Today
Thu 6 May 2021

CJ Werleman reports on legal complaints and lawsuits which have been lodged against the social media giant for its failure to moderate hate speech and dehumanising messages against Muslims on the platform

Facebook has been credibly accused of demonstrating a bias against Muslims in allowing anti-Muslim hate to spread and fester on its platform, but now Muslim groups in Australia and United States are fighting back by lodging complaints and lawsuits against the social media giant.

This week, the Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN) lodged a complaint against Facebook under the country’s Racial Discrimination Act for failing to moderate hate speech and dehumanising materials against Australian Muslims of Arab, Middle-Eastern, South Asian, Asian, African backgrounds or immigrant status.

“Our concern is that Facebook only takes action when the community does the heavy-lifting in documenting the violations and is prepared to escalate through media,” said AMAN advisor Rita Jabri-Markwell. “This approach isn’t sustainable and places an unreasonable burden.”

AMAN claims that Facebook allows pages that position themselves as anti-Islam – specifically the ‘counter-jihad’ movement or what has been dubbed the ‘Islamophobia Industry’ – to spread and amplify their message, even when it is clear that they are deliberately targeting Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim with dangerous and dehumanising language and conspiracy theories, thus endangering the lives of Muslims and other racial and ethnic minorities, in violation of the website’s community rules.

“Our community has experienced many attacks on mosques, as well on individuals and families going about their lives,” said Jabri-Markwell. “But it’s not only Muslims who are affected. Research has clearly shown anti-Muslim populist movements online have been the pre-dominant force behind the growth in right-wing extremism. Australian communities have paid the price too long. We have no choice but to escalate this.”

Jabri-Markwell told Byline Times that AMAN had tried to negotiate in good faith with Facebook for 12 months, putting forward proposals and providing evidence. But, while the company has indicated a willingness to “put out fires and delete hate speech that we report”, it has not agreed to do so of its own accord.

“We’re not prepared to be part of that dynamic,” she added. “It is their job to properly assess hateful echo chambers.”

For Jabri-Markwell, the 2019 Christchurch mosque terror attack by an Australian right-wing extremist – who used his Facebook account to live-stream the killing of 51 Muslim worshippers – should have sounded an alarm bell within Facebook. However, the tragedy has merely invoked the shrugging of shoulders, with the company doing little or nothing to change the way in which explicitly dehumanising language directed at Muslims – ‘invaders’, ‘savages’, ‘disease’ – is frequently not detected by Facebook’s monitoring tools, according to a 2020 AMAN report.

“Facebook knew about dehumanising conspiracy theories running wild on its platform before Christchurch,” she told Byline Times. “Just look at the Oslo massacre by Breivik. We’ve got research pointing to it before 2019. And yet they’ve continued to look the other way from hate pages and groups, accepting the pretence that they are merely anti-Islam or counter-jihad. The comment threads provide ample evidence otherwise.

“Anti Muslim forces have been very active on Facebook for many years. The reasons for this have been well-documented. Populism in far-right politics has contributed, but we also see signs of foreign state actor interference. It’s also gained traction because of official rhetoric related to the ‘War on Terror’ and asylum seekers.”

Muslims in Australia are not only targeted with online hate from white right-wing extremists – who now constitute 40% of Australia’s top spy agency’s caseload – but also increasingly by Hindu nationalists within the country’s 700,000 Indian migrant population. A recent report by this author on Substack demonstrated how Hindutva groups target hate against Indian Muslim and Sikh expatriate communities on Facebook without any punishment from the Big Tech giant.

“We applaud AMAN’s efforts to hold Facebook accountable for the hate speech and dehumanising content that is allowed on its platform,” Deepak Joshi, co-founder of the Humanism Project, a social justice advocacy group for the Indian diaspora in Australia, told Byline Times.

“There is an urgent need for the law enforcement authorities to intervene when online threats and hate messaging is brought to their attention, rather than wait for someone to be harmed before they act. The recent attacks on the Sikh community in Sydney and Melbourne are examples of how hate messaging on social media can escalate to acts of violence on innocent individuals because of their religious or ethnic identity.”

This week, Facebook told SBS News that it had invested in AI technology to remove hate speech. While the company claims to have taken down 97% of hateful posts before they were reported by users, the company’s defence appears to contradict what those using the site – particularly Muslims – are seeing with their own eyes. The civil rights group Muslim Advocates, for instance, has filed a lawsuit against Facebook in the US District Court of Columbia for failing to remove anti-Muslim hate speech from its platform, despite promises to do so.

The group’s court filing cites the continued access to Facebook by anti-Muslim groups, such as ‘Death to Murdering Islamic Muslim Cult Members’ and ‘Filth of Islam’ – despite Muslim Advocates notifying the platform about these pages and despite Facebook’s policy prohibiting “reference or comparison to filth” on the basis of religion. 

“For years, we have warned Facebook about the barrage of anti-Muslim hate and violent threats that proliferate on their platform and violate the company’s own policies,” Muslim Advocates said. “Facebook executives repeatedly testify before Congress and reassure consumers that they remove content that violates their community standards or other policies and practices. But they don’t.”

That Facebook has done little or nothing to remove dehumanising anti-Muslim hate speech from its site, despite having admitted that the platform was used to incite genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2016-17, is yet another damning indictment against the company – affirming accusations that it puts profit before the safety and wellbeing of its users, particularly Muslims, which have gained further credibility in the wake of a recent bombshell whistle-blower complaint against the company.

Earlier this month, a former Facebook employee revealed to the Guardian how the company planned to remove fake accounts in India, until it realised that a member of the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was involved. The BJP has weaponised hatred against Muslims to appeal to Hindu nationalist sensibilities. A recent US Government report identified it as a “primary aggressor in the promotion of Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

On how she anticipates Facebook will respond to these complaints and legal filings, Rita Jabri-Markwell told Byline Times that she expects the company to negotiate because discrimination law sets a responsibility on platforms to not unreasonably burden and disadvantage communities on the basis of protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity and immigration status.

“Facebook can’t hide behind contrived data when the evidence is there for everyone to see,” she added.

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