Life & Culture

Policing Facebook

A new body has been set up to oversee the social media platform. Jennifer Lipman met one of its members


Young woman using smart phone,Social media concept.

Emi Palmor is no stranger to negotiation. A diplomat’s daughter, in her storied legal career she helped broker Gilad Shalit’s release and convinced Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu to take steps to address institutional racism affecting Ethiopian Israelis.

The latter was a key achievement of her six years as director general at Israel’s Ministry of Justice, initially under Tzipi Livni, then under Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked.

Before that she served as director of the Department of Pardons, a role that saw her “enable people from deprived backgrounds to acquire justice”, she says with pride.

She didn’t believe Shalit would return. “We used to say ‘we are part of the negotiation team for his liberation’. In my heart I thought ‘or the non-liberation team’,” she admits. “I thought the negotiation would never satisfy both sides. It was not to be expected.”

The 54-year-old Jerusalemite’s latest challenge is perhaps similarly improbable, and takes on an entity somewhat bigger —and arguably more powerful — than any individual government: Facebook. Palmor is one of 20 members of the Oversight Board, a global watchdog tasked with making “principled, independent decisions that are binding on Facebook about important pieces of content”. She is in esteemed company, serving alongside former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, and ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.

The board, to which users can submit cases of content being removed for adjudication, was created by Facebook but is described as an independent entity. Palmor stresses she wouldn’t be involved if it were simply a smokescreen or way for the much-maligned web giant to appear to be acting on the endless swirl of allegations involving misinformation, hate speech or exploitation. The board recently announced its first case decisions, overturning four of Facebook’s decisions, upholding one and issuing nine policy recommendations to the company .

“This is not our day job,” emphasises Palmor, who lectures at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “We don’t depend on this in order to make a living.” If she feels “someone is interfering with my decision-making”, she will up and leave. To that end, she has no qualms about the board’s making judgements that might hurt Facebook’s business model.

But other than initial training, there’s been no involvement from the company — and no, she hasn’t met Mark Zuckerberg. Israel being Israel, she’s constantly fielding texts wanting her to ask Facebook something. “I have a message on my iPhone ready that says ‘I’m not working in Facebook at Facebook, for Facebook, I don’t have connections.”

Since the board was announced in May, Palmor and her colleagues have been doing a deep dive into the site’s community standards and the complaints it receives. “We had to get deeper understanding of what the platform is doing and how these issues comply with international human rights norms.”

Palmor sees good sides and bad to Facebook. On the one hand, it gives voice to people and builds communities. “Just imagine how Covid would have been if we’d been completely disconnected.” On the other, Facebook’s decisions can impact on elections and it can be a platform for incitement. “It can be so many difficult and dangerous things.”

Already, some 20,000 cases have been submitted; members considered an initial six, with opportunity for public comment. They will focus on those where “decisions could have an impact on millions of users and not just the person who wants his post reinstalled.”

Public service runs in the family; her brother is Yigal Palmor, former Israeli foreign ministry spokesman. Having served in government, she says she was looking for a challenge that would still give her the opportunity “to be an ear to the average citizen, to represent their needs” — in this case against a “superpower” poorly understood by its users.

Palmor is no stranger to dealing with the consequences of technology. A mother of two (her son and daughter are 25 and 28), while at the Justice Ministry she oversaw a programme to educate teenagers about the dangers of sending sexually explicit images, aiming to protect their privacy and avoid criminalising minors for something that had become an offence of sexual harassment. I put it to her that some might say Facebook, and Instagram, which it owns, should have been doing more to protect people from online harms.

“I don’t think either Facebook or Twitter could imagine what they would turn into,” says Palmor. She says Facebook “should have invested more” to protect its users, and, crucially, to educate them before they sign up “that the platform could be a lethal weapon”.

“When you get a driving licence you have to learn the rules of the road. Facebook is something anyone can have, and nobody explains the dangers not only to others but to ourselves.”

Among those dangers is the way online forums can become cesspits of antisemitism and hate speech, something Palmor is well aware of. Growing up in cities around the world due to her father’s job, she studied at non-Jewish schools and has “memories when it was nicer to be an Israeli and other moments when it was not.” Her appointment to the board prompted a torrent of online abuse.

“I found myself under a BDS attack, having to face unbelievable lies and accusations and being almost unable to do anything about that.”

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she knows well where incitement and racism can lead. “Obviously I have personal feelings on those issues. So I agree not everything is to be removed but we understand the difference between a personal experience and a group experience, which has to be dealt with in a certain way.”

These are thorny issues. Surely this is a job for governments, not an unelected board of 20 — no matter how experienced?

Palmor emphasises the board will lean on established international human rights norms; following, rather than creating new rules. Governments might intervene one day, she says, “but these processes take a long time. No matter what governments decide — and of course Facebook will have to respect the law — the oversight board is now and it’s trying to give solutions not next year but today, tomorrow, next month.”

As Palmor well knows from her experience of negotiations, the best shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. “It’s not about a perfect solution, which is really extremely difficult. It’s an honest approach to make a difference.”

Of course, policing the virtual world runs into questions of free speech and censorship; one reason, perhaps, why governments continue to dither. The board’s bylaws require binary decisions — leave up or take down — that could lead the company to alter its moderation processes, but Palmor says it’s already clear some situations might be more complex.

“We are learning what it means to analyse a text, an image, its meaning, its meaning in languages that are not our mother tongue,” she says. But the focus will be on “the practical implications of our decisions… not just theoretical high norms that are very difficult to apply.”

One of the first cases related to misinformation around Covid-19 in France, something Facebook has been accused of enabling. Palmor stresses that fake news is an issue online, but also offline. She highlights lockdown-sceptics being given airtime on news programmes. “There is so much information on the one hand and so much uncertainty within even the best of governments. It’s difficult to draw the line between the importance of a real debate questioning the policies, and dangerous misinformation,” she says.

“I don’t envy the platforms that are trying to eliminate or diminish the potential damages. There isn’t a clear answer.”

Having worked in Israel’s government, Palmor is not exactly bursting with praise for its leadership over its handling of the pandemic, although she is proud of the speed of Israel’s vaccine rollout.

Mostly, with elections on the horizon again, she is “concerned and pessimistic” about her country’s political reality. “Our system has become like a banana republic — we haven’t had a budget for more than two years.”

She worries particularly that the instability is undermining the work she did at the Justice Ministry, and suggests Israel’s legal system is “under attack” because of Netanyahu’s decision not to step down after being indicted. “It is doing huge damage to our society. It endangers us as a democracy.”

Palmor says this with a resigned air; I get the feeling she is relieved to be out of Israeli politics and sinking her teeth into Facebook instead. Certainly, she clearly relishes the challenge ahead. “If you ask me I think the board should have been established five years or maybe ten. I definitely feel we came a little late, but we are trying to move as fast we can.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive