Social media giant Meta sued in a Kenyan court, again.
This Wednesday, two Ethiopian men successfully sued Meta Platforms Inc in a Nairobi High Court for failing to moderate malicious content repeatedly posted on FaceBook. The judgement could determine the way FaceBook and several social media platforms operate across the world.
It is nearly two decades since the late President Mwai Kibaki mistakenly called FaceBook, “FatBook” in an official path-breaking speech that educated Kenyans on the internet. Last year alone, this column has traced the exponential growth of the internet and the implications of social media platforms failing to self-regulate hate for our democracy and rights no less than five times.
This week, Fisseha Tekle and Abrham Meareg filed a constitutional petition demanding Sh 250 billion in damages for online hate speech. The two-year-old Ethiopian war has been one of the deadliest conflicts in the world and claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. Professor Meareg Amare, Abrham’s father, is one of them.
Prof. Amare was first profiled as a TPLF supporter on the Meta platform in October 2021. Despite several complaints, his place of work remained exposed on online, and posts continued to violate Meta's own community standards. Within weeks, Prof Amare was dead and his widow and four children in hiding. Before he was assassinated on 3 November, Prof. Amare was an accomplished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bahir Dar. Armed men attacked him on his way home, shot him in the legs and back and left him to bleed out on a public street. The highly respected 60-year-old Professor didn’t use FaceBook himself and when alerted, felt decades of community service would protect him.
Northern Ethiopia had already been a crime site for crimes against humanity for a year before Dr Amare’s killers threatened and then killed him assisted by information gathered on FaceBook. Human rights organisations, governments, and International Commission of Human Rights Experts had documented and publicly released damning evidence of mass civilian killings, gang rapes and starvation in the war between Ethiopian National Defence Forces, Tigrayan and Eritrean fighters. Hundreds of thousands had lost their lives or been starved and displaced by the conflict by the time of his assassination. Global news, all of this must have been known to the Meta management.
Diasporan Ethiopians working to stop human rights violations have not been spared either. Amnesty colleague Fisseha Tekle has spent the last two years independently and courageously documenting violence by all parties to the Ethiopian war. Last year, he too became a target. Like Dr Amare, Mr. Tekle found himself targeted by unmoderated and advertisement enhanced hate-filled posts. In these and other cases, Meta failed to protect both the vulnerable and human rights defenders from being hunted and attacked.
The constitutional case has been lodged in Kenya as the Meta regional hub for content moderation. The suit is classic public interest work and is supported by Katiba Institute. The petitioners seek orders causing Facebook to set aside Sh 250 billion for an Advertisements Victims Fund in Kenya. The Fund will benefit of any future Facebook user in Kenya who has been the victim of boosted or sponsored hate posts.
This is the second significant case Meta is facing in a Kenyan court. Earlier this year, South African content moderator Daniel Motaung sued the company for exploitative, poor working conditions at its Nairobi office on behalf of several Kenyan employees.
Both cases indicate FaceBook algorithms and advertising accelerate controversial, hateful, and inciteful content. As this column has argued, Meta, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram disproportionately underinvests in content moderation in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Legal counsel Mercy Mutemi further argued in court this Wednesday that while the platform is technologically able to stop this, it has chosen to host even pro-terrorist propaganda.
FaceBook critics have pointed to similar lapses in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and the US, where viral incitement helped fuel the Capitol riots on 6 January 2021. However, as digital rights advocate Mutemi points out, in the case of the US Capitol attack, Meta deployed a ‘Break the Glass’ procedure to mute dangerous content. This tool does not appear to have been harnessed to protect African lives. Until then, Abrham and Tekle are seeking justice for millions of Africans hurt Facebook’s profiteering.
The Meta case further establishes Kenya not only as a sanctuary nation for refugees. It also for the first time situates the Kenyan constitution as a global justice driver for online safety for 4.7 billion social media users across the world.
Rest in Power Prof Mearag Amare. May your Ethiopian sons find justice for you and countless others.
This opinion was published in the weekly Saturday Standard column 17 December 2022 #StandardSettingKE
For more on the late Prof Mearag Amare see here jurisprudence setting and landmark case see here, the petitioners views see here