The US Congress will be questioning representatives of social media companies, including Monica Bickert, who deals with extremist messaging at Facebook, after a whistleblower’s complaint that Facebook had inadvertently provided two extremist groups, al-Qaeda and Daesh, with a networking and recruitment tool. The new details come as an update to a complaint handed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the National Whistleblower Centre intends to file one of these days.
The update obtained by AP identifies almost 200 auto-generated pages - aimed at businesses, schools, etc. - that directly reference Daesh, while others represent al-Qaeda and other known terrorist groups. The filing also indicated that users’ pages promoting extremist groups are easy to find with simple searches using their names: for instance, the accusers uncovered one page for "Mohammed Atta", a hijacker in the 11 September attacks. The bio lists the user’s employer as "al-Qaeda" and education as "University Master Bin Laden" and "School Terrorist Afghanistan".
Responding to the matter, a Facebook spokesperson told AP that their priority is "detecting and removing content posted by people that violates our policy against dangerous individuals and organisations to stay ahead of bad actors". He drew a line with auto-generated pages arguing they are not like "normal Facebook pages as people cannot comment or post on them", stressing they remain "vigilant" in their effort to try to catch every one that is in violation of their policies.
Facebook has been recently working to limit the spread of extremist material on its server, albeit with dubious success.
In March, it expanded the definition of banned content to also include that Facebook deemed as US white nationalist and white separatist information as well as that from international extremist groups. It also expanded the notion of "terrorism" including not only acts of violence as such, but also attempts at them.
Facebook shortly thereafter reported banning what they called 200 white supremacist organisations and 26 million pieces of content related to Daesh and al-Qaeda. There is a a loophole, however, the new report suggested, meaning bulks of prohibited content could be auto-generated.
The issue was notably brought to light in the initial SEC complaint filed by the centre’s executive director, John Kostyack, with the latter accusing the social media giant of playing up its success in stemming extremist content.
Facebook’s reputation has been mired in scandal of late primarily due to a string of data privacy issues, with the latter emerging after sensitive information on sexual experiences and related matters had been found ending up in the company’s hands. In a much more reported case, the social media platform recently okayed a staggering $5 billion settlement for violations of user privacy. The financial settlement is thought to be directly linked to the much-covered Cambridge Analytica skirmish, when the latter gathered the records of thousands of Facebook users in a bid to allegedly use them to sway votes in the 2016 presidential vote.