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Facebook knew about, failed to police, abusive content globally – documents

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October 25, 2021

By Elizabeth Culliford and Brad Heath

(Reuters) – Facebook employees have warned for years that as the company raced to become a global service it was failing to police abusive content in countries where such speech was likely to cause the most harm, according to interviews with five former employees and internal company documents viewed by Reuters.

For over a decade, Facebook has pushed to become the world’s dominant online platform. It currently operates in more than 190 countries and boasts more than 2.8 billion monthly users who post content in more than 160 languages. But its efforts to prevent its products from becoming conduits for hate speech, inflammatory rhetoric and misinformation – some which has been blamed for inciting violence – have not kept pace with its global expansion.

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Internal company documents viewed by Reuters show Facebook has known that it hasn’t hired enough workers who possess both the language skills and knowledge of local events needed to identify objectionable posts from users in a number of developing countries. The documents also showed that the artificial intelligence systems Facebook employs to root out such content frequently aren’t up to the task, either; and that the company hasn’t made it easy for its global users themselves to flag posts that violate the site’s rules.

Those shortcomings, employees warned in the documents, could limit the company’s ability to make good on its promise to block hate speech and other rule-breaking posts in places from Afghanistan to Yemen.

In a review posted to Facebook’s internal message board last year regarding ways the company identifies abuses on its site, one employee reported “significant gaps” in certain countries at risk of real-world violence, especially Myanmar and Ethiopia.

The documents are among a cache of disclosures made to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who left the company in May. Reuters was among a group of news organizations able to view the documents, which include presentations, reports and posts shared on the company’s internal message board. Their existence was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook spokesperson Mavis Jones said in a statement that the company has native speakers worldwide reviewing content in more than 70 languages, as well as experts in humanitarian and human rights issues. She said these teams are working to stop abuse on Facebook’s platform in places where there is a heightened risk of conflict and violence.

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“We know these challenges are real and we are proud of the work we’ve done to date,” Jones said.

Still, the cache of internal Facebook documents offers detailed snapshots of how employees in recent years have sounded alarms about problems with the company’s tools – both human and technological – aimed at rooting out or blocking speech that violated its own standards. The material expands upon Reuters’ previous reporting https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/myanmar-facebook-hate on Myanmar and other countries https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-india-content/facebook-a-megaphone-for-hate-against-indian-minorities-idUSKBN1X929F, where the world’s largest social network has failed repeatedly to protect users from problems on its own platform and has struggled to monitor content across languages. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-languages-insight-idUSKCN1RZ0DW

Among the weaknesses cited were a lack of screening algorithms for languages used in some of the countries Facebook has deemed most “at-risk” for potential real-world harm and violence stemming from abuses on its site.

The company designates countries “at-risk” based on variables including unrest, ethnic violence, the number of users and existing laws, two former staffers told Reuters. The system aims to steer resources to places where abuses on its site could have the most severe impact, the people said.

Facebook reviews and prioritizes these countries every six months in line with United Nations guidelines aimed at helping companies prevent and remedy human rights abuses in their business operations, spokesperson Jones said.

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In 2018, United Nations experts investigating a brutal campaign of killings and expulsions against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority said Facebook was widely used to spread hate speech toward them. That prompted the company to increase its staffing in vulnerable countries, a former employee told Reuters. Facebook has said it should have done more to prevent the platform being used to incite offline violence in the country.

Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa, who left in 2017, said the company’s approach to global growth has been “colonial,” focused on monetization without safety measures.

More than 90% of Facebook’s monthly active users are outside the United States or Canada.

LANGUAGE ISSUES

Facebook has long touted the importance of its artificial-intelligence (AI) systems, in combination with human review, as a way of tackling objectionable and dangerous content on its platforms. Machine-learning systems can detect such content with varying levels of accuracy.

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But languages spoken outside the United States, Canada and Europe have been a stumbling block for Facebook’s automated content moderation, the documents provided to the government by Haugen show. The company lacks AI systems to detect abusive posts in a number of languages used on its platform. In 2020, for example, the company did not have screening algorithms known as “classifiers” to find misinformation in Burmese, the language of Myanmar, or hate speech in the Ethiopian languages of Oromo or Amharic, a document showed.

These gaps can allow abusive posts to proliferate in the countries where Facebook itself has determined the risk of real-world harm is high.

Reuters this month found posts in Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s most common languages, referring to different ethnic groups as the enemy and issuing them death threats. A nearly year-long conflict in the country between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in the Tigray region has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 2 million.

Facebook spokesperson Jones said the company now has proactive detection technology to detect hate speech in Oromo and Amharic and has hired more people with “language, country and topic expertise,” including people who have worked in Myanmar and Ethiopia.

In an undated document, which a person familiar with the disclosures said was from 2021, Facebook employees also shared examples of “fear-mongering, anti-Muslim narratives” spread on the site in India, including calls to oust the large minority Muslim population there. “Our lack of Hindi and Bengali classifiers means much of this content is never flagged or actioned,” the document said. Internal posts and comments by employees this year also noted the lack of classifiers in the Urdu and Pashto languages to screen problematic content posted by users in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.

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Jones said Facebook added hate speech classifiers for Hindi in 2018 and Bengali in 2020, and classifiers for violence and incitement in Hindi and Bengali this year. She said Facebook also now has hate speech classifiers in Urdu but not Pashto.

Facebook’s human review of posts, which is crucial for nuanced problems like hate speech, also has gaps across key languages, the documents show. An undated document laid out how its content moderation operation struggled with Arabic-language dialects of multiple “at-risk” countries, leaving it constantly “playing catch up.” The document acknowledged that, even within its Arabic-speaking reviewers, “Yemeni, Libyan, Saudi Arabian (really all Gulf nations) are either missing or have very low representation.”

Facebook’s Jones acknowledged that Arabic language content moderation “presents an enormous set of challenges.” She said Facebook has made investments in staff over the last two years but recognizes “we still have more work to do.”

Three former Facebook employees who worked for the company’s Asia Pacific and Middle East and North Africa offices in the past five years told Reuters they believed content moderation in their regions had not been a priority for Facebook management. These people said leadership did not understand the issues and did not devote enough staff and resources.

Facebook’s Jones said the California company cracks down on abuse by users outside the United States with the same intensity applied domestically.

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The company said it uses AI proactively to identify hate speech in more than 50 languages. Facebook said it bases its decisions on where to deploy AI on the size of the market and an assessment of the country’s risks. It declined to say in how many countries it did not have functioning hate speech classifiers.

Facebook also says it has 15,000 content moderators reviewing material from its global users. “Adding more language expertise has been a key focus for us,” Jones said.

In the past two years, it has hired people who can review content in Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Somali, and Burmese, the company said, and this year added moderators in 12 new languages, including Haitian Creole.

Facebook declined to say whether it requires a minimum number of content moderators for any language offered on the platform.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

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Facebook’s users are a powerful resource to identify content that violates the company’s standards. The company has built a system for them to do so, but has acknowledged that the process can be time consuming and expensive for users in countries without reliable internet access. The reporting tool also has had bugs, design flaws and accessibility issues for some languages, according to the documents and digital rights activists who spoke with Reuters.

Next Billion Network, a group of tech civic society groups working mostly across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, said in recent years it had repeatedly flagged problems with the reporting system to Facebook management. Those included a technical defect that kept Facebook’s content review system from being able to see objectionable text accompanying videos and photos in some posts reported by users. That issue prevented serious violations, such as death threats in the text of these posts, from being properly assessed, the group and a former Facebook employee told Reuters. They said the issue was fixed in 2020.

Facebook said it continues to work to improve its reporting systems and takes feedback seriously.

Language coverage remains a problem. A Facebook presentation from January, included in the documents, concluded “there is a huge gap in the Hate Speech reporting process in local languages” for users in Afghanistan. The recent pullout of U.S. troops there after two decades has ignited an internal power struggle in the country. So-called “community standards” – the rules that govern what users can post – are also not available in Afghanistan’s main languages of Pashto and Dari, the author of the presentation said.

A Reuters review this month found that community standards weren’t available in about half the more than 110 languages that Facebook supports with features such as menus and prompts.

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Facebook said it aims to have these rules available in 59 languages by the end of the year, and in another 20 languages by the end of 2022.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York and Brad Heath in Washington; additional reporting by Fanny Potkin in Singapore, Sheila Dang in Dallas, Ayenet Mersie in Nairobi and Sankalp Phartiyal in New Delhi; editing by Kenneth Li and Marla Dickerson)

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Deutsche Post CEO favourite to become Telekom chairman – sources

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December 5, 2021

BERLIN (Reuters) – Frank Appel, the chief executive of German logistics company Deutsche Post, is the favourite to become the next supervisory board chairman of Deutsche Telekom, two sources close to the matter told Reuters.

The sources said Deutsche Post’s supervisory board is due to meet on Wednesday and Deutsche Telekom’s board will meet a week later to discuss the matter.

Both companies declined to comment.

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The Handelsblatt newspaper reported on Saturday that Appel would potentially be proposed for election at Deutsche Telekom’s annual meeting on April 7.

The term of office of Telekom chairman Ulrich Lehner, who has headed the Telekom supervisory body since 2008, ends at next year’s shareholder meeting. He had already confirmed that an external search for a successor was under way.

Appel’s predecessor at Deutsche Post, Klaus Zumwinkel, also served as supervisory board chairman of Telekom.

The German government holds stakes in both companies.

Appel, a former McKinsey consultant, has been with Deutsche Post since 2000. In 2002, he became a member of the board of management, and in 2008 he moved up to the post of CEO.

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His contract runs until 2022 and a decision on his future at the Post had been expected soon. Some industry insiders have speculated that Appel could be ready to move on given that Deutsche Post has posted record results through the pandemic.

(Reporting by Matthias Inverardi and Nadine Schimroszik; Writing by Emma Thomasson; editing by David Evans)

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Canadian employers, facing labor shortage, accommodate the unvaccinated

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December 5, 2021

By Julie Gordon and Steve Scherer

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada’s tight labor market is forcing many companies to offer regular COVID-19 testing over vaccine mandates, while others are reversing previously announced inoculation requirements even as Omicron variant cases rise.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government adopted one of the strictest inoculation policies in the world for civil servants and has already put more than 1,000 workers on unpaid leave, with thousands more at risk.

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Airlines, police forces, school boards and even Canada’s Big Five banks https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-major-banks-require-employees-entering-premises-be-vaccinated-2021-08-20 have also pledged strict mandatory vaccine policies. But following through has proven less straightforward, especially as employers grapple with staffing shortages and workers demand exemptions.

Job vacancies in Canada have doubled so far this year, official data shows, and vaccine mandates can make filling those jobs harder, potentially putting upward pressure on wages. That could fuel inflation https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/canadas-annual-inflation-rate-hits-47-oct-highest-since-feb-2003-2021-11-17, already running at a near two-decade high.

“It’s already difficult to find staff, let alone putting in a vaccine mandate. You’d cut out potentially another 20%” of potential workers, said Dan Kelly, chief executive of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

There are pitfalls to employing the unvaccinated. Companies run a higher risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and many vaccinated employees are uncomfortable working with those who have not had the jab, said industry groups and marketing experts.

At Luda Foods, a Montreal-based soup and sauce maker, president Robert Eiser said he has 14 open jobs, no vaccine mandate and no plans to restrict new hires to the vaccinated.

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“I don’t know that I want to reduce the (labor) pool, which is already quite low,” said Eiser. “We need to attract people to meet the demand. If we don’t, our competitors will.”

Data released on Friday underpinned Canada’s tight labor market, with a hefty 153,700 jobs https://www.reuters.com/markets/us/canada-posts-hefty-job-gains-outlook-clouded-by-omicron-variant-2021-12-03 added in November. It also showed a growing mismatch between available workers and unfilled jobs. And job postings are far above pre-pandemic levels. (Graphic: Canada job postings surge above pre-pandemic level Canada job postings surge above pre-pandemic level, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CANADA2/klvyknzklvg/chart.png)

WALKING BACK

The province of Quebec backtracked on a vaccine mandates for healthcare workers last month, saying they could not afford to lose thousands of unvaccinated staff. Ontario, which was also eyeing a mandate, said it would not go ahead.

Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Montreal have both softened their vaccine policy to allow regular testing for workers who missed their Oct. 31 inoculation deadline.

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In Canada, 86% of adults are fully inoculated, though that drops under 80% among 18-40 year olds. At least 15 cases of the new Omicron https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/canada-has-reported-total-11-cases-omicron-variant-health-official-2021-12-03 variant in Canada have been reported in the past week.

John Cappelli, vice president of onsite managed services in Canada for global recruitment firm Adecco, said half of his clients are mandating vaccines with the other half allowing regular testing for the unvaccinated.

But he expects the Omicron variant will prompt more workplaces to get strict on vaccination, even as they grapple with the tightest job market he’s seen in his 25-year career.

“We are now starting to see our first workplace (COVID-19) cases in five months,” he said.

The number of Canadian job postings on search website Indeed mentioning vaccine requirements has quadrupled since August. (Graphic: Canada job postings and vaccine mandates, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/CANADA3/byvrjqrlmve/chart.png)

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In the hard-hit manufacturing sector, where 77% of firms say their top concern is attracting and retaining workers, vaccine mandates are more rare.

Dennis Darby, CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said most of Canada’s factories have operated safely throughout the pandemic. While CME encourages vaccination, “some companies are still using rapid testing if somebody doesn’t want to get vaccinated,” he added.

But companies risk a hit to their reputation if they are overt in efforts to tap into the unvaccinated as a labor pool, said Wojtek Dabrowski, managing partner at Provident Communications.

“If you go out and say, ‘We are intentionally seeking to hire unvaccinated people,’ many customers are equating that with you being anti-science and anti-safety,” said Dabrowski.

(Reporting by Julie Gordon and Steve Scherer in Ottawa, additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Nichola Saminather in Toronto; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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Israeli firm to sell HSBC Tower in New York for $855 million

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December 5, 2021

By Steven Scheer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s Property and Building Corp said on Sunday it agreed to sell the HSBC Tower building in midtown Manhattan for $855 million to New York-based real estate firm Innovo Property Group, recording a net loss of $45 million.

The Israeli company, which is 63% owned by Discount Investment Corp, said it had also sold property in Israel for 390 million shekels ($123 million).

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Doron Cohen, chief executive of both Property and Building and Discount, said management was focusing on income-producing properties in Israel and that the amount it was receiving from both transactions would allow it to advance this policy.

“We are continuing the policy and examining the possibility of realising additional properties in the United States and in Israel,” Cohen said, noting the sale of the HSBC building came despite “gloomy” predictions over U.S. commercial real estate market.

He cited Tivoli Village, an upscale apartment complex in Las Vegas that opened this year, which may be put up for sale as part of the company’s efforts to boost liquidity and reduce debt.

Along with conglomerate Koor Industries, Property and Building, bought the 30-storey, 80,000 square metre HSBC Tower in 2009 for $353 million. In 2011, Property acquired Koor’s stake in the tower which has an occupancy of 99%, it said. HSBC had bought the building in the 1990s.

Property and Building said the value of the HSBC Tower in its books was $864 million as of Sept. 30. After costs, it said it would record a net loss of $45 million from the sale.

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Completion of the sale is expected by April 1, 2022 subject to Innovo’s right to advance the date while also receiving options to postpone the completion twice for 30 days each.

Property said after the sale it will have a net cash flow of $343 million.

Its shares were 0.7% lower in afternoon trading in Tel Aviv.

($1 = 3.1605 shekels)

(Reporting by Steven Scheer;Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

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