Facebook criticized for deleting posts supporting Iranian general killed by U.S.

January 14, 2020, 9:23 PM UTC

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he’s in favor of free speech. But after the Trump administration imposed new sanctions against Iran last Friday, his company has been removing posts on Instagram that support Iranian Major Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. missile strike on January 3.

Facebook’s policing of pro-Soleimani posts has led critics to question Facebook’s interpretation of U.S. sanctions law. The law bars U.S. companies from providing “material support” to organizations on the sanctions list, which can mean tasks such as providing communications equipment, moving money or providing lodging.

The guidelines outlined on the State Department website do not specifically mention banning speech.

In April, after the U.S. labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, Instagram shuttered Soleimani’s personal account. Experts say that closing the account fulfilled Instagram’s legal obligations and that deleting posts that support him isn’t required.

“U.S. sanctions laws do not, in my judgment, require Facebook to take down posts supportive of Soleimani,” says Rodney Smolla, a free speech scholar and dean at Widener University’s Delaware Law School in Wilmington, Delaware. “If Facebook’s interpretation of the sanctions laws were correct, the laws would be in grave tension with First Amendment free speech principles.”

A Facebook spokesperson defended the company’s handling of the pro-Soleimani posts. “We review content against our policies and our obligations to U.S. sanctions laws, and specifically those related to the U.S. government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership as a terrorist organization,” she says.

Internally, Facebook and Instagram define support “as content that encourages the actions of sanctioned parties and individuals and/or seeks to help further the actions of sanctioned parties and individuals.”

Last week, trade group International Federation of Journalists sent a letter to Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri after several Iranian journalists said Instagram had silenced their reporting in the days after Soleimani was killed by removing posts with information about him. They called Instagram’s actions “unprecedented in the history of social networks” and “against global standard principles including freedom of speech and media,” according to a news release.

Facebook’s policy is in contrast with rival Twitter, which said that it welcomed free expression, as long as users don’t violate Twitter’s content rules. A Google representative declined to comment.

Other technology companies have vacillated in how they interpret their legal requirements. Over the weekend, GoFundMe removed and then reinstated two fundraisers for the Canadian victims of the Ukrainian plane that Iran shot down shortly after takeoff on January 7. 

Also, Apple removed some apps tied to Iran in 2017. The following year, Slack deactivated some accounts with links to Iran.

Smolla says that social networks are free to remove posts that violate their internal rules. However, he argued that Facebook shouldn’t use sanctions as its justification.

“Facebook’s actions do not serve the American or international interests in encouraging dialogue and discourse,” Smolla says. “Our First Amendment is grounded in the faith that rational discussion, over the long haul, will tend to dissipate violence, not encourage it. Facebook’s actions are likely to cause more harm than good.”

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