Instagram takes heat for removing pro-Soleimani content
Instagram is facing criticism after taking down content supporting Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a drone strike ordered by President Trump.
In the wake of the controversial killing, Instagram began taking down content encouraging Soleimani or his ideas on its platform, claiming that it was acting in compliance with U.S. sanctions laws targeting the Iranian government.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, told The Hill it removed content in support of Soleimani because of sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the White House last year. Soleimani was the commander of Quds Force, an elite unit of the IRGC.
But Instagram’s action also affected posts from some users not directly affiliated with Soleimani or the IRGC, sparking a backlash online from those affected and critics who accused Instagram of censorship and promoting the Trump administration’s views.
Instagram’s move surprised many in the tech world, with some questioning the company’s interpretation of U.S. law. Other prominent companies did not follow Instagram’s lead.
Twitter and YouTube, also among the most-used social platforms in Iran, have not removed content about Soleimani from users not affiliated with the Iranian military.
Soon after Soleimani was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3, journalists, activists and celebrities began raising concerns about their content being taken off of Instagram.
At least 15 Iranian journalists have reported having their accounts suspended, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IJF).
“At a time when Iranian citizens need access to information it is unacceptable that Instagram should choose to censor Iranian media and individual journalists and users,” the IJF wrote in a letter to Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri.
Human rights activist and journalist Emadeddin Baghi told website Coda Story, which first reported on Instagram’s actions, that four of his posts on the platform related to Soleimani were also removed.
Those posts were later restored, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to The Hill.
And Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a soccer player for Brighton and Hove Albion in England’s Premier League, told CNN that a picture of Soleimani he posted after the general’s death was removed.
Instagram has been steadfast in pointing to U.S. law. When asked about these removals, the social media company said that sanctions associated with the IRGC’s designation as a terrorist organization compelled Instagram to take them down.
“We review content against our policies and our obligations to US sanctions laws, specifically those related to the US government’s designation of the IRGC and its leadership as a terrorist organization,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Hill in a statement.
The spokesperson clarified that the platform does not remove content for simply supporting Soleimani. Instead, they explained, Facebook platforms remove content if it’s determined that it commends the actions of sanctioned parties or if it seeks to help further their actions.
And the spokesperson said that affected users can appeal disabled accounts and removed posts at the company’s Help Center.
For many, the episode highlighted the challenges tech companies face in policing their platforms. But critics blasted the move from Instagram as heavy-handed, and Tehran also fired back.
Ali Rabiei, an Iranian government spokesperson, called the removals “undemocratic” in a tweet.
Iran’s government in fact has censored most social media platforms in the country, with many Iranian users forced to use software to evade domestic censors.
Legal experts who spoke to The Hill disputed Facebook’s justification for the removals.
“The sanctions law doesn’t prohibit and couldn’t prohibit people from posting things in favor of or against a particular sanctioned person or entity,” Jennifer Granick, a surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Hill.
There has also been criticism of Instagram within the industry. A technology source with knowledge of the situation characterized Instagram’s actions as going too far, noting that while sanctions law requires removal of affiliated accounts, praising individuals should not be treated the same way.
Twitter last year updated its policies to remove members of terrorist organizations, but it is not taking down content encouraging or supporting Soleimani unless it otherwise breaks platform rules, a company spokesperson told The Hill.
Google, which owns YouTube, declined to comment about Instagram’s actions, but the company’s transparency report makes it clear that content from “government-listed foreign terrorist organizations” violates its rules, while content from other groups falls under other policies.
Twitter previously allowed accounts tied to Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are designated as terrorist organizations, until November, when they began removing them after pressure from lawmakers.
Tech companies will likely have to make such difficult decisions again during future international flashpoints.
Granick said the controversy over Instagram raised troubling First Amendment concerns that would not go away quickly.
“The line between supporting and encouraging actions and seeking to help is nonexistent or fuzzy at best,” Granick said about censoring online content.
“This is why in U.S. law we don’t allow this sort of thing, because it will chill legitimate speech on topics of public interest.”
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