirely different things. I’m closing comments on this until I receive an explanation from Facebook, or follow up with them again.

Update 3:

As Gawker points out, the current filter on the Pages creation interface is bizarrely inconsistent:

We tried too, and came up against the same problem. But here’s the weird part: The words “Palestine” and “Palestinians” both make it through Facebook’s filters with no problem, and “Palestinian” is fine for Facebook group titles. So it’s not that Facebook is deliberately partaking in some worldwide anti-Palestinian conspiracy; rather, it appears that their automation process has decided to block the word “Palestinian”—and only the word “Palestinian”—from page titles—and only page titles.

This isn’t the first time that Facebook’s automated content-blocking has run them afoul of activists in the Israel-Palestine conflict. As Owen Thomas reported in 2009, overzealous users and overworked content monitors have led to “mysterious deletions” of seemingly innocuous content relating to the crisis. And that’s not even mentioning Facebook’s very spotty record with respect to censoring content and “squelching dissent.”

Zuckerberg has said he thinks Facebook is an important tool in developing empathy and trust across cultural divides in the Middle East—but it’ll be hard for the site to do that if it’s arbitrarily—albeit innocuously—preventing words like “Palestinian” from being used.

Update 4:

I’ve received a message from Facebook (via the PRRN blog comments, not in direct response to my earlier email) explaining that the filter was a mistake:

Hi Rex,

I work for Facebook and wanted to explain what happened here.

We have an automated system that checks for obviously inaccurate profile registration names. For a short time, this was inadvertently applied to Page creation names. Once we were alerted to this, we moved to fix the problem immediately. It’s now fixed. We apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused.

If you have additional questions, feel free to contact us at press@facebook.com. Thanks.

Simon Axten

I’m not quite sure why “Palestinian” was singled out but other national terms weren’t, but they seem to have fixed the problem and we’ll leave it at that.

Comments
  1. Thanks for posting about this–I hope you don’t mind if I re-post on my blog, with a link. I’ve been working on a paper for months on Facebook’s filtering of certain content, and at this point, I’m usually no longer surprised…but this is pretty shocking.

  2. [...] was surprised, but a little skeptical, this morning when I read a blog post stating that Facebook is blocking the word “Palestinian” from its Pages.  After all, a [...]

  3. Darlene says:

    I just created a group called Palestinian Stories. http://www.facebook.com/#!/group.php?gid=139541609402496

  4. Aminah says:

    this is just incredible. pages like this are perfectly ok with FB

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/International-Burn-A-Koran-Day/134718123226530

    an actual church in gainesville fl, half hour from my house. I have complained over and over about this page and its still up and running, FILLED with hate speech and abuse to various fb users on the page and to muslims in general, as well as homosexuals.

    but they are not abusive??

  5. Neal R says:

    I tried it myself, creating a Facebook page with a random name that contained the word “Palestinian” – the same result

  6. Kaitlyn says:

    I searched Pages for both Palestinian and Israeli search terms…Palestinian shows up just fine, leading me to think that it’s possible to create Pages with the word in the name.

    Granted, most of the Pages that turned up were promoting Palestinian food or books about Palestine (which were themselves about the refugee experience, in some cases), but most of the Israeli-named Pages weren’t overtly political either. Some of the most charged Israeli Pages were actually for people interested in overturning their school’s ban on Israeli Apartheid Week. Others had to do with how hot Israeli girls are.

    Searching Pages for Nazis gives you a wide variety of Nazi zombies or grammar Nazis to join forces with. It also proves that you can create Pages with Nazi in the title.

    While it sucks that your Page was turned down, and I’m interested in knowing Facebook’s rationale behind the veto, I’m not sure that they have a blanket filter for certain “charged” words. Please keep us updated.

  7. Rex Brynen says:

    Kaitlyn:

    There’s clearly a filter, given the multiple experiments that I (and now, several other people) have tried in the past 24 hours.

    On the other hand, I have no idea when the filter was introduced. If it was introduced recently–as seems to be the case–that would explain why earlier Pages were created with no problem.

    We’ll also see whether an actual live human being from Customer Service ultimately intervenes to override the automatic filter. Even if they do, the very inclusion of “Palestinian” in Facebook’s Pages filter is, I think, rather problematic.

  8. Kaitlyn says:

    Yep, I tried to create a Page for “Palestinian Rock and Roll” and was soundly rejected. Are related words also problematic? Can you create Pages for Palestine, or Pro-Palestine, Anti-Palestine, or some other variation on a theme?

  9. D, says:

    I created a site for “Palestinian Internet Enthusiasts” without any problems:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=141532449207827

  10. Simon Axten says:

    Hi Rex,

    I work for Facebook and wanted to explain what happened here.

    We have an automated system that checks for obviously inaccurate profile registration names. For a short time, this was inadvertently applied to Page creation names. Once we were alerted to this, we moved to fix the problem immediately. It’s now fixed. We apologize for any inconvenience it may have caused.

    If you have additional questions, feel free to contact us at press@facebook.com. Thanks.

    Simon Axten

  11. Hello

    I just tried various formulas of Palesinian, and they all worked.

    Just created one for testing called Palestinian Love! I even created a page called “Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet” and it worked. I listed it under Non Profit.

    I’m not sure why did you get this error.

  12. Yesterday i created both a page and a group called “Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet”, and today I got two emails with this content from Facebook:

    “Hello,

    You created a Page that has violated our Terms of Use. A Facebook Page is a distinct presence used solely for business or promotional purposes. Among other things, Pages that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down Pages that attack an individual or group, or that are set up by an unauthorized individual. If your Page was removed for any of the above reasons, it will not be reinstated. Continued misuse of Facebook’s features could result in the permanent loss of your account.

    If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit the Terms applicable to Facebook Pages at http://www.facebook.com/terms_pages.php.”

    and

    “Hello,

    We have removed or disabled access to the following content that you have posted on Facebook because we received a notice from a third party that the content infringes or otherwise violates their rights:

    [Group: Palestinian Refugee ResearchNet]

    We strongly encourage you to review the content you have posted to Facebook to make sure that you have not posted any other infringing content, as it is our policy to terminate the accounts of repeat infringers when appropriate.

    If you believe that we have made a mistake in removing this content, then please contact us at ip@facebook.com.

    —–

    PRRN adds:

    Yes, Facebook did this because you aren’t the authorized representative of PRRN (I am!).

  13. gren says:

    I love your blog lots of useful information. I’ve added it to my favorite bookmarks and subscribed in a reader. All these issues are important, and that’s why I just started blogging a while ago and it feels great.

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