A Facebook executive has admitted that the company “made a mistake” in not removing a post that incited racial hatred in Sri Lanka, an international hearing on fake news and disinformation in London heard on Tuesday (Nov 27).
Mr Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice-president of policy solutions, was questioned by Singapore Member of Parliament Edwin Tong over a post, written in Sinhalese in March, which called for the killing of all Muslims. Mr Tong asked if the post breached the social media company’s terms of service.
Mr Allan agreed it did.
“It was put up at a time when there were significant tensions between the people of Sri Lanka and Muslims, causing damage to property, deaths even. Riots. Damage to mosques. And eventually it resulted in the Sri Lankan government declaring a state of emergency. Would you agree?” Mr Tong said.
Mr Allan replied: “Yes.”
“Would you agree that in the context of that kind of tensions occurring in Sri Lanka, putting up such a post would invariably travel far, divide those tensions, or stress those tensions even more, and divide the community?” asked Mr Tong.
Mr Allan replied: “Yes, that’s high-priority content for us to remove.”
When Mr Tong asked why Facebook refused to take down the post in question, even after it was highlighted by Sri Lanka’s communications minister, Mr Allan said it was a “simple error” on the part of a Facebook employee.
At this point, Mr Tong interjected. He argued it was no mistake and Facebook had replied to a user that the post does not go against its community standards.
Mr Allan disagreed. “That was a mistake,” he said. “I just want to be clear that somebody has made a mistake in the review.”
He also disagreed with Mr Tong’s subsequent query on whether this case showed that Facebook “cannot be trusted to make the right assessment” on what can appear on its platform.
“We make mistakes … serious mistakes; our responsibility is to reduce the number of mistakes,” he said.
“We are investing very heavily in artificial intelligence, where we would precisely create a dictionary of hate speech terms in every language.”
He added: “The best way to resolve this is a dictionary of hate speech terms in Sinhalese, which gets surfaced to a Sinhalese-speaking reviewer, who can make sure that we do the job properly.”
Mr Tong replied: “Mr Allan, in this case, whilst one excuse might be that your users or your reviewers don’t understand Sinhalese, when you have the communications minister of Sri Lanka telling you that this is hate speech and to take it down, and you review it, your people review it, and you said hundreds of thousands of people review it, but they don’t seem to abide by the same philosophy as you have expressed in your own policies.”
The post was only stopped from circulating after the Sri Lankan government blocked Facebook.
When Mr Tong asked if governments would have to resort to such measures to deal with the issue of deliberate online falsehoods, Mr Allan said Facebook would “prefer not to”.
“This is where I think the openness has to be … and I hope that you have a constructive relationship with my colleagues in Singapore who work in these issues,” said Mr Allan.
“I want us to be in a position where we share with you the good and the bad, about how we think we’re doing, in full expectation that you will be pushing us always to be better.”
To this response, Mr Tong replied: “Well we look forward to that, because what’s happened, by way of example in Sri Lanka, and there are several others as well, should not be allowed to happen ever.”
Mr Allan said: “No, and as an employee of Facebook I am ashamed that things like this happen and they do and they shouldn’t.”
Mr Tong was joined by two fellow Members of Parliament from Singapore, Mr Pritam Singh and Ms Sun Xueling, at the hearing in London.