Why Facebook must remove Tawakkol Karman from its oversight board

Karman may abuse her power, undermining Facebook’s stated mission by persuading fellow members of the board to keep extremist content and hate speech online, allowing radical voices to prevail.

Last month, Facebook appointed a new 20-member oversight board designed to moderate content and prevent hate speech and extremism from spreading on the platform. The company has faced major criticism in recent years for allowing users to exploit the network to propagate fake news and other damaging content. 

From its handling of radicalization efforts by Islamic terrorists to the role of hate speech on the platform played in the 2017 genocide against the Rohingya, the company’s leadership has come under fire. The new committee aims to help the company get the site under control by deciding what content violates Facebook and Instagram guidelines.

But Facebook’s efforts to improve have already missed the mark, as one of the company’s new arbiters of truth is a known ally of extremism. Yemeni journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman, co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, is a publicly acknowledged member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Her appointment has been met with questions and criticism throughout the Muslim world over her ties to other religious extremists, with journalists saying Facebook’s choice of Karman is "both surprising and shocking for many in the Middle East and elsewhere.”

Karman’s background is questionable for a liberal-leaning company like Facebook, as her track record and links to extremist networks suggest she will do little to prevent the spread of radicalism and hate speech on the platform.

Karman is a former politician with Yemen’s Islah Party, an Islamist faction backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. She has called the Islamic extremist group “one of the victims of official tyranny and terrorism in the region.” When she won the Nobel Prize for her role in the 2011 protests in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood congratulated her, proudly acknowledging her ties to the organization. 

Soon after, she visited Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the religious leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who lives in exile in Qatar. Al-Qaradawi is banned from entering France, the UK, and the US and sentenced to life in prison in Egypt for his role in violence committed by the Brotherhood. The cleric praised Karman for her work and achievements. 

]As Karman has moved onto the global stage some - Mark Zuckerburg included -have remained ignorant of her ties to religious extremism.

“She has not denounced the extremist ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of risk consultant Cornerstone Global Associates, told reporters in a recent interview. “On the contrary, there is everything to believe that she continues to espouse the hate speech that has been a mark of the Brotherhood in general.”

As communities across the world increasingly rely on Facebook for news and information, especially in areas where journalism is risky or censored, Karman’s appointment is potentially dangerous.

Facebook has handed its oversight board significant discretion and power, giving them a license to judge what is and is not threatening and extremist. The company says the board will also be able to make recommendations to shape Facebook’s policies going forward. The rules that govern what content is allowed on Facebook effectively shape which ideologies and networks are allowed to spread. With Karman’s appointment, there is little doubt that her position will allow her to secure more lenient treatment for content published by Islamic extremists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

As Nuseibeh told reporters recently, Facebook “risks becoming the platform of choice for extremist Islamist ideology.” 

Karman may abuse her power, undermining Facebook’s stated mission by persuading fellow members of the board to keep extremist content and hate speech online, allowing radical voices to prevail. The social network is already struggling with Islamic extremist factions that take advantage of the site’s power, especially in areas where users are more susceptible to radicalization.

Facebook says it is working to stem the tide of hate speech and extremism on the platform, but the company’s lack of foresight in selecting its arbitration board may undermine this effort. The choice of Karman may mean that hate speech and extremism continue to have a foothold on the platform.

The appointment of Karman has drawn broad public criticism, including from a sitting UK member of Parliament. On a recent online discussion panel, MP Ian Paisley questioned Facebook’s decision making.

“The decision by Facebook, I believe, is so counter-intuitive it was unbelievable. Here we have an organization that’s set up to have this roundtable, to have this transparency process put in place, and they then appoint someone who frankly is not and cannot be regarded as fit to be in the position they have been appointed to,” he said.

The fact that Facebook has appointed a Muslim Brotherhood supporter to such a powerful position gives extremists carte blanche to propagate terrorist agendas and hate speech. The decision runs directly counter to Facebook’s stated aim of removing such content by establishing this committee, instead encouraging extremists to increase their activities and operations on the platform—and off.

Jospeh Labba is a Middle East political analyst and freelance journalist and my work has appeared in The Post Millennial, The Hill Times and Stepfeed among others