The Week in World News | Facebook, free speech and fake elections

The world moves fast. If you don’t stop and read the papers, you might just miss a few things. So with this in mind, let’s take you through a few of those global stories that you may have missed over the last week.

Facebook and disturbing content

Facebook was called before our Oireachtas Communications Committee after a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation in late July revealed content moderators were not removing disturbing content from the platform.

The UK media investigation centered heavily on Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin, and showed moderators clearly bypassing violent and harmful content, including child abuse, which should have been removed in accordance with Facebook’s own content policy.

Moderators were filmed citing equally disturbing rationale for leaving the content on the site, in what appeared to be a de facto policy that exists within the company. On the programme, one CPL moderator, employed by Facebook, said if Facebook start censoring people too much then people will stop using the platform and “it’s all about the money at the end of the day.”

Facebook uses CPL, Ireland’s largest recruitment agency, to recruit moderators. The recruitment agency was shown to deliver training to Facebook employees,with material that also contradicted official Facebook policy on how to deal with harmful content.

The social media company claim they were unaware of changes made to the training material used by CPL and that this was an oversight on their behalf, that it does not reflect Facebook’s values and is currently under investigation with CPL.

Facebook’s Head of Public Policy, Niamh Sweeney, was challenged on this by Chairperson of the committee meeting, Hildergarde Naughton, who referenced a 2016 memo entitled ‘The Ugly. In the memo, Facebook’s vice president, Andrew Bosworth, set out that anything that achieves growth for Facebook is de facto good even if it means somebody dies as a result of being exposed to bullies or through a terrorist attack planned using Facebook platforms.

The issues raised at the committee meeting go beyond what was captured in the documentary, many of which warrant every Facebook user’s consideration. You can read the full committee meeting here.

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook |
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Ireland looks like it will be taking the lead on pushing for statutory regulation with Sinn Féin’s ‘Digital Safety Commissioner Bill’ already at the committee stage. The bill would provide for a Digital Safety Commissioner who would be authorised to adjudicate where this is an issue with a platform and an affected user.

The Digital Safety Commissioner will also be there to assist in determining what constitutes as harmful communication and to provide a path of appeal for affected users.

Meanwhile, Facebook say they understand the logic behind the bill, but are seeking more clarity on the definition of harmful content and cited concerns of its potential to unintentionally impede freedom of speech.

It’s worth reflecting on where you fit into the debate between statutory regulation of a private social media company and the right of freedom of expression. A model of co-operation is needed between the user, platform and state. Users or parents of users need to understand their personal responsibility when using the platform, realistic expectations must be set of the mechanisms or tools that can be used by a platform to mitigate users exposure to harmful content, and some degree of regulation must be put in place for those cases where there is a clear and intended failure to remove content that is in violation of its own policy.

Amnesty International

An Amnesty International staff member was targeted by highly sophisticated and invasive spyware technology, known as Pegasus and developed by the Israel-based NSO group.

The organization believes it was a deliberate attempt to spy on its staff by a government hostile to its work. The staff member received a suspicious WhatsApp message in Arabic with details about an apparent protest outside the Saudi embassy in Washington D.C and a link to a website.

The Amnesty International technology team have confirmed that clicking on the link would have installed the Pegasus surveillance tool, which would have allowed the software to infect the user’s smartphone tracking keystrokes, taking control of the phone’s cameras and microphone and accessing contact lists.

The NSO group is known to sell spyware to governments and according to company policy, is to be exclusively used for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism. The domain link in the message was found to belong to a larger network of more that 600 suspicious websites that have all been connected in some way to the NSO group.

NSO Facebook spyware |
NSO Group

It’s likely that the spyware has been used to bait and spy on other activists in several countries including, Kenya, Hungary and countries in the Gulf region.

This is not the first time that NSO group have been found to be at the centre of a surveillance scheme. According to Amnesty International (who cite Citizen Lab), activists, journalists and opposition party leaders were targeted in Mexico in an attempt to silence government opposition.

You can read Amnesty International’s statement here, which also includes a response from the NSO group.

Zimbabwe elections

Unrest throughout parliamentary and presidential elections in Zimbabwe has left six people dead this week, after Police opened fired on protestors. Journalists covering a post result press conference were also targeted by Police who stormed the conference and shouted for everyone to leave.

The Thursday night result saw Emmerson Mnangagwa elected as President after winning 50.8% of the vote. Mnangagwa’s main opposition, Nelson Chamisa, has criticised the result and said ballot boxes were tampered with. Election observers appointed to Zimbabwe had originally raised concerns from the outset that counting was taking longer than expected and that the announcement should also have been made sooner.

Mnangagwa Zimbabwe |
Emmerson Mnangagwa

For now, the result remains, but Chamisa is expected to legally challenge what is being observed as the official result.

It appeared to be a new era for Zimbabwe after former dictator of the country, 94-year-old Robert Mugabe, was ousted by the military in November. Mugabe ruled the country for 37 years after he led his party to victory in Zimbabwe’s war of independence, but in the years proceeding independence Mugabe was notorious for his violent repression of civil society, opposition and media.

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