As a financial crisis continues to ripple through the Sri Lankan economy, in the last year, Munza Mushtaq has turned to Facebook and Twitter for support. A journalist and former news editor, Mushtaq regularly asks for donations on social media — most recently, she used Twitter in early March to raise 150,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($439) for twin sisters in need of medication for a rare skin disease.

Since early 2022, the country has been pummeled by ballooning inflation, daily energy blackouts, and shortages of essential imported goods, sometimes leaving medical providers with no other option than to crowdsource.

“I’ve done several projects where I collect cash, order medical equipment, and directly send it to the hospital ward,” Mushtaq told Rest of World. “Many people can help that way, especially Sri Lankans living abroad who want to help their country during this time of crisis.”

Mushtaq said Facebook has proven to be a powerful tool for these drives, particularly for medicines in short supply. But the platform also has clear rules against soliciting drugs. And as fundraising has edged into explicit calls for donations of specific drugs, Meta has been forced to make difficult decisions about whether or not to remove potentially life-saving posts.

In April 2022, Facebook confronted the issue head-on, announcing it would leave up a post soliciting medicine because calls for disaster relief in Sri Lanka fell within the “spirit of the policy.” Ultimately, that allowance was extended to similar posts in the country, and posts outside the country in Sinhala. On March 9, Meta’s Oversight Board, an external body that reviews moderation practices, upheld the company’s decision, saying it was in line with Meta’s human rights obligations. But Meta has still only offered a vague definition of when a “spirit of the policy” exception is appropriate, raising difficult questions about how many of the company’s moderation decisions are bound by its written policies.

But even for those who support the medicine drives, the idea that Facebook can violate its policies at will has raised eyebrows. “It seems to me that this ‘spirit of the policy’ is Facebook trying to have its cake and eat it too, where it will subvert itself to this rules-based system,” Michael Karanicolas, the executive director of the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law & Policy, told Rest of World. “If the rules produce an outcome that it doesn’t like, it has an out to fix in a completely different direction under this very fuzzy and ill-defined doctrine.”

In some ways, the Oversight Board was founded to tackle this kind of issue. Launched in 2020 with funding from Meta that is kept in an independent trust, the board is meant to give external guidance on hard moderation decisions. To some, however, its concrete power over the company is severely limited, and its decisions highlight issues more often than resolving them.

The March decision followed that pattern: The board upheld the choice to keep the posts online, but wrote that “secret, discretionary policy exemptions are incompatible with Meta’s human rights responsibilities.” More specifically, the board warned of potential overreach if Meta continues to use the “spirit of the policy” exemption without further scrutiny.

“This ‘spirit of the policy’ is Facebook trying to have its cake and eat it too.”

Researchers have described the “spirit of the policy” exception as a relief valve. In high-pressure scenarios like the Sri Lankan medical crisis, maintaining rigid community guidelines can cause further harm. But because little is known about when or how the exception can be applied, it risks becoming a blank check for justifying the company’s decisions.

“Meta formalizes rules to try and reassure people that it has been making its decisions consistently,” Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School who researches the private and public regulation of online speech, told Rest of World. “If there’s no transparency around when it exempts itself from those rules, that sort of undermines the purpose of creating a rule-based system in the first place.”

Karanicolas agrees that more public information is essential if this policy is to be used without further eroding trust in Meta’s moderation practices. “The first step is you need to be transparent and tell people what’s going on and be honest about when you’re going to use this and why you need to,” he said.

Meta declined to answer Rest of World’s questions about the use of the exemption, stating that it would respond publicly after a full review of the Oversight Board’s recommendations.

In its recommendations, the board asked Meta to publish the criteria it uses to make exemptions and to scale them up from individual posts to a larger swath of content. It also asked Meta to notify users when the exemption is made, have a dedicated section in the Transparency Center with a list of all the “spirit of the policy” allowances, and publish aggregated data on the numbers of instances, including breakdowns by geography and language.

Meta has until early May to respond to the recommendations — beyond the date, the company isn’t legally required to respond or comply with any of the Oversight Board’s requests. In the board’s short history, Meta has committed to fully implementing 63 of its 188 recommendations, according to a report released by the company in February. A number of those implementations are still in progress.

A woman waits to receive drugs at a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Some board members see these new transparency commitments as a necessary step towards determining if Facebook is already misusing the exemption. “Many of the cases the Oversight Board picks question the wrong enforcement [of policies] on the part of Facebook. So we are concerned that there may be another case where this [‘spirit of the policy’] could be applied wrongly, not appropriately,” Endy Bayuni, an Oversight Board member and senior editor at The Jakarta Post, told Rest of World. “We are interested in looking at when and how this allowance is applied or will be applied in the future.”

A few uses of the exception have already been made public — all have involved conflict zones or regions in crisis. According to the March decision, a similar allowance for soliciting drugs was made in Lebanon for nine months in 2021 due to a medical shortage. Another was made at brief intervals during the Covid-19 pandemic to allow posts asking for donations of medical-grade oxygen in Indonesia, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

“One globally overarching rules-based order for 3 billion-plus people, of course, is just ludicrous.”

A more prominent “spirit of the policy” exception came shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine — it allowed users in several Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, to post violent speech against soldiers, which might have otherwise violated Facebook’s rules against hate speech.

Beyond that, even board members like Bayuni can’t say how many “spirit of the policy” allowances are actually being made. As Douek puts it, “are we talking about a couple of hundred posts, or are we talking about thousands and thousands like this?”

The decision also sheds new light on how Facebook responds to regional crises as they happen. In the case of the drug drive exemption, the board’s decision revealed that Meta’s Global Operations team was tasked with conducting a risk assessment in early 2022 in Sri Lanka as the economic crisis boiled over into large-scale protests. The risk team called attention to the medical drive post, and escalated the issue to be reviewed for a “spirit of the policy” exemption. As part of that process, Meta’s human rights, safety, and region-specific teams may have been consulted. Ultimately, the company decided to allow violating drug-drive content in Sri Lanka and violating posts outside the country in Sinhala for seven months until November 2022, although it did not make the same exception for Tamil-language posts outside the country.

85% The percentage of Sri Lanka’s medical supplies that are imported from other countries.

Today, the medical supply crisis in Sri Lanka continues, and so do the social media drives used as the first case study for the “spirit of the policy” allowance. Mushtaq, the former news editor, strongly approves of Meta’s decision to keep the post up, and argues direct drug drives can do more to help the health sector than the government or the health ministry. “One of the biggest problems we face as a country is corruption and unnecessary red tape,” Mushtaq said, explaining that it can take months to source supplies through bureaucratic channels, whereas charity organizations pay import taxes to fast-track the process. Currently, 85% of Sri Lanka’s medical supplies are imported from other countries.

“If we think of the grave medical situation that plagued Sri Lanka last year, there was barely any alternative to look for when you are desperate for essential drugs,” technology journalist Neville Lahiru told Rest of World. “Facebook made the right call allowing such content to run.”

Still, it is hard for many Sri Lankans to overlook Facebook’s ugly history in the country. In 2018, over the course of several weeks, mobs targeted Muslim communities, committing widespread looting and arson. Nearly two years later, Meta (then named Facebook) publicly apologized for its role in hosting hate speech and rumors on its platforms during this time, which researchers say contributed to the incitement of violence against Muslim communities.

“Simply put, the ‘spirit of the policy’ speaks to what the company has told people like me at various points of time, and particularly in Sri Lanka after March 2018,” Sanjana Hattotuwa, a research fellow at the Disinformation Project, an independent research group, told Rest of World, suggesting Meta has presented itself as taking “a greater interest in contextual understanding.

Hattotuwa said inflexible moderation rules can lead to a flattening of complex regional concerns, and suggests that “spirit of the policy” is a reasonable effort to take local context into greater account when reviewing moderation decisions. “One globally overarching rules-based order for 3 billion-plus people, of course, is just ludicrous,” he said.

“I mean, the Roman Catholic Church struggles to have a congregation that agrees on all the matters put out by the Vatican,” Hattotuwa continued. “So how can you expect Meta [to do the same], unless you think Zuckerberg’s the new Messiah?”