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What Meta’s hate speech lawsuit means for Africa

Policymakers and key stakeholders in Kenya are speaking of a possible ripple effect across the continent as they await the verdict of a lawsuit submitted in Kenya’s High Court against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, for the latter’s alleged enabling of violent and hateful speech.

While some say the outcome of the case, which was announced on 14 December, 2022, could mark a milestone in the fight against violence on social media, others have called for calm, asking activists to wait for the end of the legal process before drawing conclusions. 

Human Rights groups are pursuing Meta with claims that Facebook’s algorithms amplified hatred and fueled ethnic violence and killings in Ethiopia, where government forces have been combating the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for over two years now. The TPLF claims Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is centralising power at the expense of the Region. 

For context, Meta powers Facebook’s news feeds using engagement-based algorithmic systems. The system ranks recommendations and groups features and shapes what viewers see in order to keep them longer on the page and maximise profits. The plaintiffs are alleging that Facebook activated this option on a violent and hateful post, which they claim resulted in numerous deaths, including that of the father of one of the plaintiffs. 

The lawsuit

The plaintiffs are asking for a reform of Facebook’s business practices to ensure its algorithms do not amplify hate, and are demanding FCFA 989 billion ($ 1.6 billion) in restitution fees to victims from Meta. Amnesty International, which announced the case in an official communiqué, said six other human rights and legal organisations have a keen interest in the matter.

“This legal action is a significant step in holding Meta to account for its harmful business model,” stated Flavia Mwangovya, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director of East Africa, Horn and Great Lakes Region.

The Human Rights organisation added that one of its staff members in Ethiopia was targeted following posts on a social media platform. 

Fisseha Tekle, a legal advisor at Amnesty International whose work came under such attacks incited on social media, hopes the lawsuit will address the “imbalance.”

“In Ethiopia, the people rely on social media for news and information,” he said, adding that “Because of the hate and disinformation on Facebook, human rights defenders have also become targets of threats and vitriol. 

“I saw first-hand how the dynamics on Facebook harmed my own human rights work.”

Fisseha Tekle, an Ethiopian who now lives in Kenya and is one of the petitioners in the case, confirmed to have been subjected to a stream of hateful posts. Having faced threats on Facebook, he does not dare set foot in his home country, which means he is permanently disconnected from his family. 

One of the litigants is Abraham Meareg, whose father, Professor Meareg Amare of Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, was hunted and killed in 2021, barely days after inciting posts against him flooded Facebook. The plaintiffs claim that it took Facebook three weeks to remove the post after the family alerted the company about it. 

“If Facebook had just stopped the spread of hate and moderated posts properly, my father would still be alive,” Meareg (the son) stated.

“I’m taking Facebook to court so no one ever suffers as my family has, again,” he went on. “I’m seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook’s profiteering – and an apology for my father’s murder.”

What the case means for Africans 

For many Africans, the case brings to mind a blunt image of how some 662,000 people, including many women and children, had lost their lives during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which was largely instigated by hate speech that was disseminated through to the masses. 

“I am not too sure that hateful speech has made more damage to people’s behaviour in Africa than it did when the conventional radio –  Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines did in 1994 in Rwanda,” George Ngwane, a member of Cameroon’s Bilingualism and Multiculturalism Commission, a body formed in 2017 as part of measures to resolve a civil war in Cameroon, told FairPlanet.

The Cameroon Anglophone war began in 2016 when Anglophone lawyers and teachers threw in their tools in protest against their perceived marginalisation by the “predominantly Francophone-Central government.” The government retaliated with an internet shutdown that lasted 230 days in order to prevent leaders of the uprising from sending directives back home via social media – a move that was regarded as Africa’s largest internet blackout

Ngwane, who promotes bilingualism and multiculturalism, hopes the lawsuit can revolutionalise the fight against hateful speech.

“The lawsuit is unprecedented!” he said. “It is a good initiative if it is actually going to mitigate the magnitude of hateful speech, because I think it is high time people started thinking about legal actions.”

But seeing as the legal process has yet to be concluded, Ngwane is calling for restraint, advising Africans to be watchful and see how the action ripples out. 

“We want to see how it will translate itself in real concrete terms,” he said. “If we find out that in the course of the action taken by Kenyan activists that this can actually cause Facebook to moderate whatever people say, others will take the queue.”

a Deep-seated cankerworm

Cameroon’s bilingualism and multiculturalism commission is getting overwhelmed with hate speech. Initially created in response to the Anglophone crises, the structure now has to deal with a new phenomenon locally called tontinard and sardinard: derogative appellations inspiring a huge political and ethnic divide. 

“You know that the whole idea resulted from the fact that people have decided to use Facebook and all the social media handles to raise political awareness and sensitivity, and unfortunately in raising that, they are also creating social exclusion between people, and isolation especially between ideological tendencies,” George Ngwane explained. This has now been translated into hatred among people, he added, which is freely shared on Facebook and WhatsApp in Cameroon.

“No one can’t exonerate or even vindicate social media from the incitement that it makes.” 

At the beginning of the Cameroon Anglophone crisis, a lot of people took what they saw and read on social media as gospel truth, which “created a lot of havoc.”

But, in the case of Cameroon, it appears that paradigms are beginning to shift. 

“Now I leverage what I read on social media by fact-checking it against the reality on the ground,” a Bamenda-based businessman who preferred to stay anonymous for security reasons, said.  

“I don’t think that the social media and the gospel that it preaches is taken the way it was before,” confirmed Ngwane of Cameroon’s Bilingualism and Multiculturalism Commission. 

Cameroon’s multiculturalism commission has since 2017 targeted a change of attitude and behaviour, and has employed local media outlets as well as face-to-face meetings to sensitise individuals and public institutions against the malady. 

Professor Regine King, herself a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, opines that a remake of what she experienced must be avoided at all cost. But when such atrocities do happen, she believes, justice needs to prevail.

Referring to her own her experience, professor King says: “To do justice for the crisis is to look at how those who survived this genocide are faring in the aftermath of it.

“Justice will be to consider that some of the survivors are female who were raped during the genocide, and contracted HIV and are living on retroviral drugs, and that many of those survivors have already passed away.

“Justice will also mean that all the reparation and consequences are on the people who were targeted, and on those who survived but can’t live peacefully because they have been traumatised by the event.”

For Macdonald Ayang, a freelance journalist who has covered the Cameroon Anglophone crisis, social media has been the key channel where hate speech has been propagated. Speaking to FairPlanet, he proposed specific reasons: “For one thing, it is seen as a free space where anyone can say what they want and go away with it. The number of persons with access to social networks such as Facebook and WhatsApp is also a big contribution to the phenomenon.”

Ayang regrets that the situation is even worse off in settings where there are no specific guardrails on the use of these platforms. 

“In such scenarios, individuals can take upon themselves to post any message they want without caring about the consequences it has either for persons or society as a whole, or and also without any fear of persecution,” he said. 

“That’s why some countries around the world have laws that govern the use of social media,” he added. “In Cameroon, the idea has been mooted by government in the past, but the debate remains about whether such a move won’t stifle freedom of expression in some way.”

The Kenyan activists behind the lawsuit seem more concerned because they know Facebook has the capacity to implement special adjustments to its algorithms to quickly remove inflammatory content. But they say this was not done throughout the war in Ethiopia as has been done elsewhere in the world, like in North America. 

Image by Dima Solomin


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