Letter calls for Facebook to stop trying to silence South African whistleblower Daniel Motaung

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Thursday, 21 July 2022 20:35, updated on Monday, 25 July 2022 11:54

Mercy Mutemi, a lawyer representing a former content moderator, speaks during a news conference after filing a lawsuit against Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc and its local content moderation contractor Sama, at the Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi, Kenya, May 10, 2022. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A group of more than 80 organisations and individuals, including Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, published an open letter today demanding Meta and its Facebook moderation company Sama stop "all attempts to silence" South African human rights defender and whistleblower Daniel Motaung. 

The letter addressed to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Sama CEO Wendy Gonzalez, defends Motaung and his legal team, NGO Foxglove.

Facebook and Sama are currently threatening Motaung with a gag order and contempt of court charges in a Nairobi court.

The letter reads: “Your lawyers have even asked a judge to “crack the whip” against Daniel, a frontline worker who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the work he did for you and for which he was earning just $2.20 per hour.”

It continues: “It should be a source of intense shame for Meta, one of the richest companies on earth, that it has chosen to focus its corporate clout and resources on the latter course of action. Sama, a company that professes to champion dignified work for all but has instead treated its own workers with callous disdain, should equally hang its head.”

Blowing the whistle

Motaung has been vocal in his opposition to the social media giant, including in an investigation by TIME magazine.

South African former member of parliament Phumzile van Damme, one of the letter’s signatories, is passionate about stamping out abuses by big corporations on the continent. He said: “This legal threat is a cynical attempt to bury the story of labor rights abuses in Facebook’s global content moderation workforce. The company knows it would never get away with undermining freedom of expression in this way on its home turf. It cannot be allowed to get away with it in Kenya.”

Meta’s counsel, Fred Ojiambo of Kaplan & Stratton, who asked the judge to “crack the whip, this time around”, is a civil litigation specialist.

Ojiambo has taken many employment cases before, previously negotiating down a wage increase and raising productivity targets for Kenyan tea growers who petitioned for better working conditions.

Ethical AI?

Motaung is currently suing Meta and its moderating sourcing company in Nairobi for his working conditions while at the company. He alleges that he and his former coworkers were subjected to forced labour, human trafficking and union busting.

As a content moderator at Sama’s Nairobi office in early 2019, Motaung was regularly subjected to videos of extreme violence, including beheadings. The job at the “ethical AI company” left him with a severe case of PTSD. And when he attempted to unionise with his colleagues, he was fired.

At least two Sama moderators resigned after suffering from PTSD, but many more remain with the company, unable to find other jobs.

TIME magazine revealed in February 2022 that Motaung’s office, despite being critical to Facebook’s operations, was among the lowest-paid for the platform in the world.

In an interview with The Africa Report in March, Motaung said the links with Meta (then Facebook) were deliberately obfuscated. He said: “Sama used to tell us don’t talk to Facebook, don’t mention Facebook”, Motaung says. “We weren’t allowed to say we worked at Facebook or put Facebook on our CV.”

Since his firing from Sama, Motaung has been vocal about rights for moderators like himself across the globe, advocating for more to speak out against the billion-dollar corporation.

Red herrings

This is not the first time Meta has faced controversy. In 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal sparked outrage when it was revealed that the outfit worked with Facebook to use 50 million profiles without authorisation to profile voters for the 2017 US election.

This week it was announced that Zuckerberg would face a six-hour deposition over the company’s improper handling of user data. He previously testified about the scandal in a five-hour public congressional hearing in the US in 2018.

Another signatory to the open letter is Frances Haugen, a whistleblower who released thousands of internal documents detailing Facebook/Meta’s corruption and harmful effects on vulnerable users. “The double standard applied to Daniel for following his conscience in the same way I did is unjust. His persecution must stop,” she said.

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