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Instagram should have rejected police pressure to ban rap song, says Oversight Board

Instagram should have rejected police pressure to ban rap song, says Oversight Board

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‘Not every piece of content that law enforcement would prefer to have taken down ... should be taken down.’

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Meta Oversight Board says the company shouldn’t have accepted police demands to remove drill music — a rap genre some politicians and officials have blamed for gang violence — from its platform. The board says Instagram erred in banning a UK drill song after a request from London’s Metropolitan Police.

Additionally, the board is pushing Meta to offer more transparency about its relationship with law enforcement in the future, as well as stronger consideration of a work’s artistic context. Meta must reverse the ban and respond to policy recommendations within 60 days.

The board’s decision, published today, covers a January incident over a song called “Secrets Not Safe” by musician Chinx (OS). Police emailed Meta a request soon after the song and its music video appeared on Instagram, and Meta escalated the incident to a team for special consideration. It decided that the song referenced a 2017 shooting and included a “threatening call to action” that could pose an imminent safety risk, violating Meta’s rules.

Enforcement of that decision was inconsistent, however. The creator appealed and had the song reinstated by a reviewer outside the escalation team, only to have that decision overruled and the song re-banned a week later, following a second request from the police.

The board says law enforcement can provide useful context for moderation but questioned whether Meta had made an independent assessment of that context. The decision offers other background details that could have convinced Meta the song wasn’t a threat, including a penchant for “performative bravado” in drill music.

“Not every piece of content that law enforcement would prefer to have taken down — and not even every piece of content that has the potential to lead to escalating violence — should be taken down,” the decision reads.

“This case demonstrates the level of privileged access law enforcement has to Meta’s internal enforcement teams.”

The decision highlights a gray area at the intersection of law enforcement and social networks: requests to take down speech that likely isn’t illegal but that might violate social networks’ own policies. While Meta offers official reports on formal government requests to remove data, it’s typically been less transparent about soft requests like the Metropolitan Police email. “This case demonstrates the level of privileged access law enforcement has to Meta’s internal enforcement teams,” says the board. “Law enforcement is not asked to meet minimum criteria to fully contextualize and justify their requests, leading to unstructured, ad hoc, and inconsistent interactions with Meta.”

The Oversight Board says Meta didn’t live up to its values, particularly providing a “voice” to users. “Art is a particularly important and powerful expression of ‘Voice,’ especially for people from marginalized groups creating art informed by their experiences,” the decision reads.

The decision also urges Meta to offer a clearer description of a “veiled threat” and to require a minimum standard of detail from police in requests. The musician’s own post isn’t going back up, though — the account was disabled and permanently deleted before the decision.

While this case involves a UK musician, social networks have also faced calls to remove drill music in the US. In February, New York City Mayor Eric Adams criticized web platforms for allowing the genre, although he later insisted he wasn’t trying to make them ban it. The controversy plays into a larger discussion about informal government pressure on web platforms — something that’s come up in the context of covid misinformation, which figures like President Joe Biden have condemned Facebook and other services for hosting.

The Oversight Board’s semi-independent status might offer Meta a layer of extra defense against government pressure. The company referred this case to the board itself, and it’s committed in the past to following the board’s decisions — so a declaration that drill music has artistic value offers a clear path if Meta wants to push back on future law enforcement requests.