New York (CNN Business)Facebook has for years struggled to crack down on content related to what it calls domestic servitude: “a form of trafficking of people for the purpose of working inside private homes through the use of force, fraud, coercion or deception,” according to internal Facebook documents reviewed by CNN.
The company has known about human traffickers using its platforms in this way since at least 2018, the documents show. It got so bad that in 2019, Apple (AAPL) threatened to pull Facebook and Instagram’s access to the App Store, a platform the social media giant relies on to reach hundreds of millions of users each year. Internally, Facebook (FB) employees rushed to take down problematic content and make emergency policy changes avoid what they described as a “potentially severe” consequence for the business.
But while Facebook managed to assuage Apple’s concerns at the time and avoid removal from the app store, issues persist. The stakes are significant: Facebook documents describe women trafficked in this way being subjected to physical and sexual abuse, being deprived of food and pay, and having their travel documents confiscated so they can’t escape. Earlier this year, an internal Facebook report noted that “gaps still exist in our detection of on-platform entities engaged in domestic servitude” and detailed how the company’s platforms are used to recruit, buy and sell what Facebook’s documents call “domestic servants.”
Last week, using search terms listed in Facebook’s internal research on the subject, CNN located active Instagram accounts purporting to offer domestic workers for sale, similar to accounts that Facebook researchers had flagged and removed. Facebook removed the accounts and posts after CNN asked about them, and spokesperson Andy Stone confirmed that they violated its policies.
“We prohibit human exploitation in no uncertain terms,” Stone said. “We’ve been combatting human trafficking on our platform for many years and our goal remains to prevent anyone who seeks to exploit others from having a home on our platform.”
CNN has reviewed internal Facebook documents included in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of 17 US news organizations, including CNN. In addition to information about human trafficking content on Facebook’s apps, the documents provide deep insights into the company’s approach to misinformation and hate speech moderation, internal research on its newsfeed algorithm, communications related to the Capitol Riot and more.
The Apple threat, first reported by The Wall Street Journal last month, represents the potentially dire consequences of Facebook’s continued challenges with moderating problematic content on its platforms, especially in non-English-speaking countries. In one SEC complaint related to the issue, representatives for Haugen wrote: “Investors would have been very interested to learn the truth about Facebook almost losing access to the Apple App Store because of its failure to stop human trafficking on its products.” The revelation also comes as tensions between Facebook and Apple have risen in recent months over user privacy issues.
Stone directed CNN to a letter Facebook sent last summer to several United Nations representatives about its efforts to combat human trafficking on its platform. In the letter, the company notes that domestic servitude content is “rarely reported to us by users.”
“To counter these challenges … we have also developed technology that can proactively find and take action on content related to domestic servitude,” Facebook said in the letter. “By using it, we have been able to detect and remove over 4,000 pieces of violating organic content in Arabic and English from January 2020 to date.”
Facebook has tried to discredit some earlier reporting by the Wall Street Journal and Haugen’s testimony to a Senate subcommittee earlier this month. In a tweet last week ahead of “The Facebook Papers” publication, Facebook Vice President of Communications John Pinette said: “A curated selection out of millions of documents at Facebook can in no way be used to draw fair conclusions about us.”
A ‘severe’ risk to Facebook’s business
In the fall of 2019, the BBC approached Facebook about an investigation it was soon to publish about an illegal online marketplace for domestic workers — which operated in part using Instagram — and shared the hashtags it had used to locate the content, according to an internal Facebook report. In response, Facebook removed 703 Instagram profiles promoting domestic servitude, but “due to the underreporting of this behavior and absence of proactive detection,” other domestic servitude remained on the platform, the report states.
Following the publication of the BBC investigation, Apple contacted Facebook on October 23, 2019, threatening to remove its apps from the App Store for hosting content that facilitated human trafficking. In a November 2019 internal document titled “Apple Escalation on Domestic Servitude — how we made it through this [Site Event]” a Facebook employee detailed the actions the company took over the course of a week to mitigate the threat, including taking action against more than 130,000 pieces of domestic servitude-related content in Arabic on Facebook and Instagram, expanding the scope of its policy a
Abused and exploited: People are being trafficked via Facebook. The company is still struggling to crack down on the problem.
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