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India and Israel Inflame Facebook’s Fights With Its Own Employees

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SAN FRANCISCO — When India’s government ordered Facebook and other tech companies to take down posts critical of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in April, the social network complied.

But once it did, its employees flocked to online chat rooms to ask why Facebook had helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India stifle dissent. In one internal post, which was reviewed by The New York Times, an employee with family in India accused Facebook of “being afraid” that Mr. Modi would ban the company from doing business in the country. “We can’t act or make decisions out of fear,” he wrote.

Weeks later, when clashes broke out in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians, Facebook removed posts from prominent Palestinian activists and briefly banned hashtags related to the violence. Facebook employees again took to the message boards to ask why their company now appeared to be censoring pro-Palestinian content.

“It just feels like, once again, we are erring on the side of a populist government and making decisions due to politics, not policies,” one worker wrote in an internal message that was reviewed by The Times.

Discontent at Facebook has surged over its recent handling of international affairs, according to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former employees. For weeks, they said, employees have complained about the company’s responses in India and Israel. The workers have grilled top executives at meetings about the situations and, in one case, formed a group to internally report Palestinian content that they believe Facebook had wrongly removed. This week, more than 200 employees also signed an open letter calling for a third-party audit of Facebook’s treatment of Arab and Muslim posts, according to a person who saw the letter.

The actions are another sign of internal unrest at Facebook as employee criticism broadens beyond domestic issues. For the past few years, workers largely challenged Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, on his handling of inflammatory posts from former President Donald J. Trump. But since Mr. Trump left office in January, attention has shifted to Facebook’s global policies and what employees said was the company’s acquiescence to governments so that it could continue profiting in those countries.

“There’s a feeling among people at Facebook that this is a systematic approach, one which favors strong government leaders over the principles of doing what is right and correct,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left in 2017.

Facebook is increasingly caught in a vise. In India, Russia and elsewhere, governments are pressuring it to remove content as they try to corral the platform’s power over online speech. But when Facebook complies with the takedown orders, it has upset its own employees, who say the social network has helped authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes quash activists and silence marginalized communities.

The result has played out in a kind of internal culture clash, with a growing movement of dissenting rank-and-file workers versus its global public policy team, which deals directly with governments, said the current and former employees. Many workers have argued that policy team members have been too willing to accede to governments, while policy team members said their colleagues did not appreciate the delicate dance of international relations.

Dani Lever, a Facebook spokeswoman, denied that the company had made decisions to appease governments.

“Everyone at Facebook shares the same goal, which is to give a voice to as many people around the world as possible, and we push back on overreaching government requests wherever we can,” she said. She added that Facebook removed content only after it was reviewed according to the company’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards.

Of the employee discontent, Ms. Lever said, “Just as people off of the platform are debating these important real-world issues, people who work at Facebook are, too.”

BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times earlier reported on some of the employee dissatisfaction at Facebook over Israeli and Palestinian content.

A divide between Facebook’s employees and the global policy team, which is composed of roughly 1,000 employees, has existed for years, current and former workers said. The policy team reports to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer.

Many employees subscribe to the idea that Facebook should stand up to what they see as dictatorial governments. But the policy team, which operates in dozens of countries, often has to weigh the likelihood that a government will shut off the social networking service if the company does not cooperate with takedown orders, they said. Sometimes allowing some speech is better than none at all, they have said.

Facebook has faced many tricky international situations over the years, including in Russia, Vietnam and Myanmar, where it has had to consider whether it would be shut down if it did not work with governments. That has led to the employee dissent, which has begun spilling into public view.

That became evident with India. In April, as Covid-19 cases soared in the country, Mr. Modi’s government called for roughly 100 social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to be pulled down. Many of the posts included critiques of the government from opposition politicians and calls for Mr. Modi’s resignation.

Facebook complied with the orders and briefly blocked a hashtag, #ResignModi. The company later said the hashtag had been banned by mistake and was not part of a government request.

But internally, the damage was done. In online chat rooms dedicated to human rights issues and global policy, employees described how disappointed they were with Facebook’s actions. Some shared stories of family members in India who were worried they were being censored.

Last month, when violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, reports surfaced that Facebook had erased content from Palestinian activists. Facebook’s Instagram app also briefly banned the #AlAqsa hashtag, a reference to Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Facebook later explained that it had confused the #AlAqsa hashtag with a Palestinian militant group called Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Employees bristled. “We are responding to people’s protests about censoring with more censoring?” one wrote in an internal message, which was reviewed by The Times.

Other employees wrote that Facebook’s Israel office was headed by Jordana Cutler, who previously worked for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The employees said Ms. Cutler, who did not respond to a request for comment, was pushing an agenda favorable to Mr. Netanyahu’s government by taking down anti-Israeli content from Facebook.

“The role of the public policy team for Israel, like the one for Jordan and Palestine, as well as others around the world, is to help make sure local governments, regulators and our community understand Facebook’s policies,” said Ms. Lever, the Facebook spokeswoman. “While these teams have local knowledge and understanding, their only charge is to serve as representatives for Facebook.”

Mr. Zeitoon, the former Facebook executive, cast a wider net. “There is a feeling there is a significant tilt within Facebook’s management, a systemic approach that does not benefit Palestinians,” he said. “People are mad — they are challenging their bosses. They see this as emblematic of so many problems at Facebook.”

The frustrations were vocalized on May 13 at an employee meeting that was held virtually. At the session, one worker asked Nick Clegg, who leads public affairs, to explain the company’s role in removing content tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to attendees. The employee called the situation in Israel “fraught” and asked how Facebook was going “to get it right” with content moderation.

Mr. Clegg ran through a list of policy rules and plans going forward, and assured staff that moderation would be treated with fairness and responsibility, two people familiar with the meeting said. The discussion was cordial, one of the people said, and comments in the chat box beside Mr. Clegg’s response were largely positive.

But some employees were dissatisfied, the people said. As Mr. Clegg spoke, they broke off into private chats and workplace groups, known as Tribes, to discuss what to do.

Dozens of employees later formed a group to flag the Palestinian content that they said had been suppressed to internal content moderation teams, said two employees. The goal was to have the posts reinstated online, they said.

Members of Facebook’s policy team have tried calming the tensions. In an internal memo in mid-May, which was reviewed by The Times, two policy team members wrote to other employees that they hoped “that Facebook’s internal community will resist succumbing to the division and demonization of the other side that is so brutally playing itself out offline and online.”

One of them was Muslim, and the other was Jewish, they said.

“We don’t always agree,” they wrote. “However, we do some of our best work when we assume good intent and recognize that we are on the same side trying to serve our community in the best possible way.”

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International Relations

Israel set to swear in government, end Netanyahu’s long rule | International

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel is set to swear in a new government on Sunday that will send Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.

Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, will take over as prime minister. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.

The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the U.S. without launching any major initiatives.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.

The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display as Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.

Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to U.S. efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to maintain Netanyahu’s confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”

Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the U.S. for its decades of support for Israel.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.

“Even though it has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said. Each party in the coalition will want to prove that it can deliver, and for that they need “time and achievements.”

Still, Netanyahu “will continue to cast a shadow,” Plesner said. He expects the incoming opposition leader to exploit events and propose legislation that right-wing coalition members would like to support but can’t — all in order to embarrass and undermine them.

The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.

The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.

Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, will convene to vote on the new government at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT). It is expected to win a narrow majority in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later this evening.

It’s unclear if Netanyahu will attend the ceremony or when he will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.

Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.

Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.

His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.

Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when Netanyahu vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the U.S. Congress.

But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal.

Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.

But he has gotten a far chillier reception from the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.

His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.

In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.

Netanyahu remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both farther to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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Britain will be America’s pet. But it’s Europe’s future that’s at stake | Simon Tisdall

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Beneath the strained bonhomie of the G7 summit lurks a visceral fear: that Joe Biden’s bid to build a democratic alliance to stem the authoritarian tide led by China and Russia will split the world in two, leaving Europe, betrayed by Boris Johnson’s turncoat Britain, to play piggy-in-the-middle.

Despite public applause for Biden’s key message – that the US is “back” after the xenophobic hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump – European leaders seem far from convinced. They worry the EU may be sucked into a second, limitless cold war, and that Biden, who will be 82 in 2024, could be unseated by a hawkish Trump or Trump clone.

The message to Europe in Johnson’s fawning weekend embrace of Biden and America, symbolised by a reworked Atlantic Charter and much Cornish corniness, was clear. Like a whipped bulldog craving favour, Brexit Britain will be Washington’s obedient, needy pet. Johnson is no Winston Churchill. But like Churchill in 1941, he’s desperate for US backing.

Biden will strive to hold the transatlantic alliance together, which for him means all the European democracies, including the UK. But the Johnson government’s anti-EU trajectory, seen in the latest row with Brussels over Northern Ireland, threatens his vision.

Last week’s forceful pre-emptive intervention by senior US officials suggests that London will eventually be forced to compromise, if only because Johnson dare not jeopardise the wider US relationship. Yet UK-EU antagonism looks set to deepen. Biden will have to tighten the leash again in future.

Europe’s concerns about strategic isolation as a newly divisive, bipolar world order takes shape are well founded. To its east lies China, Russia and like-minded regimes in India, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – autocratic, aggressive and contemptuous of western-defined international norms.

To its west lies the US, a damaged power, divided against itself, whose political stability and consistency can no longer be depended upon. Biden’s efforts to restore normalcy to international relations are assured of European support for as long as he lasts, as this week’s EU-US and Nato “reunion” summits will demonstrate.

But if Trump or his followers regain power, a permanent US rupture with Europe and its liberal, multilateralist principles may become unavoidable. This in turn could wreck the EU if, say, copycat populists in Poland or Hungary were to definitively break with Brussels. For his part, Johnson would be happy to see Trump return and the EU split asunder.

Fears about Europe’s future in a hostile world are reflected in a comprehensive new survey of EU states by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It reveals what its authors call “a widespread lack of confidence in the US ability to come back as leader of the west”. Most Europeans believe America’s political system is broken.

This disillusionment is not wholly due to Trump. “More than a year after the start of the pandemic, the feeling has taken root among Europeans that they cannot rely on the US, Russia or China, and that they must move towards greater self-reliance,” the survey concludes.

In short, they don’t trust anyone any more. Instead, majorities believe Europe should develop unified responses to global threats. They prefer pragmatic partnerships to permanent alliances. Many want the EU to be a “beacon of democracy and human rights” and a great power capable of defending itself.

At a time when the EU faces an extraordinary 21st-century agenda – the climate crisis, the pandemic, economic recovery, migration, digitisation, cyber-threats and rightwing populism – such ambition should, in theory, be welcome.

And yet Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats seem unprepared. While the public wants the EU to do more, confidence is low that it will – not least due to its Covid-19 missteps. “Disappointment with EU institutions has now come out of the periphery and gone mainstream,” the ECFR says.

This reflects a broader problem: a dearth of effective national leaders. Few are committed to building the independent, self-sufficient Europe voters want. Solidarity is lacking when it comes to standing up to China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to Russia over Ukraine, Belarus and Alexei Navalny, or to the US over Israel-Palestine and trade.

In Germany, to which many Europeans look for leadership that never quite arrives, Angela Merkel’s imminent departure as chancellor has created a sort of funk. Despite talk of a Green revolution, voters seem likely to opt (as usual) for the safe, inward-looking, centre-right choice – namely Armin Laschet, Merkel’s CDU successor.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who has no illusions about Johnson or US altruism, regularly calls for a fiscally, economically and militarily integrated Europe. Yet the president’s eloquence has not helped him at home, where he was quite literally slapped down last week. In any event, he is increasingly distracted by a tough 2022 re-election battle.

In Italy, the rise and rise of far-right parties such as the Brothers of Italy, feeding off immigration fears, inspires ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and bigots everywhere. Brothers leader Giorgia Meloni’s ideas about identity and globalist conspiracies make her a natural ally of Trump, not of Biden or Brussels.

Those who look, meanwhile, for strong EU leadership look in vain. If the union were a true democracy, Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, would have been voted out over her vaccine fiasco. But the EU does not work that way, which is part of the problem.

For EU leaders, the G7 perpetuated a fantasy of power and purpose. Unless they urgently take ownership of its destiny, Europe will be squeezed like an unripe lemon between rival global forces that share neither its values nor its interests.

Europe’s choice: be a standup player on the world stage – or risk becoming a quirky cultural museum for Chinese tourists and the butt of Trump’s and Johnson’s jokes.

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International Relations

Foreign diplomats face expulsion | Citypress

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 International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pando addressing the media at Luthuli house. Photo: Christopher Moagi


International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pando addressing the media at Luthuli house. Photo: Christopher Moagi

POLITICS

The department of international relations and cooperation on Thursday confirmed that Lesotho diplomats and their family members had been given 72 hours to leave the country after they were found to have been involved in the illicit peddling of duty-free alcohol.


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