Technology

Civil society groups call for social media consistency in crisis zones

Associated Press/Rodrigo Abd
A woman walks amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 3, 2022.

Social media platforms must do more to ensure people in crisis zones have access to crucial information, a group of two dozen civil society groups argue in an open letter published Wednesday.

The letter focuses on how companies have responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, faulting platforms for failing to listen to local organizations since Moscow’s 2014 incursion into the neighboring country about how to handle Russian cases of mis- and disinformation.

Once the conflict did kick off in earnest, however, the letter argues social media platforms took “extraordinary” steps with Ukraine that they have been unwilling to deploy in other conflict zones.

“As a global community of civil society actors, we do not demand a one-size-fits-all approach to responding to human rights crises,” the groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Access Now and Digital Security Lab Ukraine, said. “What we are asking platforms to do is to invest more time and effort in improving their operations now, not when unfolding violence gets into the media spotlight and it is often already too late to act.”

The letter, addressed to Twitter, Facebook parent company Meta, Google, Telegram and TikTok, says that platforms are only willing to engage in due diligence efforts such as human rights impact assessments when under pressure from media and outside organizations.

“When those pressures subside, they often turn their attention away instead of learning from their mistakes,” the groups write.

A spokesperson for Meta directed The Hill to Facebook’s corporate human rights policy, a six-page document outlining how the platform seeks to uphold principles established by international organizations.

The Hill has reached out to the other named companies for comment on the letter.

Social media companies’ response to the war in Ukraine, including Meta making exceptions to its policy against hate speech and violent incitement, shows how little companies are willing to do during non-Western conflicts, the letter argues.

The letter highlights how social media platforms took down content posted by Palestinians before the evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah last spring. Many of the removals were ultimately blamed on technical issues weeks after the fact.

“At the same time, livestreams of ongoing human rights abuses were shut down and content continued to be removed,” the groups argue. “Speech was removed in this context that may have been left up had it received the kind of contextual analysis platforms are claiming to do in Ukraine now.”

The organizations are calling on social platforms to make seven commitments, including meaningful independent human rights reviews, equitable investment in content moderation globally and engagement with groups on the ground.

Updated at 3:27 p.m.

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