Combating hate speech: an open letter to Facebook

Twenty-two Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) organizations are calling on Facebook to better regulate and police anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech. Their demands come at a time of increasing controversy for the social media platform and its CEO.

Twenty-two Middle Eastern and North African LGBTQ+ organizations called for regulations on hate-speech on Facebook.
Twenty-two Middle Eastern and North African LGBTQ+ organizations called for regulations of hate speech on Facebook.

By Bridget Stauss

In the wake of queer Egyptian activist Sarah Hegazy‘s suicide last month, several Middle Eastern and North African LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have demanded that Facebook do more to combat anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech on its platform.

Sarah Hegazy took her own life on June 14 in her home in Canada, two years after fleeing her native Egypt. She was arrested in September 2017 for raising the rainbow Pride flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo, and was sexually assaulted and tortured during her three months in prison. Though she found asylum in Canada, she continued to struggle with the physical and psychological trauma she endured in Egypt.

Police had arrested her a week after the concert, when an image of her raising the flag went viral on Twitter.

The MENA organizations’ open letter, which was released late last month, outlines the role of social media in the modern world and the subsequent rise of anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech on the Internet, specifically among Arab-speaking users.

Mark Zuckerberg has been criticized for his refusal to police hate speech and fake information on Facebook
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been criticized for his refusal to police hate speech and fake information on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

Facebook’s existing community standards and hate speech reporting mechanisms are failing, according to the letter. Although Facebook asserts that “it does not allow hate speech because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion and in some cases may promote real-world violence,” Facebook typically declines to act against anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech that is reported to it. Instead, Facebook states that “the content ‘did not contradict the Facebook community standards.’ ”

Recently, a video clip of Istanbul-based Watan TV anchor Hala Samir calling for the slaughter and burning of all homosexuals was circulated widely on Twitter and Facebook. On Twitter, the video racked up more than 3,200 “likes” as well as thousands of comments and retweets. The video remains on both social media platforms.

The open letter also cites the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the rights of all persons to expression, protection, and safety, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

According to the letter, anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech on Facebook does not quality as freedom of expression; instead, it infringes on the safety and protections of queer Arabs and therefore violates the Declaration of Human Rights.

In the conclusion of the letter, the signatories demand that the Facebook administration:

  • Keep holding meetings with members and activists of the LGBTQI+ community in the MENA region to discuss the issue at hand, convoke an emergency meeting, and assure an active and regular follow up on the strategies and outcomes of those meeting,
  • Activate a mechanism to individually investigate all cases of hate speech, specifically targeting sexual orientation / gender identity, in accordance with specific criteria that respect privacy and without prejudice to the right to expression;
  • Apply the same policies applied by the administration for the safety of  LGBTQI+ worldwide, and assure that hate speech is being monitored, addressed and taken strict measures against;
  • Train staff and raise awareness on issues related to gender identity, sexual orientation, and minorities’ rights (specifically the LGBTIQ+ community);
  • Appoint an expert concerned with combating hate speech within the Facebook Wise Council Committee, as well as a representative of LGBTIQ+ people from the region; these people should obviously be convinced of the universality of human and minority rights.

Demands for accountability and more stringent hate speech regulations at Facebook are not new. Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been mired in controversy since the 2016 United States presidential election, when Zuckerberg refused to censor political conspiracies and false information about the candidates.

More recently, Zuckerberg spoke out against Twitter’s policies restricting violent and hateful language and the platform’s decision to fact-check tweets from President Donald Trump. Social media companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth,” Zuckerberg told Fox News.

The Stop Hate for Profit movement has significantly decreased Facebook's ad revenue.
The Stop Hate for Profit movement has apparently caused Facebook’s quarterly ad revenue to fall. (Graph courtesy of the New York Times)

As of July 6, more than 800 companies have pulled their ads from Facebook in an attempt to force Zuckerberg and top administrators to take action against hate speech on the social media platform. The movement, led by the nonprofit Stop Hate for Profit, has caused Facebook’s stock price to plummet and has achieved some tangible policy changes: on Friday, June 26, Facebook rolled out new measures to flag problematic political posts and expand its policies about hate speech.

Bridget Stauss, the author of this article, studies history and international relations at Amherst College in the United States.

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