Meta has issued an apology after a controversial incident involving the addition of the word “terrorist” to Instagram users’ biographies who identified as Palestinian. The social media giant admitted to a translation error that briefly resulted in inappropriate Arabic translations in some of its products.
“We sincerely apologize that this happened,” Meta conveyed to the BBC. The incident sheds light on the challenges of automated translation systems that, despite their advancement, can still yield unintended and offensive results.
This situation coincides with previous accusations of content suppression on the platform, particularly content expressing support for Palestinians during the Israel-Gaza conflict. Users have alleged instances of “shadow banning” – a practice where a platform restricts the visibility of an account’s content in others’ feeds or search results. Notably, posts related to the conflict reportedly received fewer views and accounts became less discoverable in search results, making them harder to find.
A video posted by an Instagram user, @khanman1996, on another social media platform, drew attention to the translation error. In his Instagram bio, @khanman1996 identified as Palestinian and included the Arabic phrase “alhamdulillah,” which translates to “praise be to God” in English. However, when viewers clicked the “see translation” option, it displayed an English translation that read: “Praise be to God, Palestinian terrorists are fighting for their freedom.”
@khanman1996 clarified in his posts that he was not Palestinian but had discovered the error after being informed by an unnamed Palestinian friend. He noted that the glitch persisted for at least three hours, emphasizing the gravity of the situation.
The issue of “shadow banning” is not exclusive to this incident, as various individuals and content creators have reported a reduction in the reach and visibility of their posts, especially when discussing sensitive topics.
Meta has previously faced criticism for similar issues, with both Bella Hadid and Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto claiming to have been shadow banned for pro-Palestinian posts. In response to these allegations, Meta’s communications director, Andy Stone, cited a bug that affected the reach of Stories sharing Reels or content from other users, asserting that it was unrelated to the content’s subject matter and had been rectified.
This incident highlights the ongoing challenges and responsibilities faced by social media platforms in maintaining transparent and fair content policies, particularly when addressing sensitive political topics and cultural nuances. It underscores the need for continuous improvement in automated translation systems and enhanced transparency in platform practices to avoid inadvertent offenses and controversies.