The Media Today

Facebook, Kenya, and the threat of political violence

August 4, 2022
Civilians flee as security forces aim their weapons at a hotel complex attacked by al-Shabab extremists, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Jan. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi, File)

Two weeks ago, Mercy Ndegwa—a director of public policy at Meta, the parent company of Facebook—described in a blog post the various steps the company was taking in order to “help ensure a safe and secure general election in Kenya” on August 9, against concerns of election-related violence. Ndegwa wrote that Meta had been preparing for the vote for the past year, and had been working hard to “reduce the spread of misinformation, detect and remove hate speech, improve digital literacy and help make political advertising more transparent,” among other steps. In the six months leading up to April 30, Ndegwa said, Facebook “took action on more than 37,000 pieces of content for violating our hate speech policies on Facebook and Instagram in Kenya,” and blocked or removed more than 42,000 items that contravened Meta’s policies against inciting violence.

Facebook, Ndegwa noted, was going to be paying particular attention to abuse involving female public figures, and was working with a team of people with experience in Kenya to understand and remove gender-based slurs in a number of local languages. She added that Facebook had a strict policy of requiring advertisers who wanted to run political ads in Kenya to “undergo a verification process to verify their identity and that they live in the country,” as well as other checks to ensure that their ads complied with Facebook’s policies. In the six months leading up to April 30, Ndegwa wrote, about 36,000 ad submissions targeted to Kenya were rejected before they ran because advertisers did not complete the authorization process or failed to include a disclaimer identifying the ad buyer. 

A week later, researchers at Global Witness, a human rights group, and Foxglove Legal, a British nonprofit that scrutinizes the relationships between tech companies and governments, released a report describing their attempts to buy ads targeting Kenya that included hate speech. The ads included dehumanizing language directed at specific tribal groups, as well as calls for violence—including rape and genocide—in both English and Swahili. All of the ads were eventually approved to run. “This follows a similar pattern we uncovered in Myanmar and Ethiopia,” the researchers wrote, “but for the first time also raises serious questions about Facebook’s content moderation capabilities in English.” In the past, Facebook has praised the “super-efficient AI models” the company uses to detect hate speech, Global Witness noted, adding that its report on hate-speech ads is “a stark reminder of the risk of hate and incitement to violence on their platform.” Days after the Global Witness report, Neha Wadekar reported for the Washington Post that “the prevalence of violent and inflammatory content on the platforms poses real risks in this East African nation, as it prepares for a bitterly contested presidential election.” Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan technology researcher, told the Post that content-moderation failures suggest “a deliberate choice to maximize labor and profit extraction, because they view the societies in the Global South primarily as markets, not as societies.”

New from CJR: The growing culture of censorship by PIO

In response to its findings, Global Witness reported, Meta acknowledged that “there will be instances where they miss things and take down content in error, as both machines and people make mistakes.” (Global Witness also suggested that Ndegwa’s blog post was written in response to its own report, published early in order to preempt it.) Despite the detailed lists of precautions Ndegwa described, Global Witness says it was able to successfully submit more ads calling for violence even after the blog post was published. Following the release of the Global Witness report, Danvas Makori, head of Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission, told a press conference that Facebook “is in violation of the laws of our country. They have allowed themselves to be a vector of hate speech and incitement, misinformation, and disinformation.” Makori gave Meta a week to comply with speech laws, or else the service would be blocked from operating in Kenya.

The day after Makori made this pronouncement, however, Joseph Mucheru, a cabinet secretary in the Kenyan government responsible for internet and communications technologies, posted a message on Twitter that seemed to contradict Makori’s warning. “Media, including social media, will continue to enjoy PRESS FREEDOM in Kenya,” he wrote. “Not clear what legal framework NCIC plans to use to suspend Facebook. Govt is on record. We are NOT shutting down the Internet.” Other government ministers made similar statements. Bridget Andere, African policy analyst at Access Now, a nonprofit human rights group, told Wired magazine that the country lacked a legal framework by which the NCIC might suspend Facebook in the country—and that extralegal methods risked playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes. 

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“Platforms like Meta have failed completely in their handling of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech in Tigray and Myanmar,” Andere told Wired. “The danger is that governments will use that as an excuse for internet shutdowns and app blocking, when it should instead spur companies toward greater investment in human content moderation.” Global Witness, meanwhile, said its research “points to a broken system. For one of the world’s wealthiest companies, with staggering reach and a responsibility not to facilitate division and harm, Facebook can and should do better.” The group added that in 2020, following pressure from advertisers to stop profiting from hate speech, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, said that the company was going to do more to tackle the problem. However, Global Witness noted that “our repeated findings—in Myanmar, Ethiopia and now Kenya—raise serious questions about whether these commitments were followed through.”

Here’s more on Facebook and hate speech:

  • Failure to remove: Documents leaked last year by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, showed that staffers at the social media network repeatedly sounded the alarm on the company’s failure to remove or down-rank posts inciting violence in countries like Ethiopia, CNN reported. The documents show workers warned managers about how Facebook was being used by “problematic actors,” including states and foreign organizations, to spread hate speech and incite violence. CNN said the documents “also indicate that the company has, in many cases, failed to adequately scale up staff or add local language resources to protect people in these places.”
  • Complicity: In 2018, the United Nations categorized the beating, displacement, and killing of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as a genocide. In a separate report, the agency concluded that Facebook “played a determining role” in the violence, by allowing members of the army and other anti-Rohingya elements to spread messages of hate and calls for violence. A group of six civil-society organizations in Myanmar wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, saying the social network’s behavior relied too much on third parties, failed to engage with local human rights workers on important issues, and exhibited “a lack of transparency.”
  • Blame game: Global Witness pointed out in its report on Kenya that the acceptance of ads with hate speech and calls for violence “is not the fault of the individual content moderators, who all too often are asked to undertake deeply traumatising work—including in Kenya—with scant regard for their mental health and decent working conditions.” The group also noted that, earlier this year, a former moderator at Facebook filed a lawsuit in Kenya against Meta and its local partner Sama, alleging moderators suffer from poor working conditions including “irregular pay, inadequate mental health support, union-busting, and violations of their privacy and dignity.”


Other notable stories:

  • Semafor, the online news startup from Ben Smith, former New York Times media writer, and Justin Smith, former head of Bloomberg Media Group, has hired a number of journalists in both the US and other countries, the Financial Times reported. “Liz Hoffman, a Wall Street Journal reporter known for landing finance scoops, has joined alongside politics and technology journalists from BuzzFeed and the Washington Post, respectively,” the FT wrote. “In addition to assembling a team of reporters in the US, Semafor plans to open local bureaux, starting with Africa [and] has hired Yinka Adegoke, a Nigeria-educated journalist and former Africa editor of Quartz, to lead the team.”
  • The lawyer representing parents of Sandy Hook victims—who are suing Alex Jones, the InfoWars podcast host, for defamation—said in court that Jones’s attorney “messed up” and sent a digital copy of Jones’s cellphone, including all its email and text-message records, to the prosecution. Insider reported that the copy of Jones’s phone “revealed a text about the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 that Jones claimed did not exist, as well as financial information for Jones’s InfoWars.” Messages taken from the phone appear to show that InfoWars made as much as $800,000 per day in 2018.
  • The New York Times announced Wednesday that it added about 180,000 digital-only subscribers in the second quarter of the year, but generated less digital advertising revenue than it did in the same period a year earlier. The company had total revenue of $556 million, up 11.5 percent from a year earlier—and digital subscriptions contributed almost half that amount—but its operating profit fell by 18 percent, to $76 million. The Times attributed the lower profit primarily to losses at The Athletic, which it bought in February.
  • Triller, a video app that competes with TikTok, said last year that it was giving 300 Black content creators contracts totaling $14 million, which it called “the largest ever one-time commitment of capital to Black creators.” But Taylor Lorenz reports for the Washington Post that some creators have not seen any of the money they were promised. “Nearly a year after Triller began recruiting Black talent, its payments to many creators have been erraticand, in some cases, nonexistent, according to interviews with more than two dozen creators, talent managers and former company staff,” Lorenz wrote.
  • Andy Bird, the CEO of Pearson, one of the world’s largest publishers of school textbooks, hopes that the company can use non-fungible tokens and the blockchain to get reimbursed for secondary sales of its books, Bloomberg reported. Bird told reporters following the company’s financial results that “in the analog world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale. Technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item.”
  • Kathryn Foxhall writes for CJR about “a growing culture of censorship by public information officers.” In the past, she writes, journalists were able to call and talk to scientists working in public service without approval from higher-ups, but that has changed in recent years. “Glenn Nowak, a former head of media relations at the CDC who held various communication positions at the agency starting in the early nineties, says each subsequent administration has become more restrictive on journalists’ talking to scientists and experts without oversight from authorities,” Foxhall reports.
  • Some podcast guests are paying as much as $50,000 to appear on popular podcasts, Bloomberg reported. “Guests with a product to sell often see podcasting as a golden ticket—an unfiltered medium through which to reach listeners for extended periods of time,” the news service wrote. Some marketing companies are brokering these kinds of deals, as is a new startup called Guestio, but not everyone is in favor. “It’s a gray area, but it’s payola,” said Jon Bier, CEO and founder of public-relations firm Jack Taylor.
  • For the second year, the National Press Foundation is offering a free online conference in October for journalists who want to cover rare diseases. The conference will consist of “online briefings and question-and-answer sessions from top world experts in rare diseases, diagnostics, targeted testing and drug development,” according to the foundation, which is also offering reporting grants of up to $3,000 to twenty journalists to research and write about a rare disease of their choosing.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.