Facebook fails independent journalists

Facebook fails independent journalists

On Jan 29, 2018, the prominent Berlin-based Azerbaijani news site Meydan TV had its Facebook page hacked for the first time. The attackers removed all admin accounts, deleted all content, and removed nearly 100,000 followers.

The next hack took place on May 10, 2019. This time, all of the content on Meydan TV's Russian-language Facebook page was removed, along with two weeks' worth of content on the site's Azerbaijani Facebook page. The third hack, which occurred on June 18, 2020, resulted in Meydan TV losing all of its Azerbaijani-language Facebook content going back to 2018.

Following these attacks, Meydan TV tried in vain to restore the removed content. But repeated attempts to communicate with Facebook were met with an automated response.

Eventually, owing to third-party intervention by Access Now's Digital Security Helpline, executives connected with a Facebook representative, who could not even provide them with clear answers about the hacks or share any details regarding the perpetrators' identity.

Meydan TV's travails illustrate digital platforms' vital role in the news ecosystems of authoritarian countries -- and platforms' carelessness about their responsibility. Over the past ten years, an unprecedented government crackdown on civil society has caused news producers and consumers in Azerbaijan to rely on digital platforms, particularly Facebook, for news, information sharing, and critical views. At the same time, the Azerbaijani government has strengthened online repression.

By using its monopoly over the country's information-technology infrastructure, it has disrupted internet access, placed temporary bans on social media services, launched Distributed Denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and used various digital-surveillance tools, including the Israeli spyware Pegasus, to target and censor activists and journalists.

The democracy watchdog Freedom House now considers the internet in Azerbaijan "not free".

In February, Azerbaijan's government enacted a restrictive media law that makes blocking news sites much easier, thus forcing more outlets like Meydan TV, one of the first websites to be banned in 2017, to rely on social media platforms to reach audiences. But while these platforms have become de facto extensions of independent newsrooms, the considerations that drive their decision-making remain a mystery.

Often, tech platforms' content-moderation decisions seem opaque and arbitrary. When Meydan TV asked Facebook to remove a fake page that used its logo to target and harass current and former staffers in 2020, the platform refused to intervene because the hoax did not violate its community standards. Once again, it took an intervention from a third party to convince Facebook to respond.

But while it removed the fake page, Facebook refused to provide details on the hoaxers' identity, maintaining in an email only that it had taken unspecified "appropriate action." This behaviour stands in stark contrast to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's pledges to make his company -- now known as Meta -- more transparent and more mindful of how bad actors could abuse its platforms.

Following a 2017 manifesto in which Mr Zuckerberg highlighted Facebook's "positive impact" on the world, company executives began to hold monthly meetings with the platform's "most engaged" user groups to support local communities. But Meta has not shown the same commitment towards countries where authoritarian regimes are restricting civil liberties. If Facebook is serious about being a positive force, there is no shortage of guidance it can use or refer to. Numerous international organisations have suggested similar steps to increase tech platforms' accountability and transparency. In 2019, an Oxford-Stanford report proposed that Facebook hire more contextually-competent content reviewers, clarify the platform's decision-making criteria, and establish an external appeals body. This was but one such example.

Will Facebook implement such changes?

The company's response to a recent report -- that it commissioned -- examining its content moderation during the 2021 conflict between Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, shows this is in doubt.

This does not bode well for independent media organisations using the platform. By engaging with local news producers and soliciting their feedback on the company's enforcement policies, Facebook could help protect independent journalism and promote internet freedom. Sadly, it looks like the company has other goals in mind. ©2022 Project Syndicate

Arzu Geybulla is an Azerbaijani columnist and writer focusing on digital authoritarianism and its implications on human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan.

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