Facebook’s parent company Meta is now on the path to battle a new lawsuit, one that alleges that the social media company enabled the incitement and spread of hatred in Ethiopia’s deadly civil war. The lawsuit has been filed in Kenya’s High Court.
Filed by Ethiopian researchers Abrham Meareg and Fisseha Tekle, along with Kenyan human rights group Katiba Institute, the lawsuit points to Meta’s failure in the removal of hate speech and harmful content from Facebook, its flagship social media platform. Meta’s negligence in the moderation of content has, as per the lawsuit, fuelled the civil war in the country and furthered the dissemination of violence.
The lawsuit argues that the masses need protection from Facebook’s “woeful failure to address violence on its platform” and its design that “promotes and prioritizes hateful, incitement and dangerous content.” It further claims that Meta’s failure to employ sufficient safety measures to identify and take down harmful content on Facebook has cost the lives of multiple individuals, including that of 500,000 Ethiopians in the Tigray war that reached a conclusion last month.
The casualties include Meareg Amare, Meareg’s father – a professor of chemistry who was shot dead last year. His death can be directly attributed to Facebook’s failure to remove harmful content from its platform, despite Meta’s assurances that it invests “heavily” in content moderation. At that time, several Facebook accounts had accused Amare – a Tigrayan and an ethnic minority in the region – of being a threat to ethnic Amharas and shared Amare’s personal details such as his name, address, and photograph. Even after many of the posts were reported, Facebook opted not to remove them and chose not to take any actions against the harmful posts.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook’s decision to retain the harmful content on its platform and remain a passive observer backfired – quite literally in the case of Amare, since a group of men followed Amare home from the university and shot him dead outside his home on November 3, 2021. It was only after his death that Facebook responded by informing that it would remove the post for violating community standards.
“I hold Facebook responsible for my father’s killing,” said Abrham Meareg. “Facebook causes hate and violence to spread in Ethiopia with zero consequences. I’m taking Facebook to court so no one ever suffers as my family has again. I’m seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook’s profiteering – and an apology for my father’s murder,” he added.
Apart from accusing Meta, the lawsuit is calling for the imposition of further steps to curb the spread of hatred and incitement to violence in Ethiopia – including the hiring of more content moderators who are experts on the Ethiopian language expertise at its office in Nairobi – and greater investments in content moderation that focusses specifically on Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. It is also calling for the creation of a $1.6 billion fund by Meta for “victims of hate and violence incited on Facebook.”
“We have strict rules which outline what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook and Instagram. Hate speech and incitement to violence are against these rules and we invest heavily in teams and technology to help us find and remove this content,” Meta responded to the lawsuit’s claims.
“Our safety and integrity work in Ethiopia is guided by feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions. We employ staff with local knowledge and expertise, and continue to develop our capabilities to catch violating content in the most widely spoken languages in the country, including Amharic, Oromo, Somali, and Tigrinya,” it added.