Facebook, Kenya, and the promotion of ethnic violence

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, Mercy Ndegwa—a director of public policy at Meta, the parent company of Facebook—described in a blog post the various steps the company was taking in order to “help ensure a safe and secure general election in Kenya” (The election is scheduled for August 9, and Kenya has a long history of violence and unrest around national elections.) Ndegwa wrote that Meta had been preparing for the vote for the past year, and had been working hard to “reduce the spread of misinformation, detect and remove hate speech, improve digital literacy and help make political advertising more transparent”, among other things. In the six months leading up to April 30, 2022, Ndegwa said, Facebook “took action on more than 37,000 pieces of content for violating our hate speech policies on Facebook and Instagram in Kenya”, and blocked or removed more than 42,000 items that contravened Meta’s policies against inciting violence.

Ndegwa noted that Facebook was going to be paying particular attention to abuse involving female public figures, and that it was working with a team of people with experience in Kenya to understand and remove gender-based slurs in a number of local languages. She also added that Facebook had a strict policy of requiring advertisers who wanted to run political ads in Kenya to “undergo a verification process to verify their identity and that they live in the country”, as well as other checks to ensure that their ads complied with Facebook’s policies. In the six months leading up to April 30, Ndegwa wrote that about 36,000 ad submissions targeted to Kenya were rejected before they ran for not completing the authorization process or not including a disclaimer. Ndegwa’s post gave the impression Facebook was prepared for any eventuality, and had all the bases covered in terms of hate speech and calls for violence.

A week later, researchers at Global Witness, a human-rights group, and Foxglove Legal, a British nonprofit, released a report describing their attempts to buy ads that included hate speech related to Kenya, comparing certain tribal groups to animals, as well as calls for violence—including outright genocide, as well as rape, slaughter and beheadings—in both English and Swahili. All of the ads were eventually approved to run. “This follows a similar pattern we uncovered in Myanmar and Ethiopia”, the researchers wrote, “but for the first time also raises serious questions about Facebook’s content moderation capabilities in English”. Global Witness noted that Facebook has in the past praised the “super-efficient AI models” the company uses to detect hate speech, but said the group’s findings are “a stark reminder of the risk of hate and incitement to violence on their platform”. Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan technology researcher, told the Washington Post: “It is a deliberate choice to maximize labor and profit extraction, because they view the societies in the Global South primarily as markets, not as societies”.

Global Witness said when it contacted Meta to inform the company of the problem, it was told that “there will be instances where they miss things and take down content in error, as both machines and people make mistakes”. According to Global Witness, Ndegwa’s blog post was actually written in response to the group’s research, although it was published before the report was made public. Despite the detailed lists of precautions Ndegwa described, Global Witness says that even after her post was published, the group was able to submit more ads calling for violence, which were also approved. Following the release of the report, Danvas Makori, head of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission, told a press conference that Facebook “is in violation of the laws of our country. They have allowed themselves to be a vector of hate speech and incitement, misinformation, and disinformation”. Makori said Meta would have a week to comply with speech laws or the service would be blocked from operating in Kenya.

The day after Makori made this pronouncement, however, Joseph Mucheru, a cabinet secretary in the Kenyan government responsible for internet and communications technologies posted a message on Twitter that seemed to contradict Makori’s warning. “Media, including social media, will continue to enjoy PRESS FREEDOM in Kenya”, he wrote. “Not clear what legal framework NCIC plans to use to suspend Facebook. Govt is on record. We are NOT shutting down the Internet”. Other government ministers made similar statements. Bridget Andere, African policy analyst at Access Now, a nonprofit human rights group, told Wired magazine that “there’s currently no legal framework that would allow NCIC to order Facebook’s suspension”. While those who want to fight hate might wish for an extra-legal method for stopping Facebook, some are concerned this will play into the hands of authoritarian governments looking to shut down social media for their own purposes, as India’s Modi government seems to be.

“Platforms like Meta have failed completely in their handling of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech in Tigray and Myanmar”, Andere told Wired. “The danger is that governments will use that as an excuse for internet shutdowns and app blocking, when it should instead spur companies toward greater investment in human content moderation”. Global Witness, meanwhile, said its research “points to a broken system. For one of the world’s wealthiest companies, with staggering reach and a responsibility not to facilitate division and harm, Facebook can and should do better”. The group added that in 2020, following pressure from advertisers to stop profiting from hate speech, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, said that the company was going to do more to tackle the problem. However, Global Witness noted that “our repeated findings — in Myanmar, Ethiopia and now Kenya — raise serious questions about whether these commitments were followed through, particularly in all parts of the world”.

Here’s more on Facebook and hate speech:

Failure to remove: Documents leaked last year by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, showed that staffers at the social media network repeatedly sounded the alarm on the company’s failure to remove or down-rank posts inciting violence in countries like Ethiopia, CNN reported. The documents show workers warned managers about how Facebook was being used by “problematic actors,” including states and foreign organizations, to spread hate speech and incite violence. CNN said the documents “also indicate that the company has, in many cases, failed to adequately scale up staff or add local language resources to protect people in these places”.

Complicity: In 2018, the United Nations categorized the beating, displacement, and killing of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as a genocide. In a separate report, the agency concluded that Facebook “played a determining role” in the violence, by allowing members of the army and other anti-Rohingya elements to spread messages of hate and calls for violence. A group of six civil-society organizations in Myanmar wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, saying the social network’s behavior relied too much on third parties, failed to engage with local human-rights workers on important issues, and exhibited “a lack of transparency”.

Blame game: Global Witness pointed out in its report on Kenya that the acceptance of ads with hate speech and calls for violence “is not the fault of the individual content moderators, who all too often are asked to undertake deeply traumatising work – including in Kenya – with scant regard for their mental health and decent working conditions”. The group also noted that earlier this year, a former moderator at Facebook filed a lawsuit in Kenya against Meta and its local partner, Sama, alleging moderators suffer from poor working conditions including “irregular pay, inadequate mental health support, union-busting, and violations of their privacy and dignity”.

Other notable stories:

Semafor, the online news startup from Ben Smith, former New York Times media writer, and Justin Smith, former head of Bloomberg Media, has hired a number of journalists in both the US and other countries, the Financial Times reported. “Liz Hoffman, a Wall Street Journal reporter known for landing finance scoops, has joined alongside politics and technology journalists from BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, respectively”, the FT wrote. “In addition to assembling a team of reporters in the US, Semafor plans to open local bureaux, starting with Africa [and] has hired Yinka Adegoke, a Nigeria-educated journalist and former Africa editor of Quartz, to lead the team”.

The lawyer representing parents of Sandy Hook victims—who are suing suing Alex Jones, the Infowars podcast host, for defamation—said in court that Jones’ attorney “messed up” and sent a digital copy of Jones’ cell phone, including all its email and text message records, to the prosecution. Insider reported that the copy of Jones’ phone “revealed a text about the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 that Jones claimed did not exist, as well as financial information for Jones’ InfoWars”. Messages taken from the phone appear to show that InfoWars made as much as $800,000 per day in 2018.

The New York Times announced Wednesday that it added about 180,000 digital-only subscribers in the second quarter of the year, but generated less digital advertising revenue than it did in the same period a year earlier. The company had total revenue of $556 million, up 11.5 percent from a year earlier—and digital subscriptions contributed almost half that amount—but its operating profit fell by 18 percent to $76 million. The lower profit was a result of losses at The Athletic, which the Times bought in February.

Triller, a video app that competes with TikTok, said last year that it was giving 300 Black content creators contracts totaling $14 million, which it called “the largest ever one-time commitment of capital to Black creators”. But Taylor Lorenz reports for the Washington Post that some creators have not seen any of the money they were promised. “Nearly a year after Triller began recruiting Black talent, its payments to many creators have been erratic — and, in some cases, nonexistent, according to interviews with more than two dozen creators, talent managers and former company staff”, Lorenz wrote.

Andy Bird, the CEO of Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers of school textbooks, hopes that the company can use non-fungible tokens and the blockchain to get reimbursed for secondary sales of its books, Bloomberg reported. Bird told reporters following the company’s financial results that “in the analogue world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale. Technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item”.

Kathryn Foxhall writes for CJR about “a growing culture of censorship by public information officers”. In the past, she writes, journalists were able to call and talk to scientists working in the public service without approval from higher-ups, but that has changed in recent years. “Glenn Nowak, a former head of media relations at the CDC who held various communication positions at the agency starting in the early nineties, says each subsequent administration has become more restrictive on journalists’ talking to scientists and experts without oversight from authorities”.

Some podcast guests are paying as much as $50,000 to appear on popular podcasts, Bloomberg reported. “Guests with a product to sell often see podcasting as a golden ticket—an unfiltered medium through which to reach listeners for extended periods of time”, the news service wrote. Some marketing companies are brokering these kinds of deals, as is a new startup called Guestio, but not everyone is in favor. “It’s a gray area, but it’s payola”, said Jon Bier, CEO and founder of public-relations firm Jack Taylor.

For the second year, the National Press Foundation is offering a free online conference in October for journalists who want to cover rare diseases, which it says will consist of “online briefings and question-and-answer sessions from top world experts in rare diseases, diagnostics, targeted testing and drug development”. The foundation is also offering reporting grants of up to $3,000 to 20 journalists to research and write about a rare disease of their choosing.  Selected fellows will be able to attend an additional online session with experts and coaches in narrative journalism.

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