Edwin Tong made Facebook admit it's 'ashamed' for 'serious mistake' of not quickly removing hate speech in Sri Lanka

"No, as an employee of Facebook, I am ashamed that things like this happened and they do, and they shouldn’t."

Matthias Ang | Martino Tan | November 28, 2018, 04:55 PM

If you are a Facebook employee, you would not want to hear from Edwin Tong, a Senior Minister of State (SMS) for Law and Health.

As the SMS for Law and a member of Singapore's Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, he appears to be the government spokesperson regarding online falsehoods.

He was interviewed by TODAY on the issue and was the political office-holder addressing the States Times Review fake news article during the last parliament sitting.

And Tong has some tough words for Facebook in the past month.

Exhibit One (Oral Answer to Parliamentary Question on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Nov 20)

"Facebook has also given assurances that it would work closely with the Singapore authorities to swiftly address online falsehoods. And yet, when there is an actual falsehood that attacks Singapore, Facebook refuses to remove the content."

Exhibit Two (Oral Answer to Parliamentary Question on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Nov 20)

"Facebook will do nothing about it (falsehoods), despite the various statements made in Singapore and elsewhere. It will allow itself to be a platform for the spread of lies, falsity, to poison and divide societies through such lies, encourage xenophobia, and profit from that"..

Exhibit Three (Channel NewsAsia interview, Nov. 27)

"They're (American tech companies) part of the problem but I think they equally realise they need to be a part of the solution as well".

Part of S'pore delegation to grill Facebook internationally

Hence, Tong is a good pick to represent Singapore as part of the delegation to attend the International Grand Committee Hearing on Fake News and Disinformation, together with fellow Select Committee members and MPs Sun Xueling and Pritam Singh.

The hearing took place in the British Parliament, and it involved 24 parliamentarians from nine countries.

The other eight countries were Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia and the United Kingdom.

The trio had questions for Facebook

Here, we introduce our three musketeers from Singapore Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods.

This was a group shot taken before they "interviewed" Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy Solutions for Facebook.

Their questions included whether Facebook can be "trusted to make the right assessment" on inflammatory posts (Tong); whether they would "work with the authorities to take down false information and close accounts that put out fake news" (Sun); and how it is dealing with the tampering of elections (Pritam).

Enter Edwin Tong

Among the questions posed, the toughest ones were delivered by Tong.

In a mere six-minute exchange with Allan, Tong made Allan admit to making "a mistake” in not removing a post that incited racial hatred in Sri Lanka, and feel "ashamed" of Facebook that mistakes like this occur when they shouldn't.

Here's the full exchange:

Establishing the scene in Sri Lanka

Edwin Tong: Would you accept that there’s no place for any content on Facebook which attacks people on lines of race, religion or ethnicity?

Richard Allan: Yes, and our policies are very clear that that’s not acceptable.

ET: Yes and in fact your policy is very clear that when such attacks are made, you are committed to removing it anytime you become aware of it. Would that be right?

RA: Yes

ET: And just go to page 1 of that extract and you’ll see Mr. Zuckerberg’s Facebook extract from August 2017. I’ll read you the portions which I’ve highlighted. He says, “When someone tries to silence others or attack them based on who they are or what they believe, that hurts us all and is unacceptable. There is no place for hate in our community and that is why we have always, always taken down any posts that promotes or celebrates hate crimes or acts of terrorism. Would that be correct?

RA: Yes.

ET: And you do so, because you are aware that such content has the potential to divide communities, incite violence, tension, hatred and strife. Would you agree?

RA: Yes.

ET: Would you go to the second page of the extract, and I think you’ll be familiar with what happened in Sri Lanka recently in March this year?

RA: That’s right.

ET: The post that was put up originally is the part that is in pink. It’s in the Sinhalese language, the language of the native Sri Lankans and the post translates to, and I quote, “Kill all Muslims, don’t even let an infant of the dogs escape.” That would be properly characterised as hate speech?

RA: Clearly in breach of community standards, yup.

ET: And it was put up at a time when there were significant tensions between the people of Sri Lanka and Muslims, causing damage to property, deaths even. Riots. Damage to mosques. And eventually it resulted in the Sri Lankan government declaring a state of emergency. Would you agree?

RA: Yes.

ET: Would you agree that in the context of that kind of tensions occurring in Sri Lanka, putting up such a post would invariably travel far, divide those tensions, or stress those tensions even more, and divide the community?

RA: Yes, that’s high-priority content for us to remove.

Highlighting Facebook's moment of failure to the astonishment of the room

ET: Yes, if you just look at the page, it was then pointed out by one of your users on Facebook and subsequently picked up by one Harin Fernando, who was the communications minister of Sri Lanka at that time, why is it that Facebook has refused to take it down?

RA: Um...the comment should be down. If it’s not down, it should be. What I’m seeing is that there are two possible reasons why the content was not taken down at that time; one is a simple error on the part of the person who looked at it--

ET: Let me just stop you there. Go over the page of the second document and you’ll see the response of Facebook when asked to take it down. It says, “Thank you for the report. You did the right thing. We’ve looked over the post.” So it was no mistake Mr. Allen and it says, “It doesn’t go against one of our specific community standards.”

This drew expressions of astonishment and laughter around the room.

RA: Yeah, that was a mistake. Let me be clear: that somebody has made a mistake in the review.

ET: Mr. Allen, this is a very serious, egregious mistake, would you agree?

RA: I agree yes.

ET: It goes completely against your own policy.

RA: That’s right.

ET: To take it down immediately.

RA: Yup.

ET: So would you accept that this case illustrates that Facebook cannot be trusted to make the right assessment on what can properly appear on its platform?

RA: Um...no. So, we make mistakes.

ET: It’s a serious one.

Facebook admits it made "a serious mistake" and promises a solution is in the works

RA: A serious mistake. Our responsibility is to reduce the number of mistakes. I still think that we are best placed to actually do the content removal and that’s why we are investing very heavily now in artificial intelligence where we would precisely create a dictionary of hate-speech terms in every language. We are working through the languages. The best way to resolve this is a dictionary of hate-speech terms in Sinhalese that gets surfaced to a Sinhalese-speaking reviewer who can make sure we do the job properly.

ET: Well, Mr. Allen, in this case, while one excuse might be that your users or your reviewers don’t understand Sinhalese, I mean, you have the communications minister of Sri Lanka telling you, that this is hate speech, to take it down. And you reviewed it, your people reviewed it, you said hundreds of thousands of people review it, but they don’t seem to abide by the same philosophy as you’ve expressed in your own policies.

RA: Yeah, and again so, we make mistakes and our job is to reduce the number of mistakes. I completely accept as we’ve discussed previously that we should be accountable for our performance to you, your colleagues, every parliament and government that sat round this table today. I would love to explain as part of that process, how we do what we do, the challenges of getting it right, the challenges of doing it to scale, not because I expect sympathy but because I think it’s important to understand if we’re gonna solve the problem, what it is we need to do to solve it. And I think that will be a combination of us getting better at our jobs, using better technology and frankly, the accountability of you and your colleagues standing over us and making sure that we do it correct.

ET: Well, in this case, the post only came to a halt when the Sri Lankan government blocked Facebook.

RA: Yes.

ET: Do we have to get to that kind of measure?

RA: No. I mean, we would most prefer not to.

ET: How would governments trust that Facebook will live up to its own promise?

Facebook expresses its hope for a "constructive relationship"

RA: Again, this is where I think the openness has to be there, and I hope that you have a constructive relationship with my colleagues in Singapore who work on these issues.

Here, Mothership reminds you what Facebook Singapore has not done so far.

I want us to be in a position where we share with you the good and the bad at how you think we’re doing and in full expectation that you will always be pushing us to better--

ET: We look forward to that because what has happened by way of Sri Lanka and there are several others as well, should not be allowed to happen ever.

RA: No, as an employee of Facebook, I am ashamed that things like this happened and they do, and they shouldn’t.

ET: Thank you.

Facebook set to open a new data centre in Singapore

Facebook announced on Sept. 6 that it will invest in more than S$1.4 billion to construct an 11-storey data centre in Singapore.

Tong, Sun and Pritam didn't get to meet Mark Zuckerberg in London.

Maybe Tong can prepare a special welcome for the Facebook founder if he chooses to officiate the opening of Facebook's first data centre in Asia in 2022.

Top image screenshots from UK Parliament TV


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