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Facebook Is Being Sued in France Over Hate Speech and Misinformation

Facebook has received a lot of criticism lately for allowing racist, hateful, and violent content 🤢 to spread on its network. Even though hate speech is against its terms of service, that type of content is still pretty easy to find on the platform. With that kind of environment, it was really only a matter of time before someone got upset and sued the social media giant. 

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) filed a lawsuit against Facebook in France, stating the website breaks its own terms by failing to protect users against hate speech. The suit accuses Facebook of using “deceptive commercial practices” when it promises to provide users with a ✅ safe online enviro nment despite all of the hate speech and misinformation on its platform. 

Below is everything we know about the lawsuit and its potential implications for Facebook. 

RSF Sues Facebook in France  

The lawsuit filed by RSF on March 22 targets Facebook France and Facebook Ireland. According to RSF, Facebook’s terms of service 📜 promise to provide users with “a safe, secure and error-free environment” that can’t be used to share content that is “unlawful, misleading, discriminatory or fraudulent.” Facebook also states in its Community Standards that it works to “significantly reduce the distribution” of misinformation. 

“Using expert analyses, personal testimony and statements from former Facebook employees, RSF’s lawsuit demonstrates that the California-based company’s undertakings to its consumers are largely mendacious,” RSF said in a statement. “[Facebook] allows disinformation and hate speech to flourish on its network . . . contrary to the claims made in its terms of service and through its ads.”

RSF cited the findings of First Draft, a non-profit organization that fights online disinformation, which identified Facebook as a “hub of vaccine conspiracy theories” 💉 in French-speaking communities. It also cited a UNESCO report published last year that named Facebook as the “least safe” social media network. 

The organization provided two legal reports on online hatred on Facebook. The first is about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo’s Facebook page during the time it published its September 2020 issue. That edition coincided with the start of the murder trial for the alleged killers of journalists at the magazine’s headquarters in January 2015. RSF recorded dozens of comments 📝 containing threats, insults, and calls for violence against Charlie Hebdo and its journalists. 

The second report is about hate messages and threats against journalists working on the French TV show Quotidien, which were posted on public Facebook pages. It also includes comments threatening French newspaper L’Union, whose photographer was attacked in February 2021. L’Union reportedly provided RSF with a statement about the verbal violence its journalists routinely receive on Facebook.

With regards to misinformation, RSF also provided reports compiled in December 2020 that show how easy it is to access large amounts of false information about COVID-19 on Facebook. These include posts about the controversial COVID-19 conspiracy documentary Hold-Up, which was viewed an insane 4.5 million times 🤯 in just two months. 

Why File the Lawsuit in France?

RSF stated that it chose France because its consumer laws are especially well suited to deal with the problem. Facebook also has a pretty huge number of users in the country—38 million users overall, including 24 million daily users.

France’s consumer code considers a business to be deceptive “if it is based on false claims, statements or representations or is likely to mislead.” This offense is punishable by a fine of up to 10% of a company’s annual revenue 💵 in France. 

Facebook Promises to Police Hate Speech 

Facebook France has not commented on the RSF lawsuit, but the company has previously said it has a zero-tolerance 🛑 policy for harmful content and was heavily investing in systems to moderate hate speech and misinformation on the platform. 

In December 2020, Facebook announced an overhaul of its automated moderation systems to make them better at detecting and deleting hateful language that is considered “the worst of the worst,” according to internal documents acquired by news sources. These include slurs directed at Muslims, Jews, Black people, and the LGBT+ 🏳️‍🌈 community. The overhaul is still in its early stages, so meaningful change probably won’t happen any time soon. 

Lawsuits accusing Facebook of failing to police hate speech have been on the rise. Earlier this month, the company was hit by a class-action lawsuit in Washington D.C. by civil rights group Muslim Advocates. Like RSF, Muslim Advocates accuses Facebook of failing to remove content that violates its policy against hate speech, despite assuring Congress and other government agencies 🤝 that it enforces those policies.  

Litigation of this kind often spends years in court, which is why both RSF and Muslim Advocates chose to sue Facebook in jurisdictions with strong 💪 consumer protections. The success of RSF’s lawsuit in court could have a global impact on Facebook, which uses the same terms of service all over the world. RSF said it is considering similar lawsuits in other countries. Facebook can just add these to the pile of litigation they’re already facing.