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Whistleblower: Facebook stirs global conflicts

Rebecca Staudenmaier
November 6, 2021

Facebook is taking an English-first approach in tackling "extreme" online content, whistleblower Frances Haugen told DW. She warned that the current situation in Ethiopia shows how dire the consequences can be.

Closeup of Frances Haugen as she listens to opening statements during a Senate Committee hearing
Whistleblower Frances Haugen is due to testify about Facebook at the European Parliament next weekImage: Drew Angerer/Pool via AP/picture alliance

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen talks to DW

The role Facebook plays in fanning the flames of ethnic and political tensions shows how urgently change is needed at the social media giant, whistleblower Frances Haugen said in an interview with DW.

Haugen is a former product manager for the social media giant, which recently rebranded itself under the new name "Meta." 

She is due to testify in front of a panel at the European Parliament on Monday about her disclosures on the company.

Tackling 'extreme content' in English — but less so in other languages

"One of the core things that I'm trying to draw attention to is the underinvestment in languages that aren't English," Haugen told DW.

With the company most concerned about preventing regulatory scrutiny in the United States, the English language gets the most attention in terms of adapting the company's artificial intelligence (AI) software.

"Unfortunately the most fragile places in the world are the most diverse when it comes to languages," Haugen said.

She said Facebook's current safety strategy is to use AI to catch "extreme content" and ensure it doesn't rank higher in users' feeds.

"The problem is that strategy requires us to build those AI systems over and over and over again in each language for the platform to be safe — and right now Facebook is not doing that," she explained.

Ethiopia conflict illustrates need for change

Relying on AI to help ensure public safety — and then not updating the systems in other languages — can have major, real-world consequences, the whistleblower said.

"I saw a pattern of behavior where I believed there was no chance that Facebook would be able to solve these problems in isolation," Haugen said, explaining her decision to come forward.

"I saw what I feared was going to happen continue to unfurl," she said, pointing to the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia as a more recent example.

"I knew I could never live with myself if I watched 10 million, 20 million people over the next 20 years die because of violence that was facilitated by social media," Haugen added.

Rights groups have sounded the alarm over a rise in hate speech on social media in Ethiopia amid the advance of Tigrayan forces.

Amnesty International warned that many posts "inciting violence" and using slurs against ethnic Tigrayans have "gone unchecked."

Earlier this week, Facebook removed a post by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, saying it violated the company's policies against calling for violence.

On Friday, Twitter suspended its "trends" section in Ethiopia, citing a rise in threats of physical violence.

This interview was conducted by DW political correspondent Giulia Saudelli.