By Dr. Mostefa Souag, Acting Director General, Al Jazeera Media Network

Facebook for more than a month now has been quietly examining media organizations to determine whether to affix a label of “state control” to their Facebook pages, an initiative the platform first announced in late October.

Al Jazeera Media Network has been informed that its channels and platforms may be subject to an erroneous label as soon as this month, and we may not be alone. All public broadcasters should be wary of this initiative and unite to raise concern and alarm about Facebook’s plans, which could cause irreparable and irreversible reputational harm to our organisations and our journalists.

Very little has been publicly disclosed about this Facebook effort, which in and of itself is troubling for an initiative that claims transparency as its goal. In late October, the platform issued just 270 words about the forthcoming state control labels – an announcement that was tucked away in a broader blog post detailing initiatives aimed at protecting the integrity of the 2020 U.S. elections.

In early November, Facebook representatives reached out to executives at Al Jazeera’s digital division seeking materials to inform its determination. Over the course of several weeks, Al Jazeera provided Facebook with more than 200 pages of materials demonstrating its editorial independence, including the network’s editorial standards, governing documents and dozens of content examples in which Al Jazeera channels and platforms have critically covered Qatar, the country in which the network is based. Despite the overwhelming evidence of independence, Facebook informed Al Jazeera on November 25 that it will likely proceed with labelling Al Jazeera pages as “state controlled” in early December. To date, Facebook has been unable to furnish documentation that supports such a conclusion.

We are sharing Al Jazeera’s experience because we may not be alone.

We are sharing Al Jazeera’s experience because we may not be alone. What Facebook is planning to do could conceivably ensnare public broadcasters, including the members of the Public Media Alliance. Meanwhile, there are serious questions that must be raised about Facebook’s competence to make these determinations and the integrity of the process it has undertaken.

Facebook’s chief lobbyist, Nick Clegg, was quoted earlier this month as saying, “We don’t want to enter the perilous, and we believe highly inappropriate, role of being a political referee.” Yet that is precisely what Facebook is doing here, to the possible detriment of public broadcasting. Meanwhile, Facebook’s past stumbles – or “fumbling in the dark” as CNN put it – cast serious doubt on the platform’s ability to make editorial judgements. One has to look no further than the recent controversy that resulted from Facebook including Breitbart, a right-wing site that has glorified white nationalists, in a dedicated Facebook tab of trusted news sources.

Moreover, for an initiative that has transparency as its goal, Facebook’s process for making these determinations of state control is entirely opaque. Facebook has not published the “definition and standards” that it claims guides its decision-making process. Facebook has not made public the full list of “more than 40 experts around the world specializing in media, governance, human rights and development” that it claims informed the creation of these standards. It is entirely unclear who at Facebook is making these decisions and what qualifications they have to do so. It is equally unclear how any “appeals process” will be implemented for media organizations that seek to challenge an erroneous determination, and whether such a process can undo harm caused by reckless, ill-considered and factually unsupportable designations.

Moreover, for an initiative that has transparency as its goal, Facebook’s process for making these determinations of state control is entirely opaque.

There is an aspect of this issue that is unique to Al Jazeera. The false narrative of state control is being driven by regional adversaries, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, who have been trying to shut down Al Jazeera as part of their blockade of Qatar. If Facebook were to erroneously label Al Jazeera “state controlled” based on the lobbying, public relations and propaganda campaigns of foreign nations, Facebook would be aiding the geopolitical goals of foreign powers contrary to the company’s policies and public statements about combatting foreign influence. These nations would in turn seek to weaponize this labelling as part of their ongoing campaign to silence the network.

Al Jazeera’s lawyers sent a letter to Facebook on November 26 escalating this issue within the company and arguing forcefully against its intended course of action. To date, we have not received a substantive response from the platform. Meanwhile, an erroneous label could be applied any day.

Facebook has substantial evidence of Al Jazeera’s independence in its possession, which it apparently intends to ignore. Al Jazeera Media Network is a Private Foundation for Public Benefit (PFPB), a legal structure that enshrines its decision-making autonomy and independence in Qatari law. The network’s news, programming and digital content has consistently won the respect and recognition of its peers, including more than 300 awards since 2011. There are numerous examples of content that is explicitly or implicitly critical of Qatar. If Facebook intends to reject these and other facts in the case of Al Jazeera, the platform could conceivably ignore evidence of independence from other broadcasters as well.

We urge public broadcasters to engage on this issue, raise its profile and stand with us. In Al Jazeera’s view, this initiative has been poorly executed and raises questions about Facebook’s competence to make these determinations, especially considering its poor track record of making editorial judgements. At a minimum, we need to demand greater transparency from Facebook, including the disclosure of its definition and standards, and we need to ensure the right experts have a seat at the table guiding any process such as this. The stakes are too high to allow this unaccountable platform to proceed unchecked.

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Header Image: The Al Jazeera English newsroom. Credit and with permission from: Al Jazeera Media Network