Social media platforms do little to tackle hate speech online in the Arab world: experts

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LONDON: For a platform with at least 2.91 billion “friends”, Facebook has made a lot of enemies recently, even within its own ranks.

Once again this week, former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before members of the United States Senate, giving a scathing insight into how the world’s largest social networking site prioritizes profits over public safety.

This is despite its own extensive internal research, leaked to US media, which demonstrates the harm Facebook and its products are causing worldwide to communities, democratic institutions, and children with fragile body images.

Yet little has been done in the Arab world, for example, to hold Facebook and other social media platforms accountable for the extremist ideas, fanatic opinions and hate speech that continue to affect millions of users across the country. across the region despite their supposed content policing.

“With even a simple search in Arabic, I found 38 groups or pages currently on Facebook with over 100 followers or likes that have unmistakable references in their titles to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most infamous example of anti-Jewish disinformation. and hate speech in history, ”David Weinberg, Washington director of international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, told Arab News.

“You would think that if Facebook even casually took an interest in proactively researching horrific hate speech that blatantly violates its terms of service and could lead to deadly violence, these kinds of pages would have been an easy place. for them to start. “

Indeed, while Facebook has removed millions of messages containing hate speech from its platforms in 2020, it still has a long way to go, especially in languages ​​other than English.

“Facebook hasn’t solved the real problem. Instead, he created public relations stunts. What Haugen said exposed all of their wrongdoing, ”Mohamad Najem, executive director of Beirut-based SMEX, a digital rights organization focused on freedom of expression, privacy and security, told Arab News. in line.

“Unfortunately, all of these threats are on the rise and tech companies are doing the minimum they can to address them.”


Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online: A Facebook Whistleblower Testimony” on Capitol Hill on October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. (AFP)

Responding to the allegation on Friday, a Facebook spokesperson told Arab News: “We do not tolerate hate speech on our platforms. That’s why we continue to invest heavily in people, systems and technology to find and remove this content as quickly as possible.

“We now have 40,000 people working on safety and security at Facebook and have invested $ 13 billion since 2016. Our technology proactively identifies hate speech in more than 40 languages ​​around the world, including ‘Arab.

“While we recognize that there is still work to be done, we continue to make significant improvements to combat the spread of harmful content.

“As our most recent Community Standards Enforcement report showed, we find and remove more hate speech on our platforms than ever before: the prevalence of hate speech – the amount of content people actually see – on Facebook is now 0.05% of the content. views and is down nearly 50 percent over the past three quarters.

While Facebook has come under special scrutiny lately, it is not the only offender. The perceived lax moderation on the microblogging site Twitter also raised concern.

Despite the recent update to its Hate Speech Policy, which states that users should “not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, of national origin ”, accounts doing exactly that are still active on the platform.


Major social media services including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp were hit by a massive outage on October 4, 2021, tracking sites have shown, potentially affecting tens of millions of users. (AFP)

“For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran is authorized to exploit Twitter using a wide range of accounts, including separate dedicated Twitter accounts, for his propaganda, not only in Persian, Arabic and English, but also in Urdu, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian and Hindi, ”Weinberg said.

“Twitter also allows the accounts of major media outlets of Iranian-backed violent extremist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Even Facebook has generally not been so lax.

Indeed, accounts in the Arab world, such as those of exiled Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and designated terrorist Qais Al-Khazali – both of whom have appeared in Arab News’ “Preachers of Hate” series. – remain active and important, with the first accumulating 3.2 million followers.

In one of his hateful messages, Al-Qaradawi wrote: “Throughout history God has imposed on them (the Jews) people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was Hitler’s. It was divine punishment for them. Next time, God willing, it will be in the hands of the faithful believers. “

The inability to consistently detect hate speech in languages ​​other than English appears to be a common problem on social media sites.

As Haugen pointed out in his Senate testimony, Facebook has “documentation that shows how much operational investment there has been in different languages, and it has shown a consistent pattern of underinvestment in languages ​​that are not. English ”.


Haugen quit Facebook in May and provided internal company documents on Facebook to reporters and others, alleging that Facebook consistently chooses profit over safety. (Getty via AFP)

As a result, extremist groups have been free to exploit this lax approach to moderating content in other languages.

The consensus among experts is that, in the pursuit of profit, social media platforms may have increased social division, inspired hate attacks, and created a global trust deficit that has led to an unprecedented blurring of the line between reality. and fiction.

“I have seen Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own benefits and our security,” Haugen told senators during his testimony on Tuesday.

“Facebook has systematically resolved these conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been more divisions, more harm, more lies, more threats and more fighting. In some cases, this dangerous online speech has led to actual violence that injures and even kills people.

“As long as Facebook operates in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is not accountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook won’t change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good. Our common good.

The influence of social media companies on public attitudes and confidence cannot be overstated. For example, in 2020, 79% of young Arabs got their information from social media, up from just 25% in 2015, according to the Arab Youth Survey.


Supporters of US President Donald Trump, including Jake Angeli, a QAnon supporter known for his painted face and horned hat, demonstrate at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 (AFP / File Photo)

Facebook and other popular Facebook-owned products, such as Instagram and WhatsApp, which experienced a global outage of nearly six hours on Monday, have been repeatedly linked to outbreaks of violence, incitement to hatred Racialism in Myanmar against Rohingya Muslims stormed the Capitol in Washington by supporters of incumbent President Donald Trump last January.

The company’s own research shows that it is “easier to inspire people with anger than other emotions,” Haugen said in a recent CBS News interview for “60 Minutes.”

She added: “Facebook has realized that if they change the algorithm to be more secure, people will spend less time on the site, they will click on fewer ads, they will earn less money.

Many have applauded Haugen’s courage for coming forward and leaking thousands of internal documents that expose the inner workings of the company – claims that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are “just plain bogus.”

In recent months, the social networking site has fought legal battles on several fronts. In Australia, the government has taken Facebook to court to settle its publisher status, which would make it liable for defamation in relation to content posted by third parties.

Russia, meanwhile, is trying to impose a severe fine on the social media giant worth 5-10% of its annual turnover in response to a host of alleged violations of the law.


Although Facebook has removed millions of posts containing hate speech from its platforms in 2020, it still has a long way to go. (AFP / File Photo)

Earlier this year, the G7 group of countries, made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, signed a tax deal stating that Facebook and other tech giants, including Amazon, must adhere to an overall enterprise minimum. tax of at least 15 percent.

In defense of Facebook, it must be said that its moderators face the grueling task of navigating the rules and regulations of various governments, combined with the growing sophistication of online extremists.

According to Jacob Berntsson, head of policy and research for Tech Against Terrorism, an initiative launched to fight extremism online while protecting freedom of expression, terrorist organizations have become more adept at using social media platforms. without falling into the trap of moderators.

“I think to be very clear Facebook can certainly improve its response in this area, but it’s very difficult when, for example, the legal status of the group is not particularly clear,” Berntsson told Arab News.

“I think all of this shows that it’s extremely difficult and that moderating content on this scale is next to impossible. So there will always be mistakes. There will always be gaps. “

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad



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