For your average Facebook user, the company's auto-generated videos gather together important life moments. But the company's systems make those videos for self-identified terrorists, too, helping them spread terror-related content and imagery of militant activity, a whistleblower group alleges.
The bombshell complaint filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission also claims the Menlo Park social media giant – already under heavy fire over privacy concerns, problematic content and its economic dominance – failed spectacularly to rein in the use of its platform by extremists, including Islamic State supporters.
"The auto-generated terror content we identified appears to be assisting individuals who profess sympathy for extremist groups in finding and networking with one another," alleged the complaint from the anonymous whistleblower, produced in collaboration with the non-profit National Whistleblower Center. The videos included "Memories" and "Celebration" clips for "self-identified terrorists," said the complaint, which included images from one video highlighting graphic war-time violence and insurgency.
Facebook said Thursday it's getting better at keeping extremist material off its platform.
"After making heavy investments, we are detecting and removing terrorism content at a far higher success rate than even two years go," the company said in a statement. "We don't claim to find everything and we remain vigilant in our efforts against terrorist groups around the world."
But the April 29 complaint, unearthed by The Associated Press, said, "far more extremist content remains on the platform than is blocked." Less than 30 percent of profiles of "Friends" of known terrorist groups were taken down during the five months last year when researchers behind the complaint studied the platform, the complaint said. Just 38 percent of profiles of "Friends" of terrorist groups featuring the groups' symbols were removed, according to the complaint.
The researchers noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2018 boasted of his firm's use of artificial intelligence to purge terror content related to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the complaint said.
"For ISIS members, getting around these checks has proven inconsequential," the complaint said. "To defeat Facebook's AI, one user simply listed himself as working at the 'Islamic State of Syria and Iraq' – reversing the order of 'Iraq' and 'Syria' in the ISIS name to make it ISSI.
"ISIS under its formal name appears to be the only terror group blocked. Even Al Qaeda affiliates appear relatively free to operate on Facebook. A search for profiles with jobs at Al Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula finds that not only is the group searchable, but Facebook itself has created a job page for the terror group – in English no less," according to the complaint.
Extremists exploited a Facebook function that auto-generates pages when someone notes a place or group on their page or elsewhere on the platform, according to the complaint. Pages were created for ISIS, its African affiliate Boko Haram, and Somalia Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabaab, the complaint said. The Al Shabaab page had been up so long it had garnered thousands of "likes," according to the complaint.
Facebook said its systems take down 99 percent of content related to ISIS, Al Qaeda and affiliates before anyone sees it. Terrorists constantly change tactics to get content onto Facebook, so the company updates its counter-tactics accordingly, the company said.
The complaint said the company also auto-generated dozens of pages linked to Nazis, white supremacists and related criminal gangs, the complaint alleged. The American Nazi Party, the KKK, the Aryan Brotherhood and the White Patriot Party all had pages created for them, according to the complaint.
Facebook said that to keep hate groups off its platform, it applies similar tools to those it uses against foreign terror groups.
The SEC's Office of the Whistleblower was established under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Since its inception, the office said in its 2018 annual report, it has ordered wrongdoers to pay $1.7 billion in sanctions, and paid $326 million to 59 whistleblowers.