Facebook hit with $2bn lawsuit for amplifying hate speech, triggering violence in Africa

Facebook posts calling for violence led to the death of one of the plantiff’s father, lawsuit noted

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 14 December 2022 10:50 GMT
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Researchers and activists have filed a $2bn class action lawsuit against Facebook’s parent company Meta accusing the social media platform of amplifying hate speech and fueling political violence across Africa.

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by two Ethiopian researchers and a Kenyan rights group in Kenya’s high court, alleges that the platform’s algorithms amplified violent content in Ethiopia that led to the deaths of several people, including the father of one of the plaintiffs.

It described Facebook posts published in October 2021 that spread false news that the plaintiff Abrham Mearag’s father had helped massacre people, with some posts revealing the elder man’s address and calling for his death.

Then in November 2021, a group of men followed Mr Mearag’s father from the university where he worked and shot him twice in front of his home, an affidavit filed in the case reportedly says.

“These posts were a death sentence for my father,” the affidavit says, according to NBC news.

The Facebook posts also came amid civil conflict in Ethiopia that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced nearly 2 million in over two years.

Mr Mearag says the civil war was also amplified by hateful content on Facebook calling for violence against specific groups or against those living in some areas.

He also reportedly flagged the posts to Facebook, but the company declined to remove them promptly, according to the lawsuit.

The researcher also accused the company of failing to train its algorithms to identify harmful content and in hiring staff to moderate local language posts at its regional hub in Nairobi.

The lawsuit echoes statements made by Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugens, who leaked the company’s internal documents and told the US Congress last year that genocides in Myanmar and Ethopia are the “opening chapters” of worse events if action is not taken against the platform.

Revealing herself in a 60minutes interview earlier last year, the data scientist and former Facebook product manager, had accused the company of magnifying hate and misinformation by prioritising profits.

At the time, she noted that the company lacked misinformation classifiers in countries including Myanmar, Pakistan, and Ethiopia, which were designated at highest risk.

Meta’s independent oversight board had also urged the company last year to review how its platforms Facebook and Instagram were being used to spread content that could instigate violence in Ethiopia.

“Facebook knows the platform is used for genocide, ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial killings. And intentionally, due to their deliberate dismissal of the consequences and harm, they just prefer to focus on their profit-making,” Mr Meareg told NBC news.

The new lawsuit urges the Kenyan High Court to order Meta to create a $2bn (£1.6bn) fund for victims of hate on Facebook, and to make urgent changes to the platform’s algorithms.

Meta said in response that it invested heavily in teams and technology to remove hateful content, adding that violent posts on Facebook are against the platform’s rules.

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