Meta office in Europe
Meta office in EuropeiStock

The social media company Meta is adjudicating whether a key phrase used by anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists constitutes acceptable speech.

The company’s Oversight Board, an independent body tasked with reviewing Meta’s content moderation decisions, has taken up the question as it reviews three cases involving posts that use the phrase, “From the river to the sea.”

The phrase has been used by Palestinian Arab movements for decades, including by the Hamas terror group, and anti-Israel activists claim it is a call for "liberation." Israel and Jewish groups point out that it refers to all of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, including Haifa, Tel Aviv, and other areas which were under Israeli control before 1967, and advocates for the complete destruction of Israel.

The phrase has been condemned in congressional votes and investigated in multiple instances by the US Department of Education.

The slogan has appeared frequently in anti-Israel social media posts during the Israel-Hamas war, which began when Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7. Some of those posts on Facebook and Instagram have been reported as potential violations of Meta’s policies, according to the Oversight Board. On Tuesday, the board announced a process to determine whether the company should create a specific policy for, “From the river to the sea.”

The announcement says the board closely examined three cases dealing with posts that went up in November, a month into the war. The board did not share the posts themselves but said that one used a #Fromtherivertothesea hashtag in a generally anti-Israel post. A second featured, according to the board, “what appears to be a generated image of fruit floating on the sea that form the words from the phrase, along with ‘Palestine will be free.'” And a third, from a Canadian organization, used the words to end a post condemning “Zionist Israeli occupiers.”

All of the posts were reported as inappropriate by users and all were left online after being reviewed, two by automated assessments and one after being looked at by a person as well. Users appealed the decision to leave the posts online, saying the posts violated Meta’s policies barring “content that promotes violence or supports terrorism” and hate speech. Two of the users said the phrase “is antisemitic and is a call to abolish the state of Israel,” according to the board’s announcement.

After the Oversight Board took notice of the cases, it asked Meta to review them in more detail and explain its reasoning for not removing the posts.

“Meta explained the company is aware that, ‘From the river to the sea,’ has a long history and that it had reviewed use of the phrase on its platform after October 7, 2023,” the board said in its announcement. “After that review, Meta determined that, without additional context, it cannot conclude that, ‘From the river to the sea,’ constitutes a call to violence or a call for exclusion of any particular group, nor that it is linked exclusively to support for Hamas.”

Now, the board — whose moderation decisions are considered binding — says it will weigh in on how Meta should moderate content involving the phrase. It’s asking for public comments that illuminate the phrase’s historical and current usage and provide research about the real-life and online effects of its deployment.

The board is not the first entity to scrutinize the phrase over the last seven months and to assess whether its use should draw consequences. In November, the House of Representatives censured Rep. Rashida Tlaib for using the phrase, with dozens of her fellow Democratic lawmakers calling it a “rallying cry for the destruction of the State of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people.” Last month, a House resolution condemned the phrase as antisemitic.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has taken up cases alleging discrimination in connection to the phrase, including one in Minnesota where a school district is accused of Islamophobic discrimination after suspending two students who used the phrase during an anti-Israel protest.