Facebook appoints pro-Islamist Yemeni organizer to oversight board

Arab journalists and social media users are raising concerns about a recent appointee to Facebook’s new Oversight Board with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The board, an outside entity set up by Facebook to squash long standing complaints about their management of content, will have the final say over hate speech enforcement.

Board member Tawakkol Karman is known as the first Arab woman to win a Nobel Peace prize. A journalist by profession, she was called the “mother of the revolution” for her role in the Arab Spring protests in Yemen which ousted then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Karman was also a senior leader of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah party.

The Islah party was identified by the U.S. government as playing a role in supporting Al Qaeda, and its founder Majid Al-Zindani is a specially designated global terrorist. The party reportedly broke with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017, and Karman’s membership in the party was “frozen” for vitriolic remarks aimed at the Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2018. Still, Karman has remained an outspoken supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al Hurra News Columnist Nervana Mahmoud took to twitter to decry the appointment writing:

“Facebook appointed hard-core Islamist Tawakkol Karman as a member of its oversight board that [is an] arbiter [of] what should or should not be published on its platform. In another word, Mark Zuckerberg has enabled regressive Islamism to dominate our social media.”

Hizam El-Qahtani, whose twitter profile identifies him as an anthropologist and writer, warned that Karman would work to orient Facebook’s policies towards hate speech against secular users and added, “That’s the last nail in the coffin of Facebook credibility. Having a terror apologist and religious fanaticism sympathizer in the editorial council is a farce. Control has always been the aim of Islamists.”

Facebook has long been a favorite outlet for Islamist organizing, including by the Muslim Brotherhood. The platform also played a crucial role in the Arab Spring revolutions that brought the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated governments to power in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, although popular opposition and military interventions later reversed many Islamist gains. The Brotherhood responded to loss of power, particularly in Egypt with violent uprisings, planned and coordinated on Facebook.

Eric Trager, author of Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost in Egypt, reported in 2014 that Muslim Brotherhood youth groups in Egypt utilized the social media site to organize violence and to target government officials for assassination.

While Islamists have operated relatively unhindered on the platform, conservatives have long decried Facebook’s censorship of their views. In 2018 Facebook was forced to apologize to conservative content producer Prager U, after the company deliberately blocked viewers from seeing the group’s videos. In 2019, conservative lawmakers led by Senator Ted Cruz confronted Facebook CEO over its bias.

The Facebook oversight board was presumably intended in part to redress these concerns but the appointment of a controversial Islamist to the company’s oversight board, which will have the final say on what content will be permitted is deeply concerning. There is every reason for anti-Islamist and secular Muslims to fear that the appointment will culminate in a pro-Islamist bias. Islamists recognize that the use of social media tech will remain a major element of their ability to foment dissent and propagate their ideology. The appointment of Karman to the oversight board suggests that Facebook remains inclined to indulge them.

About Kyle Shideler

Kyle Shideler is the Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Shideler specializes in Islamist groups operating in the United States, having spent over a decade researching and writing on their history, doctrine, and impact. Read his complete bio here. Follow Shideler on Twitter at @ShidelerK.