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Human rights activists still don't think Facebook is doing nearly enough

“In each of our countries Facebook has been weaponized by bad actors against our citizens.”

by David Gilbert
May 19 2018, 3:24pm

TORONTO — A coalition of human rights activists from countries like Myanmar, Syria, India, and Sri Lanka slammed Facebook for its ”reckless push for expansion,” and said that despite recent promises, the company still isn’t doing enough to fix the problems it’s created.

The emerging grassroots coalition of activists from eight countries issued a list of demands to Facebook during a press conference at RighsCon on Friday. Specifically, the group called on the company to allow independent “human rights audits” in each country in an effort to better assess how local governments and authoritarian regimes are using and abusing the platform.

“In each of our countries, Facebook has been weaponized by bad actors against our citizens,” the coalition said in a statement. “In each case, Facebook has failed to put adequate protections into practice.”

On Thursday, Facebook announced it was partnering with the Atlantic Council to combat election-related propaganda and misinformation in elections around the world.

Read: Hate speech is still going viral on Facebook in Myanmar

But the group dismissed the possibility of using the Washington-based think tank, claiming this was simply another indication of the U.S.-centric thinking that dominates Facebook’s decision-making process. Instead, they stressed “a genuine partnership with local civil society actors” and asked for audits to be “independent and governed by the coalition.” Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News about the coalition’s demands.

In Myanmar the U.N. has accused Facebook of facilitating genocide; in India the platform is accused of helping Narendra Modi to consolidate his power while ignoring opposition parties; in Vietnam, the government controls Facebook using a 10,000-strong cyber army called Force 47; in the Philippines, Facebook is accused of aiding Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on dissenting voices; and in Sri Lanka the company is accused of allowing hate speech to threaten the Muslim community.

“Commitments and apologies will no longer cut it.”

CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently addressed the situation in Myanmar where Facebook stands accused by the U.N. of “turning into a beast” because it was used to foment violence and hatred toward Rohingya Muslims.

In response to a letter from Myanmar activists, Zuckerberg said Facebook was committed to improving how the company’s tools worked and promised to add “dozens more Burmese-language reviewers to handle reports from users across all our services.” He added there was now a special product team working to better understand the specific local challenges and build the right tools to help keep people there safe.

Read: Americans are using Facebook to meddle in Ireland's abortion referendum

But the group of activists said they’re still not convinced the company truly understands the depth of the problem in countries outside North America and Western Europe.

“Commitments and apologies will no longer cut it, and these specific demands are merely the first steps in holding Facebook accountable for its actions,” the group said at Friday’s press conference.

“We are not going to be managed. We demand audits, by independent third parties designated by this coalition.”

Most of the negative media attention around Facebook has zeroed in on the company’s issues in the West — Russian interference in the U.S. election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal come to mind. But human rights activists said the platform’s been far more toxic in developing countries like Syria, Myanmar, and India, where people’s basic rights, and sometimes their lives, are at risk because of hate speech, the weaponizing of the platform by authoritarian governments, and a complete lack of transparency.

“When we look at the enormity of what our coalition represents, we are starting with the first social media genocide, we are talking about the Syrian war and we're talking about the disruption of the largest democracy in the world,” Thenmozhi Soundararajan, one of the group’s human rights activists, said at the press conference.

The group is also demanding more transparency, parity with Western markets, more-nuanced moderation in local languages, and direct engagement with the Facebook product team in order to understand how those products work.

The coalition, which came together this week after months of coordination, includes activists from eight countries: Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, India, Syria, the Philippines, and Ethiopia, which account for hundreds of millions of Facebook users.

A select group of these activists met with three Facebook executives at RightsCon on Friday morning, but they did not receive the type of concrete guarantees they are seeking.

“We are not going to be managed. We demand audits, by independent third parties designated by this coalition,” Soundararajan told VICE News. “The fact that this is not on the table is racism.”

Cover image: Photo taken on May 1, 2018 shows Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg delivering a speech in San Jose, California. Facebook said on May 14 the same year that it is suspending about 200 applications for an investigation into whether they misused any data. (Kyodo via AP Images)