Facebook’s language gaps weaken screening of hate, terrorism

Facebook reported internally it had erred in nearly half of all Arabic language takedown requests submitted for appeal. (File/AFP)
Facebook reported internally it had erred in nearly half of all Arabic language takedown requests submitted for appeal. (File/AFP)
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Updated 25 October 2021

Facebook’s language gaps weaken screening of hate, terrorism

Facebook reported internally it had erred in nearly half of all Arabic language takedown requests submitted for appeal. (File/AFP)
  • 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.”


Hia Magazine unveils 'Hia Hub'

Hia Hub logo (Supplied)
Hia Hub logo (Supplied)
Updated 01 December 2021

Hia Magazine unveils 'Hia Hub'

Hia Hub logo (Supplied)

RIYADH, KSA: Driven by its ongoing commitment to excellence, authenticity, and women empowerment, Hia magazine today announced the launch of Hia Hub. A unique experience, Hia Hub will bring to life a series of art, culture, and creative activations, lectures, and exhibitions in Jax District - Riyadh, running from 5- 20 December 2021.

Hia Hub will house a series of exclusive events curated to provide an exceptional experience including:

“Waha” exhibition by Sarah Shakeel: Artist Sarah Shakeel creates a unique artistic experience at Hia Hub through her exhibition “Waha”. Showcasing her renowned style that combines reality with imagination, Shakeel will take guests to a desert scene sparkling with crystals, where a tent covered with Swarovski crystals will display the artist’s creations.

For full details and timings of the exhibition, please visit www.hiamag.com/hiahub

The Valentino Exhibition: A unique showcase presenting Valentino’s new Party Collection. The new collection celebrates the gradual return to life in preparation for the end of year holiday season. A fun collection displayed in a very chic home party setting, which will inspire visitors to rediscover the glamourous couture of these special occasions. Select numbers of fashion students will also be able to visit the Valentino exhibition at Hia Hub to experience the work of this leading fashion house up close.

Hia Hub Talks: Hia magazine has always been a source of inspiration for Arab women on issues of fashion, beauty and creativity. Hia Hub will provide a creative space where inspiring stories are shared, and pioneering dialogues and discussions on issues that resonate with the contemporary woman will take place. Talks will be hosted by regional and global female leaders in fashion, arts and culture, including CEOs of organizations like Threads Styling, Tasami and 500 Startups MENA. The stellar list of participants includes the international model Candice Swanepoel, who will share her thoughts on how core values of sustainability and community empowerment can create positive impact on the environment. Prior registration at www.hiamag.com/hiahub is required to attend all Talks.

Shows, workshops and masterclasses: Guests and visitors of Hia Hub will have a unique opportunity to explore the latest collections and offers, presented in partnership with international luxury brands. Visitors will also have the opportunity to attend exclusive masterclasses and workshops conducted by renowned experts in the design and beauty field, including international stylist Dani Michelle, who works with some of the biggest international stars such as Kendall Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian, and will provide an exclusive masterclass that can be pre-registered through hiamag.com/hiahub.

Another key participant in Hia Hub is Quormoz, a renowned Saudi design house which focuses on heritage and culture to showcase the best of local creative talent.

Mai Badr, Editor-in-chief of Hia magazine said: “The launch of Hia Hub asserts Hia magazine’s ongoing commitment to supporting creativity, art and culture and what these values represent for empowered women. We are immensely proud of our legacy and through Hia Hub we can provide an unparalleled platform to empower women in the region and build ambitious goals to inspire them, showcase their success stories and highlight their achievements.”

Hia Hub will take place in Jax District, D9, Diriyah, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Visit www.hiamag.com/hiahub for more details and to register for events.


Fox News host criticized for comparing US chief medical adviser to Nazi doctor

Prominent Jewish groups and the Auschwitz Museum condemned Logan’s comments, describing them as “shameful.” (File/AFP)
Prominent Jewish groups and the Auschwitz Museum condemned Logan’s comments, describing them as “shameful.” (File/AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Fox News host criticized for comparing US chief medical adviser to Nazi doctor

Prominent Jewish groups and the Auschwitz Museum condemned Logan’s comments, describing them as “shameful.” (File/AFP)
  • Fox News host and commentator Lara Logan was on Tuesday criticized for comparing America’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci to Nazi doctor

LONDON: Fox News host and commentator Lara Logan was on Tuesday criticized for comparing America’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

During “Fox News Primetime” on Monday the journalist said that people had told her that Fauci did not represent science but rather Mengele, who was known as the Angel of Death for the atrocities he committed while performing medical experiments at the Auschwitz death camp.

During the TV show, Logan said: “What you see on Dr. Fauci — this is what people say to me: That he doesn’t represent science to them. He represents Josef Mengele.

“Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who did experiments on Jews during the Second World War and in the concentration camps. And I am talking about people all around the world are saying this,” she added.

Prominent Jewish groups and the Auschwitz Museum condemned Logan’s comments, describing them as “shameful.”

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Committee called on Logan, 50, to apologize. On her comments it said: “Utterly shameful. Josef Mengele earned his nickname by performing deadly and inhumane medical experiments on prisoners of the Holocaust, including children.

“There is no comparing the hell these victims went through to public health measures. An apology is needed.”

Head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, said: “There’s absolutely no comparison between mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and other COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) mitigation efforts to what happened to Jews during the Holocaust.”


STARZPLAY hosts ‘House of Gucci’ UAE premiere

STARZPLAY hosts ‘House of Gucci’ UAE premiere
Updated 01 December 2021

STARZPLAY hosts ‘House of Gucci’ UAE premiere

STARZPLAY hosts ‘House of Gucci’ UAE premiere
  • The biographical drama will be available to stream on STARZPLAY after its theatrical release

DUBAI: STARZPLAY, in association with Gulf Films, hosted the UAE premiere of American biographical crime drama “House of Gucci” at the NOVO 7-Star cinema at IMG Worlds of Adventure in Dubai.

The premiere was the first look for select guests before the film’s official release in UAE cinemas. Following its theatrical release, the movie will be available to stream exclusively on STARZPLAY.

Currently, the platform is streaming a biographical documentary about the same story, “Lady Gucci,” via the Discovery+ add-on channel. In the 75-minute documentary, the former Mrs. Gucci, Patrizia Reggiani, tells her story in an exclusive interview.

The latest film “House of Gucci” has a star-studded cast featuring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Salma Hayek, and Jared Leto and is directed by acclaimed director Ridley Scott, known for films such as “Blade Runner,” “Black Hawk Down,” and “The Martian.”

The move marks STARZPLAY’s dominance in the regional streaming market. This year alone, the platform has made deals that saw it enter the Asian market as well as strengthen its foothold in the Middle East through partnerships with Abu Dhabi Media and Turkish content companies.


Google to ban political advertising ahead of Philippine elections

Google to ban political advertising ahead of Philippine elections
Updated 01 December 2021

Google to ban political advertising ahead of Philippine elections

Google to ban political advertising ahead of Philippine elections
  • Move comes amid pressure on social media platforms over their handling of political advertising during the US presidential election in 2020

MANILA: Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Wednesday it will ban political advertising on its platform in the run-up to Philippine elections in May next year to choose a successor to President Rodrigo Duterte.
The move comes amid pressure on social media platforms over their handling of political advertising during the US presidential election in 2020.
Social media platforms have become political battlegrounds in the Southeast Asian nation, with studies showing Filipinos top the rankings globally for time spent on social media.
Election advertisements that promote or oppose any political party or the candidacy of any person or party for public office, would not be allowed to run between Feb. 8 to May 9, 2022, Google said in an update to its political content policy.
The dates cover the period of campaigning in the Philippines up to election day on May 9.
Google said notifications would be sent to affected advertisers about the policy update.
Google has banned political advertising on its platform before, including in Canada’s federal election in 2019 and before an election in Singapore in 2020.
Social media platforms like Facebook have helped strengthen Duterte’s support base, with analysts regarding them as instrumental in his election victory in 2016 and a rout by his allies in mid-term polls last year.
The Philippines will choose a successor to Duterte, who under the constitution is not allowed to seek another term, but will be standing for a senator’s seat.


CNN anchor Chris Cuomo suspended for helping his brother against sexual misconduct allegations 

 In this combination of photos New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and his brother CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. (File/AFP)
In this combination of photos New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and his brother CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo suspended for helping his brother against sexual misconduct allegations 

 In this combination of photos New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, and his brother CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. (File/AFP)
  • CNN suspended prime time anchor Chris Cuomo “indefinitely, pending further evaluation” for helping his brother against sexual misconduct allegations

LONDON: CNN suspended prime time anchor Chris Cuomo “indefinitely, pending further evaluation,” on Tuesday after an investigation revealed that he helped his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, defend himself against sexual misconduct allegations.

The investigation, conducted by the New York Attorney General Letitia James, showed “a greater level of involvement” in Cuomo’s efforts to help his brother, Andrew, than previously known. 

Andrew Cuomo had resigned in August after he was accused by various women of sexual misconduct. Chris Cuomo’s efforts to help his brother were widely considered a breach of journalistic ethics in the media industry. 

At the time of Andrew’s resignation, Chris Cuomo had told CNN viewers that he was “not an advisor,” but “a brother.” 

However, the new evidence revealed that Cuomo used media contacts to find out details about the women accusing Andrew of sexual harassement. 

“When Chris admitted to us that he had offered advice to his brother’s staff, he broke our rules and we acknowledged that publicly,” CNN said in a statement shortly after Cuomo’s suspension. 

“But we also appreciated the unique position he was in and understood his need to put family first and job second. However, these documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew. As a result, we have suspended Chris indefinitely, pending further evaluation.”

The documents revealed heaps of emails and text messages that point to the extent of Cuomo’s involvement, particularly with the governor’s staff.

“Please let me help with the prep,” Cuomo texted a senior aide, Melissa DeRosa. “You need to trust me we are making mistakes we can't afford,” he added. 

Another set of messages revealed that Cuomo had texted DeRosa saying “I have a lead on the wedding girl,” a reference to Anna Ruch, a woman who accused Andrew Cuomo of attempting to kiss her at a wedding.