CONSTRUCTION WORKER ARRESTED WHEN “GOOD MORNING” MISTRANSLATED BY FACEBOOK AS THREAT
It seems Israel and the United States share a reactionary stance when it comes to Muslims, or at least people who are perceived to be not white or Jewish. Thanks to a Facebook snafu, a mistranslation as well as a lack of due diligence, a Palestinian construction worker was arrested recently by Israeli police. What was he arrested for, you ask? He was arrested for posting “good morning” in Arabic to his Facebook account as a caption to a picture. Unfortunately for him Facebook mistranslated “good morning” for “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English. So, when officers were reviewing the man’s post and saw the threat, they immediately moved to arrest the man and did so.
POST WAS SOMEHOW MISTAKEN AS A THREAT IN BOTH HEBREW AND ENGLISH
While it’s confusing how “good morning” could be so mistaken for a threat in two languages, I’m not a linguist and can’t comment on how odd this really is. But it does seem to defy credulity that in a country like Israel where every single post to Facebook gets reviewed, that such a simple statement could be so, so, so mistaken in two different languages. Never mind, it does defy credulity.
ANY CASUAL REVIEW WOULD HAVE REVEALED ERROR, BUT PALESTINIANS ARE PINHOLED IN MORE THAN ONE HEMISPHERE
Haaretz reported that the “English transliteration used by Facebook is not an actual word in Arabic but could look like the verb ‘to hurt’—even though any Arabic speaker could clearly see the transliteration did not match the translation.”
Evidently, no Arabic-speaking officers reportedly saw the post before the man’s arrest. He was released once he endured several hours of questioning about saying “good morning” on social media.
FACEBOOK APOLOGIZES, OFFERS VACUOUS EXPLANATION, DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Originally, Facebook used Microsoft’s translation AI, but started using a proprietary translation software last year. When contacted by media, Necip Fazil Ayan, who is an engineering manager in Facebook’s language technologies group, made the following statement:
Unfortunately, our translation systems made an error last week that misinterpreted what this individual posted. Even though our translations are getting better each day, mistakes like these might happen from time to time and we’ve taken steps to address this particular issue. We apologize to him and his family for the mistake and the disruption this caused.
The picture in question that was uploaded with the text shows a construction worker propped against a bulldozer at a construction site in the West Bank. Evidently, this only added to the suspicion, since bulldozers have been used in hit-and-run terrorist attacks (I also recall a young American woman “accidently” crushed by a bulldozer when she attempted to stop the destruction of Palestinian homes by settlers). The Israel Defense Forces monitors Palestinians’ social media as one way to detect radicalization or possible terror attacks. The West Bank is mostly Israeli controlled, but pockets have joint Israeli-Palestinian control and the conflict over contested land is never ending.
Facebook offers an entire suite of features that it claims can help authorities prevent terrorism, from computer vision all the way to keyword monitoring. But, critics have long warned that these tactics can be misused by state authorities as a means of targeted surveillance. In this instance, a simple misunderstanding could have cost a man his livelihood. It could have cost him more.