The Media Today

Facebook now linked to violence in the Philippines, Libya, Germany, Myanmar, and India

September 5, 2018

The connection between Facebook and the US election may get the bulk of the media’s attention when it comes to the social network’s misinformation problem, but the issue is even more of an immediate danger in other countries. Among the most recent examples is the Philippines, where president Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters have apparently used the network to attack their critics, including Senator Leila de Lima, according to a new report from BuzzFeed News. After a series of fake news stories touting trumped-up rumors about illicit sexual behavior and other indiscretions, De Lima was arrested on what some believe to be fabricated drug charges, and is now in prison.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports Facebook has also become a key factor in the ongoing crisis in Libya, where rival groups use Facebook to mount disinformation and hate campaigns against each other, including posting threats to “purify” the country of political opponents. According to the Times, some of these “keyboard warriors,” have even tried to target their respective enemies by posting coordinates so that missiles could be aimed properly. “From the traffic light at Wadi al Rabi, it is exactly 18 kilometers to the runway, which means it can be targeted by a 130 mm artillery,” one user wrote on Facebook.

One of the first countries where it became apparent Facebook could be weaponized was Myanmar, where human-rights activists started reporting last year that a Buddhist monk was using the network as a tool to spread vicious lies about the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people. More than 700,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee their homes and many have been tortured and killed. Facebook has since sent additional staff to the country and has suspended some accounts, including that of a top Myanmar military official.

In India, meanwhile, rumors and conspiracy theories about alleged child abductions have been spreading via Facebook-owned WhatsApp, one of the most popular social tools, and those rumors have been linked to multiple deaths in recent months. Facebook says it is trying to help stop the spread of such misinformation, but argues that it is more difficult to do on WhatsApp because the entire network is encrypted from end to end. (Himanshu Gupta and Harsh Taneja argued against this in CJR.)

In addition to those examples, a number of news reports and at least one research paper have drawn a connection between Facebook and violence against immigrants in Germany. The paper has been criticized for flaws in its methodology, which led to the conclusion that Facebook use appeared to be tied to higher levels of anti-immigrant violence, but others argue that even a loose correlation like the one indicated by the study is worthy of concern. And those who are watching the violence on the ground say social media is definitely a factor in some of the attacks, according to a recent report from BuzzFeed News about riots in Chemnitz.

Some would argue Facebook isn’t to blame for this any more than the phone company is. But social networks have allowed this problem to metastasize, and they reach orders of magnitude more people than would ever have been possible before. At what point does that become a social issue worth regulating? That’s likely to become a subject of discussion at this week’s Congressional hearings, where Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will be testifying before the Senate intelligence committee.

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Here are some more links about the connection between social networks and misinformation:

  • Google grudge: Senator Mark Warner, the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is upset that Google and its parent Alphabet have refused to send either Google CEO Sundar Pichai or Alphabet CEO Larry Page to testify before the hearing, according to a report in Wired magazine. The company offered Senior Vice President Kent Walker instead, but the Senate committee said that wasn’t good enough.
  • Spot the fake: The New York Times has come up with a test for its readers, to see if they can discern the difference between Facebook pages that are legitimately about specific social or political issues, and those that have been created by fake accounts aimed at manipulating public opinion in some way.
  • Discussion paper: What the Senate committee plans to ask the social platforms is unknown, but Warner has circulated a discussion paper among senior politicians and tech executives, proposing a number of regulatory solutions to privacy and misinformation problems, including removing some of the protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
  • Bias allegations: The tension around the Senate hearings was ratcheted up significantly in the past couple of weeks, thanks to remarks from President Trump that suggested he believes Google and other social platforms may need to be regulated because their algorithms are biased. The president’s tweet appeared to be based on a questionable study of Google News search results for the term “Trump news.”
  • De-platforming works? Infowars founder and notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones bragged that being banned or blocked from social networks and other services such as Facebook and YouTube would make him stronger than ever, but early indications are that this isn’t the case, according to a report in The New York Times. Traffic to the Infowars site appears to have dropped by close to 50 percent.


Other notable stories:

  • Legendary journalist Bob Woodward has an upcoming book out about the Trump presidency, entitled Fear, which describes a White House in turmoil as the president becomes increasingly obsessed with the “witch hunt” Russia investigation. The Washington Post has also published an audio clip and a transcript of a conversation between Woodward and Trump after the manuscript was already written.
  • Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has intervened personally in decisions about which accounts to block or ban, including the decision not to remove Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, according to The Wall Street Journal. These personal interventions have caused concern among some staff members at the social network, the Journal says. However, Dorsey denied intervening in an interview with Politico.
  • Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Mexican journalist working in the United States, writes for CJR about what it is like to be detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE. Gutiérrez Soto has been detained in ICE detention camps twice, and during the first detention was separated from his 15-year-old son for months, after requesting asylum due to persecution by Mexican authorities.
  • The Wikimedia Foundation, which runs the open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia, has written an open letter to the European Union arguing that proposed changes to the EU’s copyright rules are a threat to the open web. The EU is considering laws that would require online services to pay for excerpts of articles (a so-called “link tax”) and could also make them liable for content posted by their users.
  • Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer and already one of the world’s most valuable companies (it just passed $1 trillion in market value, a benchmark Apple also recently passed) is said to be expanding aggressively into the online advertising business, where it is expected to be a fierce competitor for online ad giants Google and Facebook.
  • The Verge looks at whether Facebook, Google, and Amazon are monopolies that should be broken up by the government, and whether US antitrust law is capable of doing so. Attention Merchants author Tim Wu argues that Facebook should be forced to sell both WhatsApp and Instagram, and says the giant web companies are hurting innovation.
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.