A New Resource to Fight Unfair Content Takedowns

By Leil Zahra | May 13, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards

https://silenced.online, built by Mozilla Fellow Leil Zahra, helps internet users document unjust and opaque content takedowns on tech platforms


Leil Zahra is a 2019-20 Mozilla Fellow, hosted by witness.org, researching unfair content takedowns and their chilling effects. Leil is also mobilizing internet users to stand up for better content moderation practices.

In Barcelona in October 2019, I was using Twitter to report on the Catalan independence protests. I tweeted information about what streets were closed, which areas of the city were safe, and which areas were overrun with police and right-wing violence.

One night, I encountered a sexist and degrading tweet from an Egyptian politician targeting Lebanese and Yeminite women protestors. I responded in Arabic to the offensive tweet with a commonly-used and socially-accepted retort. But as a result, Twitter suspended my account for seven days. Not only did the platform punish me while keeping the original offensive tweet up, but it also hampered my ability to report on the protests.

Today, public discourse is shaped on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And while these platforms claim to promote free expression, their content moderation decisions can sometimes do just the opposite. Photos of breastfeeding are deleted; posts reclaiming and repurposing epithets are removed; videos documenting human rights abuses are erased.

This can have grave consequences, from chilling free expression, to stigmatizing certain modes of communication, to silencing important social issues, to the erasure of evidence crucial for accountability.

A wide array of organisations, researchers and activists have been working to address the lack of transparency in how content takedown is carried, the platforms’ lack of efficient and serious efforts to allow users to appeal and challenge the decision, and to expose the role of economic and political interests of those corporate platforms when deciding what content or which communities to target.

Today, public discourse is shaped on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. And while these platforms claim to promote free expression, their content moderation decisions can sometimes do just the opposite.

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To address these problems, and to contribute to the ongoing work and discussion, I am launching https://silenced.online. It’s a resource to help internet users push back against unjust and opaque content takedowns. It’s also a resource to empower researchers, organizations and activists studying this space.

silenced.online not only documents censored content and voices, but also maps any possible correlations between major political events — like elections or protests — and spikes in content takedowns. It aims to study what seems to be platforms’ pick-and-choose approach in deciding what content to censor regionally, possibly due to geopolitical and market interests. On another hand, silenced.online aims to share user-submitted personal stories on the impacts of the existing takedown policies, and a curated selection of removed content that serves as proof of unjustifiable censorship practices.

silenced.online entails a takedown reporting tool, guides for internet users, and a call for community. It is being released after six months of research into content moderation spanning five platforms. The project initially covers the Middle East, North Africa, South America, and Europe, with plans to expand to cover other regions.

Takedown reporting tool. Has Facebook removed your post? Did Twitter suspend your account? Has YouTube taken down a video of your group? silenced.online allows you to submit a detailed report documenting content takedowns. We will compile this information to determine where and how often these takedowns are occuring around the world, helping to focus advocacy work.

Guides. On an internet where unfair content takedowns are commonplace, it’s crucial for activists, journalists, and everyday internet users to be able to push back. In the coming weeks and months, silenced.online will publish guides on how to archive content, how to appeal takedowns on various platforms, and more.

Call for community. Internet users around the world are facing unfair content takedowns. silenced.online aims to bring these people together, so they pool resources, swap stories, and collectively hold platforms accountable. If you are an organization or a collective working on content takedown and would like to be part of the network using this platform, please get in contact.

To get in touch, email Leil Zahra at leilzahra@protonmail.com