IT’S A WAR AND FACE­BOOK’S NOW UN­DER FIRE

The Sunday Independent - - JUSTICE - EDWARD MCAL­LIS­TER

A VIDEO link posted on Face­book on June 20 showed a man cook­ing hu­man body parts in a pot over a wood fire.

In Cameroon, the footage went vi­ral. Some Face­book users said the man was a can­ni­bal and that the video was shot in the coun­try’s English-speak­ing west, where sep­a­ratist in­sur­gents are fight­ing to cre­ate a break­away state.

Lo­cal web­sites quickly de­bunked this no­tion. The man in the video was not a sep­a­ratist fighter or can­ni­bal, and the body parts were not real. The clip was taken on a Nige­rian film set and up­loaded to In­sta­gram on June 17 by make-up artist Ha­keem Onilogbo, who uses the plat­form to show­case his work.

But the video’s rapid spread raises ques­tions about Face­book’s abil­ity to po­lice mil­lions of posts each day and crack down on hate speech in a coun­try where in­ter­net use is ris­ing fast, so­cial me­dia are used for po­lit­i­cal ends and the com­pany has no per­ma­nent phys­i­cal pres­ence.

The day the link was posted on Face­book, a mem­ber of the govern­ment brought the video to the at­ten­tion of in­ter­na­tional diplo­mats in the cap­i­tal, Yaounde, via What­sApp.

Five days later, Cameroon’s min­is­ter for ter­ri­to­rial ad­min­is­tra­tion cited it as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for an army clam­p­down against the se­ces­sion­ists that was al­ready un­der way in the An­glo­phone re­gions.

The min­is­ter, Paul Atanga Nji, com­pared the re­bel­lion – over decades of per­ceived marginal­i­sa­tion by the French-speak­ing ma­jor­ity – to an Is­lamist in­sur­gency waged by the Nige­ria-based mil­i­tant group Boko Haram which has killed 30 000 peo­ple.

“Boko Haram com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties, but they did not cut up hu­mans and cook them in pots,” the min­is­ter said in com­ments broad­cast on state tele­vi­sion.

Nji did not re­spond to re­quests for comment. Govern­ment spokesman Issa Tchi­roma Bakary said that in fu­ture the govern­ment would work to ver­ify in­for­ma­tion be­fore com­ment­ing.

Face­book said the video had not been re­ported by users and that it could not comment fur­ther on the clip. It was no longer avail­able on the site late last month.

A se­nior Face­book official said tack­ling mis­in­for­ma­tion in Cameroon was a pri­or­ity for the com­pany.

“We’re pri­ori­tis­ing coun­tries where we’ve al­ready seen how quickly on­line ru­mours can fuel vi­o­lence, such as Myan­mar and Cameroon,” said Ebele Okobi, di­rec­tor of Africa Pub­lic Pol­icy at Face­book.

Face­book is un­der fire for car­ry­ing mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing in the US and Bri­tain, and over posts against the Mus­lim Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity in Myan­mar.

Sri Lankan au­thor­i­ties briefly banned Face­book this year be­cause the govern­ment said it was fu­elling vi­o­lence be­tween Bud­dhists and Mus­lims. In In­dia, mes­sages on Face­book-owned What­sApp have been linked to at­tacks on re­li­gious mi­nori­ties.

In Cameroon, Face­book has been used to in­cite vi­o­lence and to make threat­en­ing posts. Si­mon Munzu, a for­mer UN rep­re­sen­ta­tive, said he was the tar­get of death threats on Face­book af­ter it was an­nounced in July that he would help or­gan­ise ne­go­ti­a­tions in the sep­a­ratist con­flict. Afraid, Munzu went to stay with friends.

Face­book re­moved the posts last month.

Es­ther Omam, who runs a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion called Reach Out, hid at a church and then fled to the Fran­co­phone re­gion af­ter re­ceiv­ing death threats from sep­a­ratists fol­low­ing a peace march which she led.

“The cri­sis has de­stroyed my life and my fam­ily,” she said. “I can­not work any­more. My fam­ily is di­vided. My hus­band is else­where, my chil­dren are else­where.”

Face­book has no staff op­er­at­ing per­ma­nently in Cameroon and says it mon­i­tors the coun­try from Bri­tain and the US. It has an Africa-fo­cused team that fre­quently vis­its the re­gion, and has part­nered with NGOs and civil so­ci­ety in Cameroon in re­cent months to com­bat hate speech.

This in­cluded pay­ing sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars to help or­gan­ise train­ing ses­sions for jour­nal­ists to spot false­hoods on­line, said rep­re­sen­ta­tives from two groups in­volved. Some groups also flag of­fen­sive posts to Face­book.

Face­book had re­moved pages and ac­counts re­lated to the sep­a­ratist con­flict, and was work­ing to slow the spread of kid­nap­ping videos, the com­pany said.

It de­clined to say how many peo­ple it had help­ing it in Cameroon, how much money it had in­vested or how many posts it had taken down. Reuters found dozens of pages posted in re­cent months show­ing graphic im­ages in Cameroon, some of which were months old.

One Face­book user posted a pic­ture on July 18 of the de­cap­i­tated body of a Cameroo­nian po­lice­man ly­ing in a gut­ter, and said the im­age gave him joy.

The same day, sep­a­ratist spokesman Ivo Ta­pang ap­plauded the killing of two Cameroo­nian sol­diers and linked to a web­site rais­ing funds for weapons. Ta­pang did not re­spond to re­quests for comment.

A Face­book spokes­woman said the com­pany was un­aware of the posts be­fore they were pointed out but that they were both re­moved af­ter re­view. It is against Face­book rules to cel­e­brate suf­fer­ing or crowd-fund for arms, she said.

Face­book has ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence that it uses glob­ally to de­tect prob­lem­atic posts. But in Cameroon, it does not have fact-check­ing com­pa­nies to mon­i­tor posts – as it does in the US.

Lead­ing civil so­ci­ety fig­ures in Cameroon say Face­book needs more re­sources and faces an in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult task as in­ter­net use grows.

“It is not pos­si­ble to stop mis­in­for­ma­tion on Face­book,” said Max­im­i­li­enne Ngo Mbe, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of REDHAC, a civil so­ci­ety group that has or­gan­ised train­ing ses­sions and flags in­de­cent posts to Face­book. The num­ber of peo­ple with in­ter­net ac­cess in Cameroon rose from 0.86 mil­lion in 2010 to 5.9 mil­lion in 2016, about a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union, a UN agency.

The govern­ment shut down the in­ter­net in English-speak­ing re­gions for three months last year be­cause of the un­rest. Af­ter ser­vice re­sumed in April 2017, Face­book was the main out­let for peo­ple speak­ing out against the army crack­down, in which sol­diers razed vil­lages and shot dead un­armed civil­ians.

But mis­lead­ing and hate­ful posts have per­sisted, groups that mon­i­tor posts say, echo­ing is­sues Face­book sees world­wide.

Face­book is not the only ser­vice fac­ing a bat­tle to tackle mis­in­for­ma­tion and hate speech. Of­fen­sive videos and im­ages are posted on Twit­ter or trans­mit­ted by What­sApp.

What­sApp can­not view pri­vate, en­crypted con­ver­sa­tions, a What­sApp spokes­woman said, so de­tect­ing hate speech there was harder. A Twit­ter spokes­woman said it pro­hib­ited the pro­mo­tion of vi­o­lence and en­cour­aged users to flag those posts.

| Reuters

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