Facebook Faces Backlash at RightsCon in Toronto

TORONTO (CN) – Capping off a three-day summit on human rights, Facebook received a stern warning not to package its political-manipulation crisis as a first-world problem.

The message to Facebook, which helped sponsor RightsCon 2018 in Toronto last week, came from activists and organizers representing Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Philippine, Ethiopia and Syria.

“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,” they wrote in a statement Friday. “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.”

In India, Facebook is accused enabling manipulation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shared a stage with Zuckerberg in 2015. Meanwhile in Myanmar, the United Nations has alleged, viral demonization campaigns on Facebook have accelerated the persecution of an ethnic minority called the Rohingya. The Wall Street Journal likewise has reported on how Vietnam uses its 10,000-strong cyber-army Force 47 to bully those engaging in online dissent.

At a panel announcing the initiative, Indian human rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan emphasized that the still-unnamed group has not adopted the hashtag #DearMark that it was circulating.

“We will not be defined by a white man, trust me,” Soundararajan said.

Each of the countries represented on the Friday panel belong to what socioeconomic experts now refer to as the global south — replacing the formerly used lingo of developing nations. Facebook was a frequent target for many, however, at this year’s RightsCon, which included panels on algorithm transparency, troll armies and social-media censorship.

At the invitation of David Huerta, the digital security trainer for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, this reporter participated in a discussion on viral misinformation and weaponized propaganda.

While Facebook has tried to combat misinformation with a variety of measures — partnering with third-party fact-checkers and adopting a ranking system for trusted news sites — Huerta focused on the simple failure of Facebook news posts to reveal where the information was published and when.

Relying in part on a guide to media literacy by Verde News editor Kelcie Grega, the panel pushed for Facebook to embrace the traditional journalistic principles of transparency and verification.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg resisted this association last month on Capitol Hill. “I consider us to be a technology company,” he testified before Congress.

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 another panel.

“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.”

Earlier this month, Facebook announced a new system for algorithmic editing that ranks news organizations based on trust. BuzzFeed reported that such rankings would be based at least in part on user feedback, a system criticized by ProPublica’s president Dick Tofel.

“Translation: private company with billions at stake in political process creates secret, opaque process for ranking news orgs that cover it, and which depend on it for traffic,” Tofel tweeted on May 2. “And we are supposed to trust their approach is neutral and free of conflicts.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s senior attorney David Greene called for much more transparency over the system.

“Those who are ranked should be notified,” Greene said. “The fact of ranking should be transparent as well, especially those who are actually ranked. There should be some process where they can appeal that and have the ranking reconsidered and that done promptly.”

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

After initially rebuffing requests to appear before the European Parliament, Zuckerberg agreed to have his testimony live streamed to the public. The European Union’s new data-privacy law, General Data Protection Regulation, goes into effect on Friday, and Zuckerberg said that Facebook will enforce the “spirit” – if not the letter – of the regulations globally.

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