Parliament must protect SA from Facebook, WhatsApp, says DA

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Facebook has a strong case to answer before Parliament, regarding its role in the dissemination of COVID-19-related misinformation in SA.

This is according to the Democratic Alliance (DA), which says it will be requesting that Facebook be summoned to Parliament to account on several matters, including the protection of the digital privacy of its South African users.

Facebook is currently under fire from a number of governments around the world, with critics saying the world’s biggest social media player is undermining user privacy and is not doing enough to combat the spread of misinformation and fake news on its platform.

In a voice note that accompanies the main opposition’s media statement, DA MP and spokesperson on communications Phumzile van Damme explains that she will today be asking the communications portfolio committee to call for Facebook to answer serious questions on several matters, including how it is protecting the digital privacy of South African users of Facebook and WhatsApp.

The committee will today have its first meeting of the year, during which the draft programme of the first term of the 2021 parliamentary calendar will be discussed.

“The spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19 has highlighted the role that Facebook and WhatsApp have played in spreading harmful narratives about the global pandemic. We believe it is incumbent on Parliament to make sure it protects South Africans from misinformation and protects their digital privacy,” notes Van Damme.

In SA, social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have been blamed for the alarming increase of COVID-19 vaccine-related conspiracy theories and claims linking the spread of COVID-19 to 5G technology.

In its defence, Facebook said it is taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading on its platforms and to connect people to accurate information about the coronavirus.

In May 2020, Facebook announced it had established an oversight board in response to criticism levelled against it for not being transparent enough on decisions regarding what content is or isn't banned on its platforms.

Protecting the masses

In its statement, the DA points out SA’s Parliament is being left behind, while legislators across the globe push for social media reform and strengthened content moderation on social media platforms.

While governments across the world and on the African continent have embraced innovation and technological advancement, SA lags behind – an old bureaucracy unable to move with the times to improve service delivery and create new jobs, it adds.

“In the South African context and in line with the country’s Constitution, stronger content moderation would mean removing content that incites violence and advocates for hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Full freedom of expression that does not fall into this category must be protected,” says the DA.

Van Damme goes on to say this call should not be seen as a means to control Facebook or curb freedom of speech, but rather to hear what steps Facebook will be taking to ensure misinformation is curbed and digital privacy is protected.

The social media giant, which has 2.8 billion users worldwide, has for many years faced backlash from government leaders and citizens, who accuse it of being used as a tool to spread fake news, propaganda and terrorist activity.

Despite repeated promises to its billions of users that it would protect user privacy and fight misinformation and fake news on its platform, in 2018, Britain’s information rights regulator fined Facebook $644 000 for breaches of data protection law related to the harvesting of data by consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also in the past faced questioning by US and European Union lawmakers over its data privacy issues.

In July 2019, the US Federal Trade Commission imposed a $5 billion fine on Facebook to settle privacy concerns − the biggest fine levied to date by the federal government against a technology company.

Anna Collard, SVP, content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.
Anna Collard, SVP, content strategy and evangelist at KnowBe4 AFRICA.

Paying for “free” service

Anna Collard, SVP, content strategy and evangelist at security firm KnowBe4 AFRICA, says misinformation is being used by criminals to distribute scams and malicious software via social media – an activity that has led to cyber crime being among the top five detriments to Africa’s economy.

“Social media companies are currently not doing enough to curb hate speech, misinformation and violence-inciting content such as online gender-based violence. There are also more and more international activists calling for social media platforms to take more responsibility. One such example is the commendable attempt by 14 young girls who are directly taking on Facebook and Twitter via their #freetobeonline hashtag.”

In terms of user privacy on Facebook and WhatsApp,Collard asserts that users need to become more aware of the fact that when they use a free service, they are paying for it via their personal information.

“We have become the product, and our privacy, time and attention are the trade-off. It’s especially important for kids and young adults to understand and to question anything they are served with on these platforms, as it has been used to keep us glued to our screens – and not necessarily to educate or connect us to others. Misinformation and fake news is six times more likely to be shared because it is often packaged in content that triggers our emotions and suppresses our critical thinking.”

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