NewsScience & Tech

Meta ‘Enhances Facebook’s Safety Measure to Protect People in Ethiopia’ amid Criticism

ADDIS ABABA – Meta, the parent organization of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, said it has enhanced safety measures on its platforms to help keep Ethiopians safe both online and offline.

Less than 10 percent of the second populous nation in Africa are currently using the Facebook platform, according to the U.S. tech firm.

Commenting about the strategy, Meta Public Policy Director East Africa, Mercy Ndegwa said Ethiopia has been one of the company’s highest priorities for country-specific interventions to keep people safe given the risk of conflict.

“Recent events have focused the world’s attention on the conflict in Ethiopia,” Ndegwa said. “Our thoughts are with the people of Ethiopia, both in the country and in the diaspora, during this difficult time.”

The policy director said the company invested in safety and security measures in Ethiopia for more than two years despite several reports claim Facebook knowingly did little to stop while its platform was being used to incite violence in the country.

Its former data scientist and now a whistle-blower, Frances Haugen even told the US Senate that Facebook bears some of the blame for the growing conflict in Ethiopia. More than once, Haugen accused Facebook’s algorithms of “literally fanning ethnic violence” in the East African nation.

The social media giant ranks Ethiopia in its highest priority tier for countries at risk of conflict. This enabled Meta to develop “both proactive solutions that we can implement when crises arise, and a long-term strategy to keep people safe”, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.

‘Threefold focus’

Meta said its focus now is threefold involving removing content that violates its policies, respecting people’s right to free expression, and helping to keep people safe both online and offline, according to the statement.

According to Meta, Ethiopia is an especially challenging environment to address these issues, in part because there are many local languages spoken in the country.

“We can now review content in the top four languages spoken and those central to the conflict (Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya),” the company said. “We also have technology to identify hate speech in Amharic and Oromo before anyone reports it to us.”

These efforts, Meta said, are industry-leading, adding the company took action on more than 92,000 pieces of content in Ethiopia on Facebook and Instagram for violations of its Community Standards prohibiting hate speech between May and October 2021.

“About 98% of which was detected before it was reported by users to us,” the company said.

Meta said it removed a network of fake accounts posting critical commentary of opposition politicians/groups in Amharic last June.

The people behind these posts, it said, used coordinated, inauthentic accounts as a central part of their efforts to mislead people about who they were and what they were up to.

In March alone, “we removed accounts in Egypt that targeted Ethiopia, Sudan, and Turkey”, it added.

Now, Meta’s teams are working around the clock and “we’ve activated our Integrity Operation Center – bringing together subject matter experts from across the company to respond in real time to problems and abuses”, reads the statement.

New safety measures

Given the rapidly evolving situation, the company said it has taken additional steps in recent days, which includes the launch of a new safety feature called Lock Profile.

The feature allows people to restrict anyone who isn’t their friend from downloading, enlarging, or sharing their profile photo, said Meta, adding it also prevents non-friends from seeing posts or other photos on their timeline, regardless of when they may have posted it.

“Since we recognize that local context and language-specific expertise is essential for this work, we will remain in close communication with people on the ground, along with partner institutions and non-governmental organizations as the days and weeks progress,” said the Public Policy Director East Africa.

“This will help us take the right actions and make the right calls. We remain vigilant to emerging trends and stand ready to take additional action to meet the demands of this ongoing human rights situation.”, Ndegwa added.