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Facebook Accused of Discriminating Against African Users in Latest Lawsuit

A new lawsuit alleges Facebook failed to police content that incited violence in Africa. Facebook says it invests heavily in such policing.

Facebook logo on smartphone in front of red background
Nearly 3 billion people use an app owned by Facebook parent company Meta every day. 
Sarah Tew/CNET

Two Ethiopian researchers and a Kenyan rights group have sued Facebook's parent company, Meta, alleging the social media giant failed to pull down content that fueled violence and hate across Africa.

Filed in Kenya's High Court on Tuesday, the constitutional petition accuses Facebook of profiting off of harmful posts because that type of content attracts the attention of users. The lawsuit also alleges that Meta engaged in discriminatory treatment of African Facebook users and violated human rights. It says the social media giant isn't investing enough resources in its content moderation facility in Kenya and failed to take steps like it's done in the US that would reduce the spread of dangerous posts in Africa.

"The result is that some communities are left to ruin while others are proactively protected," the petition said. "This amounts to discrimination."

One of the petitioners, Abrham Meareg, an Ethiopian citizen who resides in Minnesota, says Facebook played a role in the murder of his father, who was killed last year. Meareg reported Facebook posts that called for harm against his father, Bahir Dar University Professor Meareg Amare Abrha, but the platform failed to act quickly, the lawsuit said. Online hate was directed at his father because his family is Tigrayan, an ethnic group in Ethiopia that human rights organizations say has been targeted by a campaign of ethnic cleansing after a two-year civil war broke out in 2020. Some of the harmful Facebook posts are still online, the lawsuit said.

"I'm seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook's profiteering -- and an apology for my father's murder," Meareg said in a statement. 

Fisseha Tekle, a legal advisor at Amnesty International, and the legal group Katiba Institute are also suing Meta. Tekle has also dealt with hate speech and other harmful posts on Facebook and hasn't been able to return to visit his family in Ethiopia because he "lives in constant fear that harm may come to him even in Nairobi," the lawsuit said.

The case is the latest in ongoing scrutiny Meta has faced over how well it polices harmful content outside the US, Asia-Pacific and Europe. Meta was also sued last year for $150 billion over its alleged role in fueling a genocide in Myanmar. 

Meta said that it doesn't allow hate speech on Facebook and its photo-service Instagram.

Hate speech and incitement to violence are against Meta's rules, "and we invest heavily in teams and technology to help us find and remove this content," a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. "Feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions guides our safety and integrity work in Ethiopia." The social network employs workers "with local knowledge and expertise" and continues to develop its "capabilities to catch violating content" in the most widely spoken languages in Ethiopia, the spokesperson said.

Meta said last year in a blog post that protecting users in Ethiopia has been one its highest priorities, but researchers say the company is doing a poor job of pulling down hate speech in that country. Leaked internal documents also showed that Facebook employees have raised concerns about how the social media platform is used in developing countries. 

The petitioners say Meta violated the Kenya constitution and want the court to order the company to demote content that incites violence and not promote viral hateful posts. They're also asking the social network to hire more workers in its content moderation center in Nairobi, Kenya, who are equipped to review posts in more languages. Meta should create a $1.6 billion fund for victims of hate and violence incited on Facebook and contribute $400 million for harm caused by sponsored posts, the petitioners say.