Facebook needs to face up to hate speech
- Facebook has refused to hand over information about users who posted racist messages on the official page of a Hong Kong NGO, citing its need to follow data protection laws in Ireland
- That response is outrageous and irresponsible
Facebook has refused to hand over information about users who posted racist messages vilifying ethnic minority groups on the official Facebook page of the local NGO Hong Kong Unison.
Unison was targeted because it provides services to minorities and promotes racial equality. It has filed dozens of complaints to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Under local race discrimination laws, the commission has asked Facebook for the users’ data. But the company is citing its need to follow data protection laws in Ireland, where its data storage is located.
So, is it ready to break Hong Kong laws and let local ethnic minority groups and their champions suffer online abuse? The messages posted are vile; some threaten violence.
Facebook’s response is outrageous and irresponsible. If it doesn’t want to follow Hong Kong laws, it shouldn’t operate in the city. In any case, EOC lawyer Peter Reading has given a perfectly sensible legal interpretation of the situation: “The Irish laws and the EU [European Union] laws, from our interpretation of them, only apply to people in the EU and people in Ireland.”
Hong Kong is not the only place that has problems with Facebook being used to spread hate speech, extremism and fake news. In Sri Lanka, extremist Sinhalese-language Facebook groups have used the social media platform to plan attacks on Muslims. According to a New York Times report, the military in Myanmar has exploited the social network to promote ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority.
A recent BBC investigative series called Beyond Fake News has found that nationalists in India are using such platforms as WhatsApp, Facebook and YouTube to spread disinformation, sometimes with fatal consequences. Some recent mass shootings in the United States were carried out by home-grown extremists happy to share their hateful messages on Twitter and Facebook.
By now, it seems beyond reasonable doubt that Russia used Facebook to disrupt the 2016 US presidential election. But a Times editorial has described its response so far as “dragging its heels and downplaying the extent of Russian influence on its platform”.
To be fair, Facebook is not the only social media platform that has such problems. But given its global reach and popularity, it is the largest and so must be part of any solution. Facebook must help rather than hinder authorities in individual jurisdictions to go after hate speech and those who spread it.