Facebook “lacks the will” to tackle disinformation in Africa Social media

Фacebook is accused of not investing enough to fight disinformation as it pursues rapid growth in Africa, where the Covid pandemic highlighted the huge role of social media in online discourse.

Traditional media and governments have an increasingly limited ability to control the continent’s information flows as social media platforms, including Facebook, seek to expand rapidly, albeit largely without fanfare.

“Facebook is losing users on the left, right and center in the global north, so where do the new users come from? The global south, “said Henri van der Spoy, a senior researcher at Research ICT Africa, a think tank.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a population of 1.1 billion, with an average of about 30% using the Internet three times higher than a decade ago.

Toussaint Notias, research director at Stanford University’s Digital Civil Society Laboratory, who has worked extensively on Facebook, said it was “common” that Facebook had launched an “aggressive expansion” in the global south to gain new users after a downturn. developed world.

“Africa has a young growing population and therefore offers opportunities for Facebook to access the Internet, through Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or whatever. That can be monetized later, “he said.

Covid test site in Alexandra, South Africa in April 2020 Photo: Jérôme Delay / AP

Many – but not all – academic studies have linked hesitations about the Covid vaccine to misinformation circulating on social media in Africa and elsewhere.

In some parts of the continent, such as South Africa, hesitation has been the biggest challenge for vaccination campaigns.

Dr Matshidiso Moetti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, spoke of “infodemia”, which she described as “oversaturation of information with misinformation in the mix”. [which] it makes it difficult to understand what is right and true. ”

False information circulating on social media includes claims that blacks cannot be infected with Covid-19 or that they can be cured with steam or traditional remedies such as herbal tea. Conspiracy theories describing conspiracies by Western companies or governments to test vaccines in Africa or slow demographic growth are also widespread.

“The regulation is very problematic,” van der Spoy said. Това This is not allowed in the global north, but the risks are much higher in the south… you do not have the same protective network of literacy skills and cross-checking skills, nor the protection of adequate policies or capable institutions… Facebook invests in dealing with some of these challenges, but not enough. “

Facebook relies on an expanding network of hundreds of third-country fact-checkers across Africa to launch investigations and respond to user complaints. If the concerns are found to be justified, warnings are attached to the publications, which are also reduced in the algorithms that direct traffic. Some accounts have been removed.

A man walks past a Covid-19 vaccination banner posted in front of a Lagos clinic last December.
A man walks past a Covid-19 vaccination banner posted in front of a Lagos clinic last December. Photo: Akintunde Akinleye / EPA

A spokesman for Meta, which owns Facebook, described the misinformation as a complex and ever-evolving societal challenge for which there is no “silver bullet”.

But, they said, Facebook now employs a global team of 40,000 security and safety staff, including 15,000, who view content in more than 70 languages ​​- including Amharic, Somali, Swahili and Hausa, among others.

This helped the company “debunk false allegations in local languages, including election and vaccine allegations.”

“We have also made changes to our policies and products to ensure that fewer people see false information and will be informed when they do, and emphasize reliable vaccine information through our global information center Covid-19.” said the spokesman.

However, publications are not usually removed unless they are seen as directly inciting violence or hatred, leading to fears that some may be viewed by the general public even after being labeled as fake or misleading.

“They take things away from time to time, but it takes a long time,” said Stuart Jones, director of the Center for Behavior Analysis and Change in South Africa, which monitors the country’s social media.

Facebook claims that more than 95% of the time people see fact-checking labels, they don’t continue to look at the original content.

Other platforms are also struggling to contain misinformation.

“Social media [in South Africa]”Twitter, in particular, is dominated by voices against vaccines,” Jones said.

“We have not identified organized networks, but we are dealing with people with a very strong voice who speak often and very passionately. Votes about vaccines are more moderate and do not cause the same outrage and are not shared as much. So the algorithms work and everything just runs away. “

A health worker administering a dose of Covid vaccine in Serekunda on the outskirts of Banjul in the Gambia last September.
A health worker administering a dose of Covid vaccine in Serekunda on the outskirts of Banjul in the Gambia last September. Photo: Léo Corrêa / AP

Francis Haugen, a former Facebook manager who has become an informant, said her concerns about the apparent lack of security controls in non-English-speaking markets such as Africa and the Middle East were key factors in her decision to go public.

“I did what I thought was necessary to save the lives of people, especially in the global south, who I think are at risk of prioritizing Facebook profits to the public,” Haugen told the Guardian last year.

Fact-finding organizations across Africa, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, said they were confident their work had changed, but worried the impact was very limited.

“What we do is important and it stops some people from reading things that are just not true. But I’m worried that this is really just a small part of what’s out there, “said one.

Some say it is difficult to assess the extent to which Facebook’s downgrading of such newscasts limits exposure, and worries that the company has not published a breakdown of funding figures for fact-finding operations in Africa.

“There seems to be as little real investment as possible on the continent in terms of directly engaging people or hiring people with real local knowledge,” said Grace Mutung’u, a political researcher and lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“It’s a matter of responsibility. If you take on such a huge responsibility in society, you must invest equally in solving the problems that arise from it. They have the resources, they lack the will. “

WHO officials say they are concerned about encrypted private applications such as WhatsApp, which remain “invisible” because it is impossible to know what is being said or shared and it is very difficult to intervene to stop the flow of false information.

WhatsApp is also owned by Meta, which owns Facebook. The company said it was taking steps to address the problem.

Notias said there was no easy obvious solution to the problem of moderating content, but “simple things” like allocating more resources would help.

“Right now, compared to the company’s wealth and its social responsibility … it’s pretty minimal,” he said.

“They just don’t take it seriously enough or don’t invest enough money in it. When you think it’s really just a matter of their social responsibility against their debt to investors, it’s not that hard to understand. They are just a corporation. “

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