The Jewish Chronicle

I’M POLICING FACEBOOK

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

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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

I have a message on my phone that says I am not working for Facebook, or at Facebook

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.

Israel has become like a banana republic, with no budget for two years

“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.”

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Emi Palmor
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PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

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