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Facebook users take on social media giant Meta over 'moderation'

Meta logo is shown on a device screen. [Getty Images]

Fisseha Tekle, an Ethiopian, is in Kenya but persons who taunt him on Facebook are in his homeland.

In his case before the High Court Nairobi, Tekle, who works with an international human rights body explained that he created a Facebook account in 2007.

However, his life on the social media platform owned by Meta has been nothing short of cyberbullying, threats and insults.

Tekle alongside Abrham Meareg sued Meta in a battle on whether the social media giant should be held responsible for its algorithm’s failure to censure toxic content.  

The court is also being asked to interpret the law on human rights in the age of artificial intelligence (AI).

No moderators

According to the two, Meta does not hire moderators to regulate content for Africa.

“I miss Ethiopia and my family in Ethiopia terribly,” he said.

Tekle narrated that on May 30, 2020, a post with the username Miky Amhara claimed that he was a Tigrayan and “accustomed to sucking Amhara blood”.

He said Amhara has over 125,000 followers. The post, according to him, attracted 2,300 likes, 222 comments and 549 shares.  

According to him, in another post on February 27, 2021, an account with username Muktarovich Ousmanova, which allegedly has over 220,000 followers posted a picture of him alongside an insult ‘jib agech’.

In his case filed before Justice Lawrence Mugambi, he claimed that jib agech means a hyena and is a cultural slur meaning the ugliest kind of human.

The post, he said, received over 21,000 engagements; 1,500 of which were likes, 196 comments and 146 shares.

Those who commented, Telke said, abused him using the vilest insults that they could gather with their keyboards.

“These posts are a threat to my life. As the first petitioner’s tragic experience evidence, posts such as these were regularly acted upon, with deadly consequences,” said Tekle.

Meareg on the other hand told the court that he was forced to seek asylum in the US following the war in the Tigray region in Ethiopia.

He said his father Prof Meareg Amare Abrha who was a university professor at Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia was killed owing to posts on Facebook.

“My father was not actively involved in politics nor in the conflict that has plagued Ethiopia but because of Facebook posts implicating him in the war, he was tracked down by military personnel and killed outside our gate,” said Meareg.

‘Supporting the war’

According to Meareg, a Facebook page named ‘BDU Staff’, with 35,000 likes and 50,000 followers posted a picture of his father claiming that since he was a Tigrayan, he supported the war against the government.

He claimed that the posts gained so many hateful and inciting comments calling for people to harm his father.

“They were posted at a time when the war between the government and the Tigray’s People Liberation Front was ongoing and there was increased targeting of Tigrayans. Identifying him as a Tigrayan, and falsely associating him with the war cost his life,” he swore.

Meareg said after seeing the hateful comments that put his father’s life at risk, he complained to Facebook to pull them down but nothing happened until he was trailed and shot dead on November 3, 2021.

The two filed their case alongside Katiba Institute in a Sh300 billion mega class suit surrounding claims of pain caused to millions who are cyberbullied, trolled and abused online.

 “The company has allowed and continues to allow inciting, hateful and dangerous posts on Facebook thereby violating the rights of many victims, some of them who have died as a result of the online bullying and negative comments about them,” their lawyer Mercy Mutemi said.

Victims Fund

Among the prayers they want the court to issue is an order for Meta Platforms to establish a Facebook Victims Fund in Kenya and deposit Sh250 billion to be administered by the court on behalf of victims of social media abuse.

Upon depositing the funds, the petitioners want the court to quantify the damages suffered by each victim of Facebook’s social media abuse for appropriate payments.

In addition, they want the company ordered to deposit another Sh50 billion as compensation for any Facebook user in Kenya who has been shown a boosted or sponsored post containing content that constitutes inciteful, hateful and dangerous speech.

“We are also seeking an order for the company to issue an apology on its website, blog, its CEO’s Facebook account and all other of its official channels with international reach for allowing inciteful, hateful and dangerous content to be shared on its platform,” said Mutemi.

Mutemi said the company’s algorithm recommends content that amounts to propaganda for war, hate speech, incitement to violence and advocacy of hatred to Facebook.

Strike out case

On the other hand, Meta asked the court to strike out the case.  It argued that the court has no power to hear the case. According to Meta, Tekle and Meareg are Ethiopian nationals while it is located in the US.

On one hand, it argued that the two agreed to the terms of condition when they signed up which required any dispute relating to or out of Facebook to be resolved through laws of the country in which they reside.

It stated that the difficulty of the case was that the Kenyan constitution does not allow courts to entertain disputes involving other countries.

“Given that the Kenyan Constitution does not have extraterritorial reach under these circumstances, the High Court has no power to remedy alleged human rights violations at issue here. In short, the court lacks both territorial jurisdiction (jurisdiction ratione loci) and subject matter jurisdiction (jurisdiction ratione materiae), given the nature of petitioners’ claims,” replied Meta.

Meta flagged out three issues that it feels the court should settle; whether the constitution can apply on issues that are outside Kenya if the court has powers to entertain the case under constitutional avoidance. 

Lastly, it asked the court to find whether the case should be heard in the State of California (US) based on Facebook’s terms of service.

It also poked holes on the petitioners’ argument that it does not have moderators. According to the firm, there is a separate case filed before the Employment and Labour Relations Court on moderators who claim they were subjected to a toxic workplace owing to moderating sexual violence and crime.

“For the avoidance of doubt, nothing stated herein constitutes and admission to any of the claims raised in the petition, and any references to the petition herein do not constitute an admission by the respondent to the legitimacy or veracity of the claims or arguments asserted herein and expressly stated above,” argued Meta lawyers Coulson Harney LLP.

LSK backing

In the meantime, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) backed the case by the two. It argued that Kenyan law confers anyone who resides in the country a right to approach the court for violation of the constitution.

According to LSK, Facebook comments at the heart of the case revolve around persons who are living in Kenya, while content moderation is also done in the country.

LSK urged the court to certify the case as one that raises substantial issues of the law and have the same be referred to the Chief Justice for empanelment of an uneven number of judges.

In the meantime, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) in its submissions argued that the terms that Meta is relying on do not touch on violation of constitutional rights.

It argued that the court has the power to hear the case.

The case will be heard on September 24.

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