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Journalists like Maria Ressa face death threats and jail for doing their jobs. Facebook must take its share of the blame

June 30, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the annual F8 summit at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California on May 1, 2018. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

In September 2018, a group of academics, civil society organizations and journalists gathered at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The off-the-record event, designed to explore how social media content can lead to offline harm in vulnerable communities, coincided with the publication of a UN report that concluded Facebook had played a "determining role" in Mynamar's Rohingya genocide.

Ressa had by then already endured two years of sustained harassment effectively licensed by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and fueled by Facebook-facilitated disinformation networks.

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, has previously stated that Facebook is partly responsible for the dangerous situation Ressa now finds herself in -- an assessment she agrees with.

And thirdly, the Philippines became, as Ressa said, a "petri dish" for disinformation operations designed to destabilize democracy, which spread unchecked on Facebook.

In the aftermath of that election, Ressa and her team discovered a network of 26 Facebook accounts had peddled disinformation which reached 3 million users ahead of the vote.

Recognizing that this influence operation could be used as a playbook to derail the impending 2016 US presidential election, Ressa said she presented the evidence to Facebook prior to publication, convinced it would remove the accounts involved and address the root problem.

Misogynistic taunts and threats of extreme sexual violence -- including Facebook posts tagging her like "I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death" -- were key features of the attacks.

As the incitement to violence continued, Ressa said she pursued Facebook with increasing urgency -- believing senior management would take action to protect her and Rappler staff on the very platform on which they had launched and grown the news outlet

This situation was allowed to evolve because Facebook fundamentally failed to understand the function of international freedom of expression protections, including press freedom, and its responsibility to defend these human rights on the platform.

For years, Ressa says she has begged Facebook to take urgent action on the chilling threats of violence against her, and her mostly female staff, designed to stop critical reporting of the Duterte government.

But according to Ressa, Facebook consistently said her status as a public figure, and the company's free speech policy, prevented them from doing so in the vast bulk of cases she presented.

This is not the same as unfettered speech, nor "freedom of reach. " But Facebook has consistently failed to recognize that hate speech, disinformation and threats of violence must be moderated and curtailed to ensure the safety of its users -- especially the journalists, whose right to work safely online is mandated by the UN.

In Ressa's case, for a prolonged period Facebook failed to understand it had an obligation to ensure her safety because her status as a journalist afforded her special protections under international law.

After Ressa's conviction, Twitter tweeted its official support for her -- but Facebook made no explicit comment on the case.

Facebook's long-running reluctance to deal forcefully with disinformation and hate speech highlights an essential incongruity with the sort of censorious behavior it has simultaneously practiced, effectively limiting press freedom in ways that end up undercutting the work and rights of journalists and activists.

Kaye, the UN special rapporteur, said the episode, which occurred while Facebook was refusing to remove problematic posts from Trump, showed "Zuckerberg's position privileges the speaker as if free speech or even political speech is only speech that a politician makes" -- demonstrating that Zuckerberg doesn't understand what freedom of expression really means.

I asked Facebook for comment on the issues associated with Ressa's case.

Why, then, is Facebook still failing to protect Ressa and her Rappler colleagues from the sort of extreme online threats and hate speech that have preceded the murder with impunity of journalists like Daphne Caruana Galizia?

Aside from addressing issues of conscience and ethics, Ressa wants Facebook to work harder to take down recidivist disinformation networks.

As a source of inspiration, Ressa points to US civil rights groups instigating a successful #StopHateForProfit Facebook advertising boycott over the company's failure to deal with racist hate speech and disinformation in the aftermath of George Floyd's death in police custody.

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