Conference in Lagos, Nigeria: The digital infrastructure on the African continent is partly ahead of the European one
Photo: Ibeabuchi Benson Ugochukwu/Bloomberg/Getty Images
"Don't come home, there's a lot of hate about you on the net," Abrham Meareg had warned his father.
He had previously come across two Facebook posts that did not bode well: his father, a renowned chemistry professor, was slandered there, the name and picture of the Ethiopian were published, the scientist was outed as an alleged supporter of a militia - in the midst of a climate of hatred, ongoing civil war in the country.
The account had 50,000 followers and the first comments quickly followed: "What are you waiting for?", "Why haven't you sucked his blood yet?", "Clean up!".
Another post followed later with wild accusations.
Yes, Professor Meareg Abrha
didn't want to back down.
He made his way back to his hometown of Bar Dahia.
Three weeks later, Abrha was dead: armed men had been waiting outside his gate, one shot him first in the leg and then in the shoulder.
According to relatives, the victim remained lying there for seven hours, and the perpetrators did not let anyone through to him.
»My father had no idea about social media, he didn't know what it could do.
Facebook is a weapon in Ethiopia,” his son says today.
He is certain: Facebook is partly to blame for the crime.
'The posts made him a target.
I reported them immediately, and Facebook later replied that they violated the standards, but the first post was not deleted," says Abrham Meareg.
He has now sued the Facebook parent company Meta in Kenya, demanding a two billion US dollar compensation fund for victims of hate postings - and a reform of internal processes to remove such content more quickly in the future.
Observers expect the trial to begin in early February.
One allegation resonates again and again in the lawsuit: Facebook treats Africa and its inhabitants as a second-class continent.
"They can't make that much money in Africa, so they don't care about the welfare of the people there," complains Meareg.
Meta does not want to comment on the court case when asked by SPIEGEL.
It is not the first time that Facebook has come under massive criticism in the Global South.
As early as 2021, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen accused her former employer of inciting violence in Ethiopia during a US Senate hearing.
The group controls its content in Africa far less than in the Global North.
Publicly available documents show that Facebook subsumes the continent under "Rest of the world".
According to media reports, 87 percent of the working time in the fight against online hatred on Facebook was spent in the USA in 2020.
In East Africa, Meta has outsourced its »content moderation«, i.e. the control of content.
The Sama company based in Nairobi has taken on this task, the meager budget for 2022 according to media reports: 3.9 million US dollars.
The working conditions at Sama are currently the subject of another court case in Kenya: A former employee is suing the company for alleged human trafficking and psychological torture, among other things.
Employees would have had to watch cruel videos and pictures for starvation wages and then delete them.
A former content moderator told SPIEGEL: »We constantly had to work overtime, the pressure was enormous.
You could hardly live off the salary.« Sama denies the allegations, speaks of »false allegations«.
After numerous critical media reports, something happened anyway: According to lawyers, the employees of Sama got a salary increase, the working conditions seemed to improve.
But apparently the deal was no longer worthwhile for the contracting company: Last week, Sama announced that it no longer wanted to continue moderating content for Facebook.
Dozens of employees may face layoffs.
The company justifies this with the "current economic climate", saying that they now want to concentrate more on other business areas.
This is probably not good news for sufferers like Abrham Meareg.
Because the alternatives don't necessarily work better, on the contrary.
According to media reports, the Majorel company is said to be interested in the job, and has been searching the Internet for "content moderators" in various African languages for some time.
Majorel also checks the content for the TikTok video platform.
But in an interview with SPIEGEL, one employee spoke of “toxic working conditions”, and the company was also heavily criticized on digital job platforms.
The online medium "Business Insider" reported numerous grievances at Majorel last year.
Majorel has not yet responded to a SPIEGEL request.
US attorney Cori Crider and her NGO Foxglove are supporting both Abrham Meareg and former Sama employees in Meta's trial.
She is certain: “The tech giants think they can get away with anything in Africa, they don’t take the continent seriously.
We can not permit that."
But the big American tech companies are still welcome guests, and governments are trying to lure them to the continent.
Kenya is positioning itself as the »Silicon Savannah«, as an IT location with high potential for innovation.
In fact, numerous start-ups are springing up there, and the digital infrastructure is sometimes ahead of the European one.
But the truth is also that the corporations from the USA rely primarily on Africa: cheap and maximum profits.
The driving service provider Uber, for example, wanted to charge its drivers more fees than legally permitted last year – the company only gave in after a strike.
Previously, it had defended itself in court against a cap on the fees.
And just outside the capital Nairobi, a new IT location is being built, Konza City.
However, the advertising brochures make it clear what is really being offered: outsourcing for the tech giants.
Kenya wants to position itself as the new India.
How quickly the big dream of an IT boom can burst was demonstrated in Ghana at the end of last year.
The short message service Twitter had just opened its new Africa headquarters there, and it should also be a clear sign that the continent is seen as a future market.
But then Elon Musk came along and laid the ax on the company.
Four days after the official opening of the office, all but one of the employees were laid off.
In contrast to their colleagues in the USA, they were initially not offered any compensation, they were simply to be kicked out with a notice period of four weeks.
Carla Olympio, the lawyer for those affected, saw the group's actions as a clear violation of Ghanaian labor law: "My clients were deeply shocked and have asked themselves why they are considered second-class employees." Twitter has since given in and negotiated with them the dismissed.
The Kenyan expert Odanga Madung from the Mozilla Foundation has long been concerned with the working conditions in the IT sector on the African continent. He calls for tougher action: "It's about time that the governments set clear boundaries for the corporations.
You have to show them that Africa can fight back.«
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