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At RightsCon in Toronto, Anger Swells at a Sponsor: Facebook

With the constant flood of headlines about Russian meddling in the U.S. election, many forget that nation-state manipulation of Facebook is a global problem, and a new coalition formed at the annual RightsCon conference in Toronto to keep this issue on Mark Zuckerberg's radar.

The group – comprised of human rights activists and organizers from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Philippine, Ethiopia and Syria – is quick to note that 72 percent of Facebook's users come from outside of North America and Europe.

"Between them, the coalition countries include the world largest democracy, the first social media enabled genocide, state sponsored troll armies, and the devastation of the Syrian war," its statement read. "In each of our countries Facebook has been weaponized by bad actors against our citizens. In each case Facebook has failed to put adequate protections into practice."

While the group circulated the hashtag #DearMark, Indian human rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan emphasized that the still-unnamed group does not go by this branding.

“We will be defined by a white man, trust me,” Soundararajan said with a laugh at a panel announcing the initiative.

In India, Facebook is accused enabling manipulation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shared a stage with Zuckerberg in 2015. The United Nations has alleged that viral demonization campaigns on Facebook has accelerated the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Wall Street Journal has reported on how Vietnam's 10,000-strong cyber-army called Force 47 bullies those engaging in online dissent.

Focused on Facebook's ripples in the global south, the preferred term for developing nations, the group announced their formation toward the end of three days of a conference dedicated to digital privacy. They were far from alone in criticizing Facebook, one of the dozens of sponsors at RightsCon.

This year's conference featured several panels on viral misinformation, algorithm transparency, troll armies, weaponized propaganda and social media censorship, with titles such as "Take on the Fake! Design thinking to combat fake news," “The role of fake news in fueling conflict in Syria,” and “Algorithmic transparency: why is it important and how can it be achieved?”

Full disclosure: The Freedom of the Press Foundation's David Huerta invited me to participate in a discussion that he titled "Concepts for Addressing the Proliferation of Misinformation and Weaponized Propaganda." The event described our ideas about how Facebook's opaque design allows misinformation to spread by failing to include such vital information as a news story's dateline and time of publication. It urged the company to solve the so-called fake news crisis, not through censorship, but through traditional journalistic methods of transparency and verification.

Such ideas are premised on the notion that Facebook is a media company, a notion that Zuckerberg resisted during his congressional testimony.

"I consider us to be a technology company," Zuckerberg told Capitol Hill last month.

CBS alum Jason Kint, who now heads a trade association of online media Digital Content Next, noted that 97 percent of Facebook's revenue comes from advertising.

"So in that respect, it has all the characteristics of a media company," Kint said at a panel asking "Can privacy solve fake news?"

"Facebook is now, and Google is now, doing every element of that outside of the content creation," Kint said. "They're curating it. They're hosting it, and they're monetizing it. And I think that's very close to replacing the front page of the newspaper."

Together with co-panelist Guillaume Champeau, an ethics director of the Paris-based search engine Qwant, Kint argued that Facebook's violations of user privacy seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal enabled the problems of social media misinformation because the website's algorithms tailor the news to user preferences. Qwant's search engine does not track users in what the company describes as an effort to keep them out of filter bubbles.

"Just on the legal point of view, normally Facebook is a host," Champeau said. "It's just hosting content."

"The problem is, they're enforcing their own terms of what you're allowed to say or not in the platform," he continued. "So they're choosing what you will see, what you will share, what you will be able to post. The more the filter the content, the more decide what you are allowed to say or not, the more of a media [company] they become. To my mind, they are much media today than they are a host."

Facebook did not respond to emails requests for comment or invitations to discuss these matters at RightsCon, where the company sent representatives.

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