Meta has been told to overhaul how it deals with removal requests from state entities such as the police, after the company’s oversight board ruled it was wrong to ban a music video that UK law enforcement argued would “contribute a risk to offline harm”.
The parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp created its oversight board last year comprising 20 journalists, academics and politicians, tasked with issuing independent judgments on the most high-profile content moderation cases.
The body, the brainchild of Meta policy chief and former UK deputy prime minister Sir Nick Clegg, has been seen as an attempt to distance the company’s top executives from difficult decisions around free speech.
On Tuesday, the oversight board ruled on a case related to the drill song, Secrets Not Safe by Chinx, which contains references to a previous gang shooting and was removed from Instagram in January, after two takedown requests from UK law enforcement.
Meta’s actions did not align with its policies, values or human rights responsibilities, the decision from the oversight board said on Tuesday.
If the social media giant accepts the board’s recommendations it would transform how the tech giant, led by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, interacts with police and governments around the world, in particular by increasing transparency in why certain moderation decisions are made.
The change will bring new scrutiny over how law enforcement groups can submit takedown requests for legal content, with forces from the US to Israel having bespoke referral units for social media platforms.
The UK’s online safety bill, due to become law next year, could compel platforms to remove content that is “legal but harmful”. That measure would be a new global precedent on the regulation of online content, with privacy advocates arguing it would limit freedom of expression.
Meta restored the music video after a successful appeal from the account holder. But the company swiftly removed the video again after a receiving a second law enforcement request which Meta fulfilled because the video included a “veiled threat” of violence.
Drill music often features aggressive lyrics and covers issues including gang violence and crime but connections between the genre and violence are highly disputed.
Meta did not have enough evidence to show the content was a credible threat and should have given more weight to the artistic nature of the video, the oversight board decision said on Tuesday.
According to a freedom of information request conducted by the oversight board, the UK’s Metropolitan Police requested social media companies review 286 pieces of content that involved drill music between June 2021 and May 2022, of which 89 per cent were removed.
The police force did not ask social media companies to review content related to any other music genre during this period.
“[Drill is] a medium for disenfranchised youth, particularly black and brown, to express their discontent with the system that perpetuates discrimination and exclusion,” said Shmyla Khan, director of Pakistan-based advocacy group Digital Rights Foundation.
“Creating music with ‘violent lyrics’ and imagery is not against the law in the UK . . . Meta should practise radical transparency for every request it receives,” Khan added.
The oversight board recommended that Meta provide clarity around its decision-making process on takedown requests from state actors as the current structure could “amplify bias”.
It also recommended that users should be able to appeal against such decisions to the board and create a standardised system for receiving content removal requests from state actors. This should include asking how a policy has been violated, and the evidence for this.
Meta should also amend its guidelines on violence and incitement to include exceptions for humour, satire and artistic expression, the board said.
The company now has 60 days to respond to the recommendations. Meta and the Metropolitan Police declined to comment.
Stephanie Hare, campaigner and author of Technology is Not Neutral: A Short Guide to Technology Ethics, said that moral panic over music genres was nothing new but the digital nature of music now created a liability for tech companies.
“What is different now is that we are doing this online, so your cultural choices can be tracked and held against you,” she said. “It is easier for companies to err on the side of censorship than on the side of freedom.”