Meta sued for $2bn over Facebook posts ‘rousing hate’ in Ethiopia

A lawsuit filed in Kenya alleges Facebook’s recommendations systems amplified violent posts, inflaming the conflict.

The Facebook logo is seen on a cell phone in Boston, US
Meta's oversight board last year recommended a review of how Facebook and Instagram were used to spread content that heightens the risk of violence in Ethiopia [File: Michael Dwyer/AP]

A lawsuit accusing Meta Platforms of enabling violent and hateful posts from Ethiopia to flourish on Facebook, inflaming the country’s bloody civil war, has been filed.

The lawsuit, filed in Kenya’s High Court on Tuesday, was brought by two Ethiopian researchers and the Kenyan rights group the Katiba Institute.

It alleges Facebook’s recommendations systems amplified violent posts in Ethiopia, including several that preceded the murder of the father of one of the researchers.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order Meta to take emergency steps to demote violent content, increase moderation staff in Nairobi and create restitution funds of about $2bn for victims of violence incited on Facebook.

Among the plaintiffs is Abrham Meareg, who said his father, Tigrayan academic Meareg Amare Abrha, was killed after Facebook posts referring to him using ethnic slurs were published in October 2021.

The posts shared Abrha’s address and called for his death. Meareg reported them to Facebook but the company declined to remove them promptly or in some cases at all, the lawsuit alleged. His father was shot dead in November last year.

“If Facebook had just stopped the spread of hate and moderated posts properly, my father would still be alive,” said Meareg.

“I’m taking Facebook to court so no one ever suffers as my family has again. I’m seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook’s profiteering – and an apology for my father’s murder,” he added.

The lawsuit said the company failed to exercise reasonable care in training its algorithms to identify dangerous posts and in hiring staff to police content for the languages covered by its regional moderation hub in Nairobi.

Meta spokesperson Erin McPike said that hate speech and incitement to violence were against the rules of Facebook and Instagram.

“We invest heavily in teams and technology to help us find and remove this content,” McPike added. “We employ staff with local knowledge and expertise and continue to develop our capabilities to catch violating content in the most widely spoken languages in” Ethiopia.

Meta’s independent Oversight Board last year recommended a review of how Facebook and Instagram have been used to spread content that heightens the risk of violence in Ethiopia.

Since conflict erupted in 2020 between the Ethiopian government and rebellious forces from the northern Tigray region, thousands have died and millions have been displaced. A peace deal between the two sides was signed in November, but tensions remain.

The legal case filed against Meta carries echoes of accusations the company has faced for years of atrocities being stoked on its platforms, including in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia.

The company has acknowledged being “too slow” to act in Myanmar and other conflicts.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies