LONDON: A British journalist and her publisher faced defamation claims in a London court on Wednesday from billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and other wealthy Russians over a book about the rise of President Vladimir Putin.
Catherine Belton’s book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and then Took on the West,” charts the rise to wealth and power of former KGB agent Putin and a circle of associates after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Abramovich says the book’s claim that he purchased soccer team Chelsea in 2003 at Putin’s direction is “false and defamatory.” He is suing Belton, a former Financial Times correspondent in Moscow, and publisher HarperCollins at the High Court.
Belton is also being sued for libel by Russia’s state-owned energy firm, Rosneft, while the publisher is facing a libel suit from Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman. HarperCollins is also being sued by Russian banker Petr Aven for alleged data protection breaches.
Free speech groups have expressed alarm at the case, saying it is too easy for wealthy people to use Britain’s courts to silence criticism. HarperCollins has said it plans to “robustly” defend itself.
British lawyer Hugh Tomlinson represents Abramovich, Fridman and Aven. He denied Wednesday that there was any “coordination” between the claimants. Tomlinson said the three men retained him “coincidentally and entirely independently.”
The lawyer also denied the claims were an attack on free speech and journalism, arguing that the book “holds itself out as a serious work of contemporary history, but unfortunately it repeats lazy inaccuracies.”
The court hearing in front of judge Amanda Tipples is scheduled to last two days.
UK journalist sued by Russian billionaires over Putin book
UK journalist sued by Russian billionaires over Putin book
- British journalist sued by Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich over a book about the rise of President Vladimir Putin
- The book highlights the rise to wealth and power of former KGB agent Putin and a circle of associates after the breakup of the Soviet Union
LONDON: A British journalist and her publisher faced defamation claims in a London court on Wednesday from billionaire Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich and other wealthy Russians over a book about the rise of President Vladimir Putin.
Whistleblower Haugen says Facebook making online hate worse
- Haugen told UK lawmakers how Facebook Groups amplifies online hate, saying algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes
LONDON: Former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower Frances Haugen on Monday told lawmakers in the United Kingdom working on legislation to rein in social media companies that the company is making online hate and extremism worse and outlined how it could improve online safety.
Haugen appeared before a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the British government’s draft legislation to crack down on harmful online content, and her comments could help lawmakers beef up the rules. She’s testifying the same day that Facebook is set to release its latest earnings and that The Associated Press and other news organizations started publishing stories based on thousands of pages of internal company documents she obtained.
Haugen told UK lawmakers how Facebook Groups amplifies online hate, saying algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes. She said the company could add moderators to prevent groups from being used to spread extremist views.
“Unquestionably, it’s making hate worse,” she said.
Haugen added that she was “shocked to hear recently that Facebook wants to double down on the metaverse and that they’re gonna hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to work on the metaverse,” Haugen said, referring to the company’s plans for an immersive online world it believes will be the next big Internet trend.
“I was like, ‘Wow, do you know what we could have done with safety if we had 10,000 more engineers?’ It would be amazing,” she said.
It’s her second appearance before lawmakers after she testified in the US Senate earlier this month about the danger she says the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence and fueling misinformation. Haugen cited internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit.
The documents, which Haugen provided to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, allege Facebook prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public. Some stories based on the files have already been published, exposing internal turmoil after Facebook was blindsided by the Jan. 6 US Capitol riot and how it dithered over curbing divisive content in India, and more is to come.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users or that pushes divisive content, saying a false picture is being painted. But he does agree on the need for updated Internet regulations, saying lawmakers are best able to assess the tradeoffs.
Haugen has told US lawmakers that she thinks a federal regulator is needed to oversee digital giants like Facebook, something that officials in Britain and the European Union are already working on.
The UK government’s online safety bill calls for setting up a regulator that would hold companies to account when it comes to removing harmful or illegal content from their platforms, such as terrorist material or child sex abuse images.
“This is quite a big moment,” Damian Collins, the lawmaker who chairs the committee, said ahead of the hearing. “This is a moment, sort of like Cambridge Analytica, but possibly bigger in that I think it provides a real window into the soul of these companies.”
Collins was referring to the 2018 debacle involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.
Representatives from Facebook and other social media companies plan to speak to the committee Thursday.
Ahead of the hearing, Haugen met the father of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who killed herself in 2017 after viewing disturbing content on Facebook-owned Instagram. In a chat filmed by the BBC, Ian Russell told Haugen that after Molly’s death, her family found notes she wrote about being addicted to Instagram.
Haugen also is scheduled to meet next month with European Union officials in Brussels, where the bloc’s executive commission is updating its digital rulebook to better protect Internet users by holding online companies more responsible for illegal or dangerous content.
Under the UK rules, expected to take effect next year, Silicon Valley giants face an ultimate penalty of up to 10 percent of their global revenue for any violations. The EU is proposing a similar penalty.
The UK committee will be hoping to hear more from Haugen about the data that tech companies have gathered. Collins said the internal files that Haugen has turned over to US authorities are important because it shows the kind of information that Facebook holds — and what regulators should be asking when they investigate these companies.
The committee has already heard from another Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, who raised the alarm after finding evidence of online political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan before she was fired.
Australia wants Facebook to seek parental consent for kids
- Australia plans to crack down on online advertisers targeting children by making social media platforms seek parental consent for users younger than 16 years old
CANBERRA: Australia plans to crack down on online advertisers targeting children by making social media platforms seek parental consent for users younger than 16 years old to join or face fines of 10 million Australian dollars ($7.5 million) under a draft law released Monday.
The landmark legislation would protect Australians online and ensure that Australia’s privacy laws are appropriate in the digital age, a government statement said.
Social media platforms would be required to take all reasonable steps to verify their users’ ages under a binding code for social media services, data brokers and other large online platforms operating in Australia,
The platforms would also have to give primary consideration to the best interests of children when handling their personal information, the draft legislation states.
The code would also require platforms to obtain parental consent for users under the age of 16.
The proposed legal changes come after former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen this month asserted that whenever there was a conflict between the public good and what benefited the company, the social media giant would choose its own interests.
Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention David Coleman said the new code would lead the world in protecting children from social media companies.
“In Australia, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a consistent increase in signs of distress and mental ill health among young people. While the reasons for this are varied and complex, we know that social media is part of the problem,” Coleman said in a statement.
Facebook regional director of public policy Mia Garlick said her platform had been calling for Australia’s privacy laws to evolve with new technology.
“We have supported the development of international codes around young people’s data, like the UK Age Appropriate Design Code,” Garlick said in a statement, referring to British legislation introduced this year that requires platforms to verify users’ ages if content risks the moral, physical or mental well-being of children.
“We’re reviewing the draft bill and discussion paper released today, and look forward to working with the Australian government on this further,” she added.
Australia has been a prominent voice in calling for international regulation of the Internet.
It passed laws this year that oblige Google and Facebook to pay for journalism. Australia also defied the tech companies by creating a law that could imprison social media executives if their platforms stream violent images.
Facebook’s language gaps weaken screening of hate, terrorism
- Arabic poses particular challenges to Facebook’s automated systems and human moderators, each of which struggles to understand spoken dialects
- In some of the world’s most volatile regions, terrorist content and hate speech proliferate because Facebook remains short on moderators who speak local languages and understand cultural contexts
DUBAI: As the Gaza war raged and tensions surged across the Middle East last May, Instagram briefly banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, a flash point in the conflict.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, later apologized, explaining its algorithms had mistaken the third-holiest site in Islam for the militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of the secular Fatah party.
For many Arabic-speaking users, it was just the latest potent example of how the social media giant muzzles political speech in the region. Arabic is among the most common languages on Facebook’s platforms, and the company issues frequent public apologies after similar botched content removals.
Now, internal company documents from the former Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen show the problems are far more systemic than just a few innocent mistakes, and that Facebook has understood the depth of these failings for years while doing little about it.
Such errors are not limited to Arabic. An examination of the files reveals that in some of the world’s most volatile regions, terrorist content and hate speech proliferate because the company remains short on moderators who speak local languages and understand cultural contexts. And its platforms have failed to develop artificial-intelligence solutions that can catch harmful content in different languages.
In countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar, these loopholes have allowed inflammatory language to flourish on the platform, while in Syria and the Palestinian territories, Facebook suppresses ordinary speech, imposing blanket bans on common words.
“The root problem is that the platform was never built with the intention it would one day mediate the political speech of everyone in the world,” said Eliza Campbell, director of the Middle East Institute’s Cyber Program. “But for the amount of political importance and resources that Facebook has, moderation is a bafflingly under-resourced project.”
This story, along with others published Monday, is based on Haugen’s disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions were reviewed by a consortium of news organizations, including The Associated Press.
In a statement to the AP, a Facebook spokesperson said that over the last two years the company has invested in recruiting more staff with local dialect and topic expertise to bolster its review capacity around the world.
But when it comes to Arabic content moderation, the company said, “We still have more work to do. ... We conduct research to better understand this complexity and identify how we can improve.”
In Myanmar, where Facebook-based misinformation has been linked repeatedly to ethnic and religious violence, the company acknowledged in its internal reports that it had failed to stop the spread of hate speech targeting the minority Rohingya Muslim population.
The Rohingya’s persecution, which the US has described as ethnic cleansing, led Facebook to publicly pledge in 2018 that it would recruit 100 native Myanmar language speakers to police its platforms. But the company never disclosed how many content moderators it ultimately hired or revealed which of the nation’s many dialects they covered.
Despite Facebook’s public promises and many internal reports on the problems, the rights group Global Witness said the company’s recommendation algorithm continued to amplify army propaganda and other content that breaches the company’s Myanmar policies following a military coup in February.
In India, the documents show Facebook employees debating last March whether it could clamp down on the “fear mongering, anti-Muslim narratives” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, broadcasts on its platform.
In one document, the company notes that users linked to Modi’s party had created multiple accounts to supercharge the spread of Islamophobic content. Much of this content was “never flagged or actioned,” the research found, because Facebook lacked moderators and automated filters with knowledge of Hindi and Bengali.
Arabic poses particular challenges to Facebook’s automated systems and human moderators, each of which struggles to understand spoken dialects unique to each country and region, their vocabularies salted with different historical influences and cultural contexts.
The Moroccan colloquial Arabic, for instance, includes French and Berber words, and is spoken with short vowels. Egyptian Arabic, on the other hand, includes some Turkish from the Ottoman conquest. Other dialects are closer to the “official” version found in the Qur’an. In some cases, these dialects are not mutually comprehensible, and there is no standard way of transcribing colloquial Arabic.
Facebook first developed a massive following in the Middle East during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and users credited the platform with providing a rare opportunity for free expression and a critical source of news in a region where autocratic governments exert tight controls over both. But in recent years, that reputation has changed.
Scores of Palestinian journalists and activists have had their accounts deleted. Archives of the Syrian civil war have disappeared. And a vast vocabulary of everyday words have become off-limits to speakers of Arabic, Facebook’s third-most common language with millions of users worldwide.
For Hassan Slaieh, a prominent journalist in the blockaded Gaza Strip, the first message felt like a punch to the gut. “Your account has been permanently disabled for violating Facebook’s Community Standards,” the company’s notification read. That was at the peak of the bloody 2014 Gaza war, following years of his news posts on violence between Israel and Hamas being flagged as content violations.
Within moments, he lost everything he’d collected over six years: personal memories, stories of people’s lives in Gaza, photos of Israeli airstrikes pounding the enclave, not to mention 200,000 followers. The most recent Facebook takedown of his page last year came as less of a shock. It was the 17th time that he had to start from scratch.
He had tried to be clever. Like many Palestinians, he’d learned to avoid the typical Arabic words for “martyr” and “prisoner,” along with references to Israel’s military occupation. If he mentioned militant groups, he’d add symbols or spaces between each letter.
Other users in the region have taken an increasingly savvy approach to tricking Facebook’s algorithms, employing a centuries-old Arabic script that lacks the dots and marks that help readers differentiate between otherwise identical letters. The writing style, common before Arabic learning exploded with the spread of Islam, has circumvented hate speech censors on Facebook’s Instagram app, according to the internal documents.
But Slaieh’s tactics didn’t make the cut. He believes Facebook banned him simply for doing his job. As a reporter in Gaza, he posts photos of Palestinian protesters wounded at the Israeli border, mothers weeping over their sons’ coffins, statements from the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers.
Criticism, satire and even simple mentions of groups on the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations list — a docket modeled on the US government equivalent — are grounds for a takedown.
“We were incorrectly enforcing counterterrorism content in Arabic,” one document reads, noting the current system “limits users from participating in political speech, impeding their right to freedom of expression.”
The Facebook blacklist includes Gaza’s ruling Hamas party, as well as Hezbollah, the militant group that holds seats in Lebanon’s Parliament, along with many other groups representing wide swaths of people and territory across the Middle East, the internal documents show, resulting in what Facebook employees describe in the documents as widespread perceptions of censorship.
“If you posted about militant activity without clearly condemning what’s happening, we treated you like you supported it,” said Mai el-Mahdy, a former Facebook employee who worked on Arabic content moderation until 2017.
In response to questions from the AP, Facebook said it consults independent experts to develop its moderation policies and goes “to great lengths to ensure they are agnostic to religion, region, political outlook or ideology.”
“We know our systems are not perfect,” it added.
The company’s language gaps and biases have led to the widespread perception that its reviewers skew in favor of governments and against minority groups.
Former Facebook employees also say that various governments exert pressure on the company, threatening regulation and fines. Israel, a lucrative source of advertising revenue for Facebook, is the only country in the Mideast where Facebook operates a national office. Its public policy director previously advised former right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli security agencies and watchdogs monitor Facebook and bombard it with thousands of orders to take down Palestinian accounts and posts as they try to crack down on incitement.
“They flood our system, completely overpowering it,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left in 2017. “That forces the system to make mistakes in Israel’s favor. Nowhere else in the region had such a deep understanding of how Facebook works.”
Facebook said in a statement that it fields takedown requests from governments no differently from those from rights organizations or community members, although it may restrict access to content based on local laws.
“Any suggestion that we remove content solely under pressure from the Israeli government is completely inaccurate,” it said.
Syrian journalists and activists reporting on the country’s opposition also have complained of censorship, with electronic armies supporting embattled President Bashar Assad aggressively flagging dissident content for removal.
Raed, a former reporter at the Aleppo Media Center, a group of antigovernment activists and citizen journalists in Syria, said Facebook erased most of his documentation of Syrian government shelling on neighborhoods and hospitals, citing graphic content.
“Facebook always tells us we break the rules, but no one tells us what the rules are,” he added, giving only his first name for fear of reprisals.
In Afghanistan, many users literally cannot understand Facebook’s rules. According to an internal report in January, Facebook did not translate the site’s hate speech and misinformation pages into Dari and Pashto, the two most common languages in Afghanistan, where English is not widely understood.
When Afghan users try to flag posts as hate speech, the drop-down menus appear only in English. So does the Community Standards page. The site also doesn’t have a bank of hate speech terms, slurs and code words in Afghanistan used to moderate Dari and Pashto content, as is typical elsewhere. Without this local word bank, Facebook can’t build the automated filters that catch the worst violations in the country.
When it came to looking into the abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East, internal Facebook documents acknowledged that engineers primarily focused on posts and messages written in English. The flagged-words list did not include Tagalog, the major language of the Philippines, where many of the region’s housemaids and other domestic workers come from.
In much of the Arab world, the opposite is true — the company over-relies on artificial-intelligence filters that make mistakes, leading to “a lot of false positives and a media backlash,” one document reads. Largely unskilled human moderators, in over their heads, tend to passively field takedown requests instead of screening proactively.
Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower who worked at the company for nearly three years before being fired last year, said contractors in Facebook’s Ireland office complained to her they had to depend on Google Translate because the company did not assign them content based on what languages they knew.
Facebook outsources most content moderation to giant companies that enlist workers far afield, from Casablanca, Morocco, to Essen, Germany. The firms don’t sponsor work visas for the Arabic teams, limiting the pool to local hires in precarious conditions — mostly Moroccans who seem to have overstated their linguistic capabilities. They often get lost in the translation of Arabic’s 30-odd dialects, flagging inoffensive Arabic posts as terrorist content 77 percent of the time, one document said.
“These reps should not be fielding content from non-Maghreb region, however right now it is commonplace,” another document reads, referring to the region of North Africa that includes Morocco. The file goes on to say that the Casablanca office falsely claimed in a survey it could handle “every dialect” of Arabic. But in one case, reviewers incorrectly flagged a set of Egyptian dialect content 90 percent of the time, a report said.
Iraq ranks highest in the region for its reported volume of hate speech on Facebook. But among reviewers, knowledge of Iraqi dialect is “close to non-existent,” one document said.
“Journalists are trying to expose human rights abuses, but we just get banned,” said one Baghdad-based press freedom activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “We understand Facebook tries to limit the influence of militias, but it’s not working.”
Linguists described Facebook’s system as flawed for a region with a vast diversity of colloquial dialects that Arabic speakers transcribe in different ways.
“The stereotype that Arabic is one entity is a major problem,” said Enam Al-Wer, professor of Arabic linguistics at the University of Essex, citing the language’s “huge variations” not only between countries but class, gender, religion and ethnicity.
Despite these problems, moderators are on the front lines of what makes Facebook a powerful arbiter of political expression in a tumultuous region.
Although the documents from Haugen predate this year’s Gaza war, episodes from that 11-day conflict show how little has been done to address the problems flagged in Facebook’s own internal reports.
Activists in Gaza and the West Bank lost their ability to livestream. Whole archives of the conflict vanished from newsfeeds, a primary portal of information for many users. Influencers accustomed to tens of thousands of likes on their posts saw their outreach plummet when they posted about Palestinians.
“This has restrained me and prevented me from feeling free to publish what I want for fear of losing my account,” said Soliman Hijjy, a Gaza-based journalist whose aerials of the Mediterranean Sea garnered tens of thousands more views than his images of Israeli bombs — a common phenomenon when photos are flagged for violating community standards.
During the war, Palestinian advocates submitted hundreds of complaints to Facebook, often leading the company to concede error and reinstate posts and accounts.
In the internal documents, Facebook reported it had erred in nearly half of all Arabic language takedown requests submitted for appeal.
“The repetition of false positives creates a huge drain of resources,” it said.
In announcing the reversal of one such Palestinian post removal last month, Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board urged an impartial investigation into the company’s Arabic and Hebrew content moderation. It called for improvement in its broad terrorism blacklist to “increase understanding of the exceptions for neutral discussion, condemnation and news reporting,” according to the board’s policy advisory statement.
Facebook’s internal documents also stressed the need to “enhance” algorithms, enlist more Arab moderators from less-represented countries and restrict them to where they have appropriate dialect expertise.
“With the size of the Arabic user base and potential severity of offline harm … it is surely of the highest importance to put more resources to the task to improving Arabic systems,” said the report.
But the company also lamented that “there is not one clear mitigation strategy.”
Meanwhile, many across the Middle East worry the stakes of Facebook’s failings are exceptionally high, with potential to widen long-standing inequality, chill civic activism and stoke violence in the region.
“We told Facebook: Do you want people to convey their experiences on social platforms, or do you want to shut them down?” said Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the United Kingdom, who recently discussed Arabic content suppression with Facebook officials in London. “If you take away people’s voices, the alternatives will be uglier.”
Journalist imprisoned over leaked UAE-Iraq pre-game comments
- UAE imprisons TV journalist over leaked comments made before the match against Iraq during a World Cup qualifier
DUBAI: Prosecutors in the United Arab Emirates on Friday announced they had imprisoned a television journalist over apparently leaked pre-match comments made before the Emirates’ tie with Iraq during a World Cup qualifier earlier this month.
Authorities did not identify the journalist they imprisoned from the state-run Abu Dhabi Sports Channel, nor the others fired from the broadcaster over the incident. However, they described the comments made as “harming the public interest and provoking hate speech.”
The comments came before the channel went on air between the match commentators and analysts back at a studio, according to a statement carried by the state-run WAM news agency.
The feed was “hacked and the published clips were seized and broadcast on accounts on some social media sites,” the WAM report said. It said an investigation continued into how the hack took place.
The detained journalist faces charges that carry up to five years in prison and a fine from $1,360 up to $136,000, according to the state-linked newspaper The National in Abu Dhabi.
The Abu Dhabi Sports Channel fired three people involved with the broadcast over the incident, WAM said. The two others were arrested and later released on bail, authorities said.
In the meeting of Dutch coaches, Bert van Marwijk’s United Arab Emirates lineup was held to a 2-2 draw by Dick Advocaat’s Iraq in Dubai on Oct. 12.
The UAE is a nation of autocratic rulers where speech is strictly monitored. Emiratis online have encouraged fellow citizens to report comments critical of the country to law enforcement in the past amid the country’s yearslong boycott of Qatar with other Arab nations. That boycott ended in January. Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Australian regulator ‘concerned’ about Facebook’s approach to media law
- Since the controversial law was passed in March, Facebook and Google have struck licensing deals with most of Australia’s largest news outlets
SYDNEY: The Australian regulator behind a law forcing large Internet platforms to negotiate licencing deals with media outlets said on Monday he was “concerned” about Facebook’s cooperation, seven months after the rule took effect.
Under the News Media Bargaining Code, the social media giant and Alphabet’s Google must negotiate with news outlets for content that drives traffic to their websites or face possible government intervention.
“Google is still negotiating and finalizing deals with more news media companies and seems to be approaching this exercise in the right spirit,” Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chair Rod Sims said in a statement.
“We are concerned that Facebook does not currently seem to take the same approach.”
Since the controversial law was passed in March, Facebook and Google have struck licensing deals with most of Australia’s largest news outlets, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
But some smaller publishers say Facebook, in contrast to Google, has declined to negotiate with them.
Academic publisher The Conversation and foreign language broadcaster SBS were both denied discussions. As reported first by Reuters, Facebook said in an email to publishers in September it had concluded deals to pay Australian companies for content on its “Facebook News” channel.
Facebook was not immediately available for comment on Monday. The company told Reuters in September that content deals were “just one of the ways Facebook provides support to publishers” and it continued to have discussions about alternatives.
The media law allows for the government to intervene if a platform fails to negotiate with a media company, a condition that has not yet been invoked.
Sims said a planned federal government review of the law next year would “examine closely the performance of all parties and whether the government’s expectations have been met.”