Social media and religious freedom raised at global summit as ‘double-edged sword’

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The International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit in Washington, D.C., met last week in part to find ways to help promote religious freedom on social media platforms and at the same time stop the spread of hate and disinformation. 

Paolo Carozza, who sits on the Meta Oversight Board and conference speaker, told Fox News Digital he was pleased to see Meta’s partnership and presence at the IRF Summit.

IRF summit speakes

The “Elevating Forgotten Voices in Media” panel session at the International Religious Freedom Summit, featuring Paolo Carozza, who sits on the Meta Oversight Board. (Matt Ryb)

“What the Oversight Board is trying to do is, is essentially hold but accountable to, appropriate standards of freedom of expression in how they operate their content… I think it was really important for them to be there because… freedom of religion is so deeply affected by how social media is moderated and… what is present and what’s not on the platforms,” he said.

Lou Ann Sabatier, Sabatier Consulting principal and co-founder of FoRB Women’s Alliance, says it’s a double-edged sword when it comes to international religious freedom.

“There are a lot of great things happening… Connectivity between closed communities that are trying to live out their faith in some way. Secondly, raising awareness,” pointing to the Rohingya in Burma. “When the genocide started happening in Burma, when the coup happened and [Burma]… people think that’s not just political, that also had religious overtones for the Muslim [population]. And what they were doing is using social media to promote that this was happening and warn each other and protect each other,” Sabatier said.

At the same time, she added, “The harmful practices are everything from primarily on social media, their use for hate speech, or some kind of divisiveness or disinformation campaigns… that often leads to offline behavior… whether it’s mob violence, somebody being arrested, somebody being [surveilled]…human rights online are just as important as they are offline.”

SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES UNPREPARED FOR HAMAS ‘HIJACKING’ THEIR PLATFORMS, TECH EXPERT SAYS

Refugees rally

Rohingya refugees protest outside the U.N.’s refugee agency office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

The Hamas terrorist group-aligned Gaza Now had more than 4.9 million followers on Facebook before it was banned in October 2023. Gaza Now also had more than 800,000 collective followers across other social media sites before many of those accounts were also removed, according to the New York Times. 

Carozza says Meta overcame a crossroads with postings of the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, 2023, relating to the spread of terrorism and awareness of the events.

Man typing on the computer.

Several hackers have taken advantage of the Israel-Hamas conflict. (CyberGuy.com)

“Meta concerns about things like graphic violence or the glorification of terrorism changed their algorithms to be more restrictive. And what we found is…that really resulted in a hugely disproportionate removal of legitimate information about what was going on in the conflict and what had happened to the hostages. so, you know, we ruled in those cases that they had to allow a lot of content back on the platform,” he said.

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Carozza added, “We all recognize that there needs to be restrictive standards with regard to bad content. A lot of times, more often than not, we’ve, sort of sided on in favor of restoring content, taking down or protecting content on it because, freedom of expression in these contexts is so important in order to understand and respond to what’s going on.”

North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Cuba, Qatar and Syria are listed as countries that ban or heavily restrict social media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

A CCTV camera in Iran

CCTV cameras are seen in a street in Tehran, Iran, April 9, 2023. (Majid Asgaripour/West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

“I think we have to pay special attention to the roles that governments and authoritarian regimes are doing … they’re trying to use internet shutdowns or impose certain standards on tech companies that, essentially allow them to use the platforms as instruments of monitoring and, surveillance and persecution of political and religious opposition,” Carozza said.

He added, “We [need to] be very vigilant about the links between governments and platforms. And try to strive for a whole lot of transparency about that so that people are aware so that they can respond, they can criticize so that civil society can organize and healthy democratic governments can respond appropriately.”

CHINA, RUSSIA BEHIND LARGEST CROSS-PLATFORM MISINFORMATION OPERATION, META REPORT FINDS

White House protest

Pro-Palestinian activists let off a red smoke flare and shout slogans during a demonstration at Lafayette Square near the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 13, 2024. (Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sabatier called out the lack of collaboration as a main problem when it comes to the negative impacts and lack of promotion of social media and religious freedom.

“There’s groups devoted to just studying hate speech… There’s some NGOs, but people are writing books. But guess what… they’re not collaborating. How does that information travel out of that bubble of academia or tech companies and get over into religious freedom or into government officials?” Sabatier said.

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The solution, she says, is “we need a task force for people working and that information sharing out, it doesn’t bridge over into communities, [we need to] bridge it into faith leaders on the ground. They’re the most trusted people in any community.”

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