Meta moderating ‘Zionist’ as a slur probably won’t change anything – The Forward – Journal Important Online

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, released a policy update Tuesday narrowing the acceptable use of the term “Zionist” on its platform. The new policy classifies some, but not all, use of the term as an antisemitic slur.

Zionist is, however, not inherently a bad word. Plenty of Jews and Israelis self-identify, proudly, as Zionists, taking it to mean a person who believes that Jews have the right to self-determination or a person who supports the state of Israel.

But, as has long been clear, bad actors have also grasped onto the phrase to provide plausible deniability for even the most boldly antisemitic statements. After all, one can freely critique, or even hate, a political movement — as Meta’s statement said, supporting a political ideology is “not itself a protected characteristic” — but expressing violence or hatred toward a national, ethnic or religious group is forbidden.

Meta’s new policy seeks to provide clarity to its moderators so they can differentiate between acceptable political usage of “Zionist” and forbidden antisemitic use. The statement said that the term will be considered hate speech when used “with dehumanizing comparisons, calls for harm, or denials of existence.”

This has, to some extent, always been the case. Meta says that it had already considered “Zionist” a slur when context made it clear that it was a stand in for “Jew,” and when it was, very specifically, associated with rats. The new guidelines expand the animal comparisons to also forbid comparisons with “pigs, filth, or vermin.” In addition, using “Zionist” in the context of antisemitic tropes about controlling the media or government will be considered hate speech.

Overall, it’s a decent policy; it acknowledges gray areas around, say, accusations of criminal behavior, and strives to differentiate between talking about potential war crimes committed by the Israeli government, which would be valid political speech, or using it more broadly.

But the question is: Why wasn’t this always the standard?

It’s not new to use Zionist as a slur for Jews; antisemitic use of “Zionist” as a synonym for “Jew” has been around basically as long as the political movement of Zionism has. Surely, calling Zionists “pigs” has always, obviously, been antisemitic. The same is true of saying that Zionists are pulling the strings of the global media or government — it is obvious that “Zionists” is a stand in for “Jews” in a well-known, and old, antisemitic conspiracy.

Meta’s Oversight Board, which reviews its policy and moderation decisions, has released numerous decisions over the past several months, attempting to better define policy around hate speech since Oct. 7. It recently opened a call for input on whether “from the river to the sea” should be considered hate speech. 

It also released an opinion expressing concern that Meta’s moderation of the term “shaheed,” or “martyr,” in Arabic,” was “overbroad” and restricts freedom of expression. (Meta said that “it is likely that “shaheed” accounts for more content removals under the Community Standards than any other single word or phrase on its platforms.”) The Oversight Board said that the term can be used to endorse terrorism, but is often also used as an honorific for victims of natural disasters and other neutral or positive cases. It advised Meta to revise its policies to include more context, similar to its new rules for “Zionist.”

At the end of the day, however, the Oversight Board’s policy recommendations, and even Meta’s enacted policy decisions are only as good as their application. And as numerous other Oversight Board cases have made clear, moderators are not particularly consistent in applying them. News stories about world events that simply mention terrorist groups are routinely removed under Meta’s policy against “glorification” of terrorist groups. Meanwhile, actual hate speech often goes unaddressed.

Whether Meta’s new policy on the use of “Zionist” will actually reduce online hate speech remains to be seen. But given that it was already obvious that comparing Zionists to pigs constituted antisemitic hate speech, the new policy doesn’t seem like much more than good PR.

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