Instagram reportedly removed posts about a holy Islamic mosque after the company associated #alAqsa with a terrorist organization amid Palestinian-Israeli violence

·4 min read
Al Aqsa
A member of Israeli police runs after a cameraman during clashes with Palestinians at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City, May 10, 2021. Ammar Awad/Reuters
  • Instagram removed posts with the #alAqsa hashtag as violence continues in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

  • The al-Aqsa mosque is the 3rd holiest Islamic site, but Instagram associated the hashtag with terrorism.

  • The ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories had killed 48 people as of Wednesday morning.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Instagram removed posts about al-Aqsa, a holy Islamic mosque, after it mistakenly labeled the location as being associated with a terrorist organization, according to BuzzFeed News.

Instagram flagged mention of al-Aqsa as being associated with organized violence, meaning that even some posts using the #alAqsa hashtag referring to the mosque located in the Old City of Jerusalem were affected by the company's sweeping policy to moderate violent content.

Instagram told some users whose posts with the hashtag were blocked their content was associated with "violence or dangerous organizations," according to the report. One of those posts was an infographic detailing the violence currently unfolding in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

According to an internal company post that Facebook shared with Insider, the company said it took action to restrict the #alAqsa hashtag page and that the company has not removed any posts because they included that hashtag.

The al-Aqsa mosque is one of the holiest sites for Islam and is in close proximity to the holiest site of Judaism. More than 200 Palestinian worshippers were injured at the mosque on Friday after a confrontation with Israeli police clad in riot gear and armed with rubber-coated bullets. Earlier that day, Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinian men.

BuzzFeed viewed internal messages showing employees calling attention to the mistake, including one that said "these mistakes and many others are entirely unacceptable." Another said the posts were taken down because of an unrelated organization named al-Aqsa that has been sanctioned by the US government.

The company also removed "al-Aqsa" from its destination list as a way to avoid unintentionally blocking posts providing commentary on the violence in the region, per Facebook's internal post viewed by Insider. Users may still tag and view related location names, such as Masjid Al Aqsa.

Earlier this week, Facebook and Instagram users also said that their posts about the conflict had been removed. The company blamed a glitch in moderation algorithms for the removals, Reuters reported.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. Last week, Facebook Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen wrote in an internal post that the company was working to triage and unblock "any issues as they come up," per Buzzfeed.

A Palestinian militant coalition, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, has been labeled a terrorist organization by the US and the EU, the outlet notes. But one of the employees said that doesn't excuse Instagram's censoring of the hashtag online, according to BuzzFeed.

Another Facebook employee expressed their frustration on an internal platform and pointed out that given the company's combined use of both human and automated systems in its content moderation process, it should consult with experts knowledgeable about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as the outlet reported.

The latest rash of violence in the region is linked to both historic and current factors, including plans to evict six Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and the general treatment of Palestinians, including the economically devastating blockade on Gaza, remains at the center of the tensions. Top human rights groups have increasingly condemned Israel's treatment of Palestine as a form of apartheid.

Instagram isn't the only tech company that has said it made a mistake when moderating content related to the unrest. A Palestinian-American journalist named Mariam Barghouti who had been on the ground covering the violence said Twitter asked her to delete certain tweets regarding her coverage. The company also temporarily restricted her account over what it said were violations of its policies.

Twitter later told Motherboard in a statement that Barghouti's account restriction was an accident and "has since been reversed."

John Haltiwanger contributed to this report.

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