African newspaper ‘The Continent’ reports Facebook failed to contain hate speech in Ethiopia

South African newspaper The Continent reported Saturday that Facebook internal documents reveal that the company knew that its platform was being used to proliferate hate speech in Ethiopia and did not take steps to protect its users living “outside the English-speaking Western world.” The Continent is the first African publication to obtain access to thousands of documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

The Continent claims that Facebook’s internal documents reveal that the tech giant’s employees were aware of a major online disinformation network aligned to the Fano militia, a paramilitary group responsible for several atrocities in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. They had also identified accounts functioning as “key nodes” in this disinformation network and were concerned about their potential to incite violence.

Facebook’s own data revealed that this network was “co-ordinating calls for violence and other armed conflict in Ethiopia” as well as “promoting armed conflict, co-ordinated doxxing, recruiting and fund-raising for the militia.” Further, Ethiopia was among the countries having the weakest level of protection and was identified as “at-risk” by the civic integrity team. The team had also admitted that they were “blind to the extent of the problem.” Yet despite this information and recommendations by the team to take down the disinformation network, the company has taken no action against these accounts to date, and hate speech has continued unabated throughout the region.

The investigation by The Continent also revealed that internal experiments by Facebook have determined that “inflammatory and extreme [content] is more likely to go viral” and generate greater user engagement leading to higher profits. Facebook’s algorithm, which seeks to maximize profits, thus promotes disinformation, hate speech, and other extreme content under the euphemistically termed as the Meaningful Social Interaction (MSI) impact.

In the leaked notes of a briefing with the civil integrity team, Mark Zuckerberg is quoted to have directed the team against making changes “if there was a material trade-off with MSI impact.” Aligning safety with growth for a win-win outcome is nearly an impossible task, tilting the trade-off in favor of weaker user protection.

Ethiopia has been witnessing at least a year-long civil war and widespread human rights abuses, especially in the northernmost region of Tigray. While international bodies such as the UNHCR and UNSC have stepped in, the responsibility of global tech companies for their role in fanning conflicts remains to be accounted for.