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Politics

Facebook’s Sri Lanka crisis page let Islamophobic post get top billing

The top video on the page came with a caption that read, “can we assume all Muslims are guilty.”

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp : Illustration

Facebook's Crisis Response page for the Sri Lankan bombings has an Islamophobic post up top.

Chesnot/Getty Images

In times of tragedy, Facebook points to its Crisis Response pages as a way to help people in trouble.

But the Crisis Response feature isn't safe from Facebook's algorithms, which promoted an Islamophobic post as the top video for people checking for information in the aftermath of Sunday's explosions in Sri Lanka.

The post came from a group called "Europeans," which has about 5,200 followers and promotes white nationalist content, something Facebook said it banned in March.

The post describes the attack in Sri Lanka, where the death toll reached more than 300 after Easter Sunday bombings at numerous churches. On Tuesday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, while Sri Lankan officials said they're looking into a possible connection to the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand last month.

The caption on the top video on the Crisis Response page for the Sri Lankan attacks reads, "So if Muslims carried out the Sri Lanka attack, can we assume all Muslims are guilty. That is what we were told after NZ - all whites were white supremacists apaprently..[sic]."

Facebook has struggled to deal with moderating content across all aspects of its massive platform, which reaches more than 2 billion people. Problems include failing to prevent reuploads of video of the New Zealand mass shooting, issues with stopping disinformation on WhatsApp, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories spreading on Instagram. The world's largest social network has faced an uphill battle when it comes to stopping abuse.

Facebook often points to its services as tools for good. That includes the Crisis Response pages, which allow people affected by tragedies to inform their friends that they're safe and provide community members a way to support victims.

However, malicious actors have taken advantage of the feature in the past. During the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017, multiple posts on the Safety Check page asked for bitcoin donations and advertised spam. (Safety Check is a feature of Facebook's Crisis Response pages.) Facebook took several hours to clean up the page and make sure posts only came from official news outlets.

Facebook didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the post to the Sri Lanka Crisis Response page. 

The Europeans page on Facebook displays several Islamophobic posts, including one that spreads conspiracy theories that Muslims were happy about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire earlier this month. Many of its posts tell readers to "wake up and start fighting back."

On its About page, the Europeans group writes: "No other continent is as experienced in war and genocide as is Europe... Asians, Muslims and Africans will do well to remember this as they disrespect and take advantage of European Culture."

A spokesperson for the group said it wanted to share the video to bring more attention to the attacks in Sri Lanka.

While the post was no longer the top billing by Tuesday afternoon, it was replaced by two videos identical to the Europeans' post, but by different groups. The two groups are run by the same managers for the Europeans' page.

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The second video on the feed was a spam post for advertising.

Alfred Ng / CNET

It's unclear how this group or its video got to the top of the Crisis Response page for the bombings in Sri Lanka but the social network's algorithms could be playing a role.

"If a Facebook crisis response page is not a safe space on the platform, what is?" said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies social media. "If the company cannot commit enough content moderation staff they should remove these pages to make sure that they aren't abused and causing more harm than good." 

The Europeans group isn't the only questionable post making it to the top of the Crisis Response page. On Tuesday morning, the second and third posts on the page came from advertisers, one of which had fewer than 30 followers. Both posts used the same video and wrote "DM us for ads" in its caption.

The caption of one post was jammed with generic hashtags like "#Celebrity" and "#Music," likely an effort to get as many views as possible. The first official news source doesn't show up until about the sixth post -- despite Facebook's promise to promote vetted content.

The Sri Lankan government shut down access to social media to stop the spread of disinformation online. Residents of Sri Lanka weren't able to access Facebook and see these posts, though the rest of the world could.

Separately, Facebook removed a number of fake and duplicate accounts, as well as a Page, after a non-profit identified them as part of three right-wing networks that appeared to be spreading politically divisive content ahead of Sunday's elections in Spain. 

Facebook said the action, which included the disabling of some additional Pages, was taken because of the accounts violated the social network's authenticity and name-change policies. Facebook said the action wasn't prompted by the content posted by the accounts.

The networks reached roughly 1.7 million Facebook followers and prompted about 7.4 million interactions over the past three months, according to Avaaz, the activist group that identified the activity. The networks shared anti-immigration, anti-LGBT and anti-Islam content, according to Avaaz. Some of the information was false or misleading, the group said.

TechCrunch reported on the Avaaz findings earlier on Tuesday.

Originally published April 23, 9:15 a.m. PT.
Update, 9:56 a.m. PT: Added details on new top videos on the Crisis Response page. 11:15 a.m. PT: Added news of the removal of pages and groups run by three right-wing networks ahead of the Spanish election on Sunday. 11:33 a.m. PT: Added response from Europeans group. 12:57 p.m. PT: Updates to include Facebook response to the Avaaz findings.