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‘Rein in’ hate on Facebook, scientists urge

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More than 160 scientists - including some doing research at foundations funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife - have urged Facebook not to let US President Donald Trump use the platform to spread ‘misinformation and incendiary statements’.

The researchers, including 60 professors at leading research institutions across the US, wrote to the Facebook CEO on Saturday (6 June) asking Zuckerberg to “consider stricter policies on misinformation and incendiary language that harms people,” particularly during the current turmoil over racial injustice. 

The letter calls the spread of “deliberate misinformation and divisive language” contrary to the researchers’ goals of using technology to prevent and eradicate disease, improve childhood education and reform the criminal justice system.

Debora Marks of Harvard Medical School, one of three professors who organised the letter, said that their mission “is antithetical to some of the stances that Facebook has been taking, so we’re encouraging them to be more on the side of truth and on the right side of history, as we’ve said in the letter.”

Those among those stated in the letter include Martin Kampmann of the University of California, San Francisco, and Jason Shepherd of the University of Utah. They all have grants from a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative programme working to prevent, cure and treat neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

They said the letter had more than 160 signatories, with Shepherd adding that about 10 per cent were employees of foundations run by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

The letter objects specifically to Zuckerberg’s decision not to act on a post by Trump that stated “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The letter’s authors called the post “a clear statement of inciting violence”. 

Zuckerberg has faced significant backlash, including from Facebook's own staff, over the choice not to remove Trump’s post at the start of the month amid nationwide protests over police brutality following the death of George Floyd.

Twitter had both flagged and demoted a tweet written by Trump using similar language. Following his spat with that social media platform, Trump signed an executive order aimed at changing or scrapping a law which protects companies from liability for the content posted by third parties on their internet platforms. 

In a statement, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative noted that the philanthropic organisation was separate from Facebook and said, “We are grateful for our staff, partners and grantees” and “[We] respect their right to voice their opinions, including on Facebook policies”.

Some Facebook employees have publicly objected to Zuckerberg’s refusal to take down or label misleading or incendiary posts by Trump and other politicians. So far, Zuckerberg has refused.

On Friday (5 June), Zuckerberg said in a post that he would review “potential options for handling violating or partially violating content, aside from the binary leave-it-up or take-it-down decisions”.

In other news, the justice secretary in the Philippines said officials are currently investigating the proliferation of fake Facebook accounts using the identities of students, journalists and government officials which appeared after an anti-terror law protest. 

The University of the Philippines first identified the accounts over the weekend following the protest on its campus last Thursday (4 June). Those spotted carried names of students who were among eight people arrested during the protest. Dozens of Facebook users have since posted screenshots of accounts using their names and urged friends to report the duplicates.

Justice secretary Menardo Guevarra said he has ordered the cyber-crime office and National Bureau of Investigation to “get to the bottom of this huge anomaly”.

Meanwhile, a Facebook spokesperson said the US firm was investigating reports of suspicious activity and would act on accounts violating its policies.

According to a recent study, Filipinos spend more time on social media than any other nationality. Platforms such as Facebook have become political battlegrounds, with so-called influencers emerging as a force behind President Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 election campaign and have been defending him ever since.

Opposition senator Francis Pangilinan said he suspected the accounts targeted those who oppose Duterte’s anti-terror bill, which was previously said to be patterned on those used in countries that had dealt effectively with extremism. Critics have said the bill could give the Philippine president unprecedented power to target them. 

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