Lawsuit accuses Meta of discrimination, seeks changes to Facebook’s algorithm 

A new lawsuit filed against Meta in Kenya’s High Court seeks fundamental changes to Facebook’s algorithm, which is alleged to fuel viral hate and violence online with offline consequences. The case alleges that Meta’s failure to deal with core safety issues has fanned conflict and killed people – especially in Ethiopia’s civil war, which has claimed some 500,000 lives, and additionally harming 500 million more people across Eastern and Southern Africa.

The constitutional petition against Meta has been filed in Nairobi by Ethiopian researchers Abrham Meareg and Fisseha Tekle, and leading Kenyan rights group Katiba Institute. It accuses Meta of several violations of the Kenyan Constitution in the course of its operations in Kenya, and in the region.

(TOP: Abrham Meareg – left – Fisseha Tekle – right – the two main petitioners in the lawsuit).


Kenya’s jurisdiction over the case is on the grounds that the use of the Respondent’s algorithm is applied in Kenya and content moderation decisions that affect the larger part of Africa are made in Kenya. The case petitioners also claim that Meta pays tax to the Government of Kenya making it an entity trading in Kenya.

Facebook, the largest social media platform in Africa, is accused of causing hate and violence to go viral in pursuit of advertising profits. It also accuses Meta of racial discrimination and policies that have led to under-investment in Africa, highlighting its failure to hire enough content moderation staff for the languages covered by its Nairobi moderation hub which is reported to be the largest in Africa. The languages covered within the Nairobi hub are: English (as spoken in South Saharan countries); Swahili; Amharic; Tigray; Oromo; Zulu; Tswana; Afrikaans; Somali; and Hausa.    

Meareg, Tekle and Katiba Institute specifically seek to have Meta held accountable for contributing to the loss of lives, displacement of families, vilification of individuals and destruction of communities. Through sworn affidavits, they seek to demonstrate to the Kenyan High Court how Facebook’s moderation failures in Nairobi led to the murder of, among many others, Prof Meareg Amare, the first petitioner’s father, on November 3, 2021.

“The algorithm did not detect at the first instance that the posts and the comments shared on 9th and 10th October 2021 were not only inflammatory but also amounted to incitement to violence, hate speech and advocacy of hatred on ethnic grounds which are all forbidden as per the Facebook Community Standards,” reads their petition, adding that “…the Respondent had a duty of care to protect Professor Meareg from harm by disallowing the 9th and 10th October 2021 posts which ultimately led to the loss of his life”.  

Facebook fanning regional instability and ethnic cleansing   

The court will hear how the Respondent’s business choices and inaction has had far-reaching consequences not only for individuals but for whole regions. They create a ripple effect of harm across communities and in this case across countries. There is a noted spill over effect of the conflict in Ethiopia in Marsabit County. Violence in Ethiopia’s Oromia region coincided with increasing clan attacks between Gabra and Borana people in Marsabit County have led to the declaration of a curfew and deployment of armed forces to the region.

The case alleges that since the conflict began in Ethiopia, Facebook posts can be attributed to multiple incidences of resultant violence and murder. For instance:

  1. The mass murder and burial of Gebremichael Tewelmedhi and 11 others, following a series of posts calling for the cleansing of Amhara territories;
  2. The arbitrary arrest and murder of Hadush Gebrekirstos who was heard speaking Tigrayan at a time when there were numerous posts calling for the ethnic cleansing of Tigrayans;
  3. The murder of Hachalu Hundessa following the publishing of incitement to violence as a reaction to a video where he offered his opinion on the 19th Century Ethiopian emperor;
  4. The killing of over 100 people in Bikuji Kebele in the Metekel zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia following the publishing of a post by Gashaw Mersha calling for ‘self-defence’; and
  5. The butchering of more than a dozen Qimant in Aykel following the publishing of a post by Tewodros Kebede Ayo accusing the Qimant community of supporting opposition forces and calling for their ‘clean-up’.

The case further brings Facebook under scrutiny for its exploitation by hostile governments against organizations and individuals critical of Human Rights Violations particularly amidst political instability.

The court will further hear how, whilst the Facebook Community Standards forbid the posting of inciteful, hateful and dangerous content, to date, there are innumerable Facebook posts calling for, amongst others– intercommunal violence; general incitement to conflict; rape as a weapon of war; murder and abuse of corpses; weaponized starvation; immediate killing to save costs; use of concentration camps; branding of human beings; and burying human beings.

Discriminatory treatment of Facebook Users   

Citing the January 6th insurrection on the US Capitol, the petitioners accuse the Respondent of being technologically able to adjust and restrict Facebook’s viral algorithm but unwilling to invoke it to protect communities outside the USA.

The case sets precedence by bringing several incidences, ranging from the spread of election misinformation in Kenya to Hateful, Inciteful and Dangerous Content by Extremist Groups as in the case of the DusitD1 complex by Al Shabaab, and the Algorithm’s recommendation of inciteful, hateful and dangerous content to Facebook users in Kenya to demonstrate a pattern of discriminatory policies that are consciously making the social media platform disproportionately harmful to Africans.

Case Demands  

The Petition seeks a series of Court orders that would, in effect, end Facebook’s systemic discrimination against African users. Through the lawsuit, the Petitioners are asking the court to order that Facebook must, among other things, stop promoting viral hate;  demote violent incitement – in moves akin to the emergency steps Facebook took after the US Capitol riots of 6 January 2021; staff enough content moderators to serve the language markets moderated out of the Nairobi hub; and create a restitution fund of Kshs 200 billion (about $1.6 billion) for victims of hate and violence incited on Facebook, and a further Kshs 50 billion (about $400 million) for similar harm from sponsored posts.

If successful, this will be the first time a case has successfully challenged the “Facebook algorithm” – the process by which Facebook makes content go viral for profit, a process laid bare in last year’s blockbuster Facebook Files revelations by whistle-blower Frances Haugen.

The Facebook Files also exposed Facebook’s woeful failure to invest in safety systems in what Facebook calls the “Rest of World” – Facebook’s dismissive term for the combined peoples of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.

Abrham Meareg, petitioner in the case, said: “If Facebook had just stopped the spread of hate and moderated posts properly, my father would still be alive. I’m taking Facebook to court so no one ever suffers as my family has again. I’m seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook’s profiteering – and an apology for my father’s murder.”  Meareg’s recorded message is available online for download.

Fisseha Tekle, another petitioner, and legal advisor at Amnesty International, said: “We can’t protect human rights if the social media people rely on for news and connection fuels hate and disinformation. I saw first-hand how the dynamics on Facebook harmed my own human rights work and hope this case will redress the imbalance.”

Mercy Mutemi, of Nzili and Sumbi Advocates, said: “Nairobi has become a Hub for Big Tech, and that’s notable. What we must fight against endlessly is Big Tech’s abuse of Nairobi as a base to export human suffering to Africans. Big Tech must put respect for human rights at the forefront; design AI in a way that puts people first, not profit; and resource that hub properly. Not investing adequately in the African market has already caused Africans to die from unsafe systems. We know that a better Facebook is possible – because we have seen how preferentially they treat other markets. African Facebook users deserve better. More importantly, Africans deserve to be protected from the havoc caused by underinvesting in protection of human rights.” Ms Mutemi, Africa Legal’s Tech Lawyer of the Year for 2022, represents the two individual petitioners and is .

Rosa Curling, a Director at Foxglove, the legal non-profit supporting the case, said: “We all deserve social media that connects us, not divides us.  But Facebook lets hate to spread because it’s profitable, and stopping it costs money. Mark Zuckerberg can do far, far more – adjusting his algorithms to demote viral hate, hiring more local staff, and ensuring they are well-paid, and that their work is safe and fair. We’re here to force real change.”

Foxglove, the tech-justice non-profit behind several cases against tech companies, is supporting the case.

Katiba Institute is represented by Dudley Ochiel, a public interest litigator behind several landmark cases in Kenya.

Backing the case as interested parties are a long list of major human rights organisations and racial inclusion watchdogs. These include: Amnesty International, Global Witness, Article 19, Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Kenya’s National Integration and Cohesion Commission, and others.


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