15 February 2017

South Africa: Racist Online Rants Are a Mirror of Society - Facebook Director

Social media platforms should not be used as a scapegoat for the rise in hate speech online because they only mirror what society already feels, a Facebook representative said on Wednesday.

Blaming social media platforms for this would be unfair, as their main purpose was to encourage freedom of expression, director of public policy for Facebook's Africa division Ebele Okobi said.

"They are mirrors of what society actually is. And as everyone knows, if you walk up to a mirror and you don't like what you see, you can walk away from it. You can break the mirror but it doesn't change the fact of what remains," Okobi said.

She was addressing a hearing into racism and social media, hosted by the SA Human Rights Commission in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

The hearing, which continues on Thursday, is gathering submissions from policy makers, regulatory bodies, civil society organisations, academics, and researchers.

It is not aimed at investigating particular cases, but intended to arrive at a better understanding what constitutes online hate speech.

The SAHRC wants the public, government and companies such as Facebook to take some responsibility for their roles and come up with solutions on how to deal with hate speech.

SAHRC chairperson advocate Bongani Majola, commissioner Angie Makwetla and former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs, asked Okobi whether Facebook could regulate some of the content on its platform, such as use of the word "kaffir" before it is published.

They asked if the platform's administrators could help track down a person who had posted something hateful online using a bogus account.

Okobi said it would be difficult to track what all 1.8 billion of its users were posting online each day. The way it was created did not allow for users' information to go through a checking or editing process before being published.

The only way Facebook staff would know if anything hurtful or offensive was posted would be if another user reported it to the site, she said.

The site had a set of "global community standards" which prohibit threats of violence, harassment, and bullying.

The positive aspect of not regulating content was that it encouraged people to talk about matters they often felt too uncomfortable to discuss with others face to face, she said.

"You want to make sure that that speech is not speech that makes it an uncomfortable platform to be on, but I think all societies owe it to themselves, owe it to citizens, to look at why that speech is happening."

She said Facebook, government and the public could help start an honest conversation about what was happening in the country.

"Sometimes that dialogue is going to awaken hurts that people thought were gone, but I think that that type of constructive dialogue is critical in building a society that actually works.

"And that's true here in South Africa and it's also true in other places in the world where we are having some of these conversations," she said.


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