404 suspected tractor attack inciting Facebook post

Published on October 26th, 2017 | by Ido Kenan


🚜 Bad Facebook Translation Leads to Arrest on Terror Suspicion

A Palestinian man last week posted to Facebook a photo of himself wearing a pair of sunglasses and a smile, holding a cup of coffee and a cigarette in one hand, and leaning on a tractor blade with the other. Alongside it was a single word caption in Arabic, and a geotag at Israeli settlement Beitar Illit. He was arrested shortly thereafter.

Bad Facebook translation leads to arrest on terror-suspicion from facebookdrama

The caption was translated by Facebook’s automatic translation as “hurt them”. Israeli police, which follows Palestinians’ social network activities, arrested him in suspicion of inciting, or possibly plotting, a tractor-powered terrorist ramming attack, the likes of which have been carried out in Israel in recent years, one to lethal affect.

Slaughter them, good morning! skull by NOPIXEL cc-by; sunrise by Danil Polshin cc-by; illustration by Ido Kenan

However, not only did the man never incite or plan an attack – he didn’t even write “hurt them”. His caption read “تصبحهم” (Ysabechhum), which is Arabic for “good morning to you”. Facebook’s translation tool erroneously identified the word as “تضبحهم” (Ydbachhum), which means “slaughter them”. The words look almost identical, with the only visual difference being an i‘jām, a point diacritic that distinguishes between the letters ṣād (ص), which is pronounced as a hard S, and ḍād (ض), which is a hard D.

An Arabic speaker would have noticed the error, but one was not consulted by the police, which realized their mistake during the man’s interrogation, and released him a few hours after his arrest. In response to Haaretz’s Yotam Berger, who broke the story (Heb-₪), police admitted that an erroneous translation led to the false arrest, and that “in the interrogation it was made clear that there’s no suspicion of incitement and the suspect was released”.

The man, who has since removed his post, didn’t respond to a message sent to him.

Suspected tractor attack Facebook post; identifying details removed by Room 404

Bad Facebook translation leads to arrest on terror-suspicion from facebookdrama

About the Author

Ido Kenan is founder of Room 404, a longtime Digital Culture journalist and a raiser of two cats

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