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Facebook knew about, failed to police, abusive content globally: Documents
25 October 2021, 2:21 PM

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 of which has been blamed for inciting violence – have not kept pace with its global expansion.

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 US 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.

“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 on Myanmar and other countries, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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 US 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.

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.

UN warns world ‘way off track’ as greenhouse gases grow
25 October 2021, 1:58 PM

Greenhouse gas concentrations hit a new record in 2020, the UN weather agency said on Monday, warning that the world was “way off track” for capping rising temperatures.

A World Meteorological Organization report showed that carbon dioxide levels surged to 413.2 parts per million in 2020, rising more than the average rate over the last decade despite a temporary emissions dip during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said that the current rate of increase in heat-trapping gases would result in temperature rises “far in excess” of the 2015 Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average this century.

“We are way off track. We need to revisit our industrial, energy and transport systems and whole way of life,” he said, calling for a “dramatic increase” in commitments at the COP26 conference beginning October 31.

Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries so concentrations are different from emissions which fluctuate depending on the current level of fossil fuels burnt.

This long shelf-life also means climate scientists expect warming to persist for decades, even if deep carbon emissions cuts are made immediately.

Nearly 200 countries meet in Glasgow, Scotland next month with a view to increasing efforts to tackle global warming.

‘ALARMING’ AMAZON DATA

The annual report by the Geneva-based agency measures the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the gases that are warming the planet and triggering extreme weather events like heatwaves and intense rainfall.

The report confirmed, as expected, that the COVID-19 economic slowdown “did not have any discernible impact on the atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases and their growth rates.”

It added that early readings showed levels of carbon dioxide, the gas that makes the biggest contribution to warming, continued to rise in 2021.

“We need to mitigate emissions, there is no way around it, we need to reduce emissions as fast as possible,” Oksana Tarasova, the head of the WMO’s atmospheric and environment division, told reporters.

The WMO report also flagged concerns about the ability of the ocean and land to absorb roughly half of carbon dioxide emissions. These “sinks” act as a buffer and prevent the possibility of more dramatic temperature increases.

WMO data collected over ten years showed that a portion of the Amazon rainforest had switched from carbon “sink” to carbon “source” for the first time amid wildfires and deforestation.

“It’s not automatic that the strength of sinks will continue at the same rate,” said Taalas, describing the Amazon data as “alarming”.

‘Increase in number of independent candidates, political parties contesting LGE a clear indication SA is a strong democracy’
25 October 2021, 10:19 AM

President Cyril Ramaphosa says the increase in both the number of independent candidates as well as political parties contesting next week’s local government elections is a clear indication that the country is a strong democracy. Voters will choose from among over 94 000 candidates.

Writing in his weekly letter, Ramaphosa has encouraged voters to approach their civic duty to vote with the same enthusiasm as the one they had in the national and provincial elections. Below is the full letter: 

 

Dear Fellow South African,

In exactly one week from today, South Africans will go to the polls to elect their local representatives.

These elections are an opportunity for people to make their voices heard about the most pressing issues affecting their daily lives. They are also an opportunity to hold elected representatives accountable for the promises they have made to communities.

These elections are about the material issues that matter most to people, such as access to water and electricity, properly functioning hospitals and clinics, safety and security guaranteed by an efficient police service, well-maintained roads and well-resourced public schools.

These are the ‘bread and butter issues’ of which Amilcar Cabral wrote in 1965 when he said that people do not fight for ideas, but “to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, and to guarantee the future of their children.”

For this reason, it is paramount that South Africans should approach their civic duty to vote in local government elections with the same enthusiasm with which they vote in national and provincial elections.

Voters will be choosing from among over 94 000 candidates, including those from political parties and independents. Many of the election posters on street poles and billboards are for parties and candidates that have not previously participated in local government elections. This is a sign of the health of our democracy.

We are at an extremely difficult time in the life of our nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has considerably worsened our economic situation, and if we are to get the country back on track, we need people at the helm who are not only capable, experienced and qualified, but who are also honest and trustworthy.

We need local councillors who have a clear plan to promote investment and business opportunities in their area. They need to understand that municipal services need to be delivered reliably and affordably both to improve the lives of residents and to ensure that businesses can operate and thrive.

Councillors must prioritise the empowerment of young people and women. If necessary, they must change local by-laws and regulations so that they can set up businesses easily, access municipal procurement opportunities and receive training and other support.

We do not need candidates who make promises to communities at election time, but vanish soon thereafter.

Wherever I have travelled in the country over the past few weeks, I have heard about councillors who are dedicated and available, and who deliver on their promises. However, I have also heard about people’s frustration with councillors who are not accessible and who do not attend to their grievances.

Without accountability on the part of elected representatives and public officials, whether at national, provincial or local government, trust between the public and government is easily broken and difficult to regain.

We need greater openness and engagement with communities by the elected officials, and it is our hope that those who are elected this year take the matter of accountability seriously.

Ultimately any election is about trust.

Citizens have an expectation that the promises that are made to them are fulfilled. By equal measure, elected officials expect that communities should work with them to resolve the issues in a particular ward. It is a matter of mutual responsibility because both councilors and communities share a common aspiration to improve the quality of life of all.

Before placing their trust in a candidate of choice, I urge all South Africans who will be voting next Monday to commit to working with whoever is ultimately elected, regardless of which political party they belong to. We should not say we have no interest in working with or assisting the newly elected official because they were not our favoured candidate.

We can only reach the goals we have set ourselves, of communities that are cleaner, safer and better-run, where service delivery is of a good standard and advances human dignity, if we work together, including across the political divide.

Twenty-seven years after its founding, ours is a democracy that has matured. So too should our politics. We may have differing political allegiances, but we ultimately want to see a South Africa that is better for ourselves and for our children.

Let us vote responsibly. Let us vote wisely. Let us remember that it is only those who have the best interests of the South African people at heart who should get our vote.

China warns Slovaks, Czechs of retaliation for Taiwan minister visit
22 October 2021, 11:26 AM

Beijing warned Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Friday that nobody should harbour any illusions about the “necessary measures” China will take to defend its sovereignty, ahead of a visit to both countries next week by Taiwan’s foreign minister.

China, which claims democratically-ruled Taiwan as its own territory, is always angered by visits of senior Taiwanese officials to other countries, viewing it as covert support for the island’s claims to be a state.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu will be visiting Slovakia and the Czech Republic next week, first attending a forum in Slovakia organised by a local think tank, and then going to Prague to meet the Czech parliament upper house speaker, Milos Vystrcil, and Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said they would be watching Wu’s “scuttling about” closely.

Asked if China will make steps against the Czechs and Slovaks, he said China “will take proper and necessary measures to firmly defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. No one should have illusions about this”.

Wang did not elaborate.

China is already in a dispute with Lithuania after it agreed with Taiwan to open de facto embassies in each other’s capitals.

Both China and Lithuania have recalled their envoys to the respective countries.

Taiwan has diplomatic ties with no European countries apart from the Vatican City.

Due to Chinese pressure many countries are unwilling to host senior Taiwanese ministers, though Wu visited Denmark in 2019 to speak at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit.

China has ramped up its military and diplomatic pressure against Taiwan to force it to accept Chinese sovereignty.

Taiwan says it is an independent country with a right to be treated as such internationally, and that it will defend itself from China if attacked.

Dollar set for another week of losses even as Fed tapering looms
22 October 2021, 9:11 AM

The dollar was heading for a second week of declines on Friday as sentiment stayed tilted towards riskier assets, while an intervention by the Australian central bank put a halt to the Aussie dollar’s recent surge.

The dollar index was last at 93.733, little changed in Asian hours but off 0.24% on the week, as it continues its fall from a 12-month high of 94.565 hit in earlier this month.

It had managed to stem losses on Thursday, bouncing on better US jobs and housing data, but the rally petered out on Friday morning in Asia, where risk sentiment was boosted news that beleaguered developer China Evergrande Group has supplied funds to pay interest on a US dollar bond, averting a default.

But traders are still trying to assess whether the dollar has scope to fall further, or if this is a temporary blip on a march higher.

“People are wondering whether we are at an inflection point, as the dollar has been weakening and that doesn’t really fit with the broader narrative that global growth is cooling and the Fed is on the path to tapering, which should be supportive for the dollar,” said Paul Mackel, global head of FX research at HSBC.

On Friday, benchmark 10-year US Treasury yields were at 1.6872%, slightly off from Thursday’s multi-month high of 1.7%, as markets continue to prepare themselves for an announcement by the Federal Reserve that it will start to wind down its massive bond buying programme, which is widely expected for November.

Mackel said part of the reason for the dollar’s weakness had been strong performances by currencies from most commodity exporting countries.

These were quieter on Friday, however, as traders took profits, analysts said, and energy prices softened.

Brent crude, which had risen above $86 dollars a barrel on Thursday, continued its tumble and was last at $84.10.

The Australian dollar was at $0.7475, off Thursday’s three-month top, as the boost to the China-exposed currency from Evergrande’s news was outweighed by action from the Reserve Bank of Australia to stem a bond sell off, as well as the pause in energy price rises.

The RBA said on Friday it had stepped in to defend its yield target for the first time in eight months, spending A$1 billion ($750 million) to dampen an aggressive bonds sell-off as traders have bet on inflation pulling forward rate hikes.

Also affected by energy prices, the Canadian dollar slipped to C$1.2352 per US dollar, off Thursday’s C$1.2287, a level last seen in June.

The British pound paused for breath at $1.3798, off a month peak hit earlier in the week, to which it had been carried by growing expectations of an interest rate hike to combat rising inflationary pressures.

The euro was little changed at $1.1627, while the yen wobbled within sight of its multi-year lows, with one dollar worth 114.01 yen, compared with 114.69 earlier in the week, a four-year low.

China’s yuan eased against the dollar on Friday after the FX regulator warned of possible action if the currency market is hit by greater volatility following its recent rally. But the yuan still looked set for the biggest weekly gain since May.

Bitcoin was at $63 928, a little off Wednesday’s all-time high of $67 016

Weather

 

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