Facebook sued for Sh250b in Kenyan Court over role in Ethiopian War

The Kenyan High Court Building. [File, Standard]

Social networking giant Meta has been sued in the High Court in Kenya over the role of its social network in the conflict in Ethiopia's civil war.

In a constitutional petition, Ethiopian researchers Abrham Meareg and Fisseha Tekle, and Kenya's rights group Katiba Institute accuse Meta of several violations of the Kenyan Constitution in the course of its operations in Kenya, and in the region

The case alleges that Meta's failure to deal with core safety issues, particularly on Facebook, has fanned the conflict that raged for more than two years and claimed 500,000 lives.

Meareg, Tekle, and Katiba Institute want Meta held accountable for contributing to the loss of lives, displacement of families, vilification of individuals, and destruction of communities and are seeking Sh250 billion in damages.

"The algorithm did not detect at the first instance that the posts and the comments shared on 9th and 10th October 2021 were not only inflammatory but also amounted to incitement to violence, hate speech, and advocacy of hatred on ethnic grounds which are all forbidden as per the Facebook Community Standards," reads their petition in part.

Through sworn affidavits, the lawsuit seeks to demonstrate how Facebook's moderation failures in Nairobi led to the murder of several people including Meareg's father Professor Meareg Amare. The case alleges that since the conflict began in Ethiopia, Facebook posts can be attributed to multiple incidences of resultant violence and murder.

"The Respondent had a duty of care to protect Professor Meareg from harm by disallowing the 9th and 10th October 2021 posts which ultimately led to the loss of his life".

According to court filings, Kenya has jurisdiction over the case on the grounds that Facebook algorithms are applied in Kenya and content moderation decisions are made in Nairobi.

"Whilst the Facebook Community Standards forbid the posting of inciteful, hateful and dangerous content, to date, there are innumerable Facebook posts calling for, amongst others- inter-communal violence; general incitement to conflict; rape as a weapon of war; murder and abuse of corpses; weaponized starvation; immediate killing to save costs; use of concentration camps; branding of human beings; and burying human beings," states the filing in part.

The case is likely to compound the legal woes facing the social networking giant currently facing increasing scrutiny over the role its algorithms play in spreading disinformation and hate speech.

Facebook parent company Meta is currently battling another lawsuit together with Samasource Kenya, a third-party contractor hired to provide content moderation services, for alleged violations of labor rights.

The suit accuses Facebook and Samasource of hiring content moderators by misrepresenting the role they would be performing and without informing them of the nature of the posts they would be moderating.

"The advertisement misrepresented the role, and caused our client to understand that it was administrative," a demand letter was written on behalf of one of the moderators in the lawsuit. "No disclosure was given that the content moderators being sought were to work as Facebook content moderators."

Samasource and Meta are also accused of neglecting the mental well-being of the moderators employed to review and remove content that was often graphic and disturbing from the platform.

"Sama and Meta failed to prepare our client for the kind of job he was to do and its effects," states the demand letter. "The first video he remembers moderating was of a beheading. Up to that point, no psychological support had been offered to him in advance."

Facebook is also fighting reports that the platform approved and profited from ads calling for ethnic violence in Kenya ahead of the 2022 general elections.

An investigation by digital watchdog Privacy International found that Facebook failed to detect inflammatory and violent hate speech ads in English and Kiswahili on more than one occasion casting doubt on the effectiveness of the firm's moderation efforts.

The latest legal challenge has been backed by several human rights organisations and inclusion watchdogs including Amnesty International, Global Witness, Article 19, Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Kenya's National Commission for Integration and Cohesion, and the Law Society of Kenya.

The suit seeks to compel Meta to set up a Sh200 billion restitution fund for African victims of hate and violence incited on Facebook, and a further Sh50 billion for similar harm from sponsored posts.