[Published here on February 17, 2022]
BEIRUT, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Wahhab Hassoo’s family had to pay $80,000 to buy the release of his niece from the Islamic State (IS) militants who abducted her in 2014, and then offered her “for sale” in a WhatsApp group.
Now, Hassoo’s family and dozens of others from Iraq’s minority Yazidi community want social media companies to be held to account, accusing them of having facilitated the trafficking of Yazidi women and girls by the jihadists.
Hassoo and fellow Yazidi activists have worked with pro bono lawyers to compile a report that urges the United States and other nations to probe the role social media platforms including Facebook and YouTube played in crimes against the Yazidis.
“This will bring justice for Yazidi victims,” said Hassoo, a 26-year-old student who resettled in the Netherlands in 2012 after his father received threats for working with U.S. soldiers in the conflict-ravaged country.
The 120-page document says Big Tech companies did not act robustly enough against IS members using their platforms to trade women and girls kidnapped when the jihadists swept through the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar eight years ago.
It also accuses them of failing to stamp out hate speech against the Yazidis on their platforms, pointing to weaknesses in content moderation and demanding tougher government regulations.
In a campaign of violence that a U.N. investigation team has said constituted genocide, IS fighters killed Yazidi men, enlisted boys as child soldiers and bought and sold women and girls as “sex slaves.”
“We are asking governments to do an investigation because we believe these platforms have contributed to the genocide,” Hassoo said.
While social media firms did remove some content and suspend accounts promoting IS-linked material including posts trafficking women and girls, the activists said their response was patchy and too slow.
The report, which details about a dozen examples of online trafficking, includes screenshots of Facebook users haggling over the price of a young Yazidi woman and from YouTube videos discussing what characteristics would merit a higher price.
YouTube declined to comment on the report’s accusations, but a spokesperson said the site had removed “250,000 videos alone for violating our violent extremism policies from July to September 2021”.
Meta, formerly Facebook, which also owns the WhatsApp messaging platform, declined to comment after seeing a copy of the report.
A Twitter spokesperson said “threatening or promoting terrorism is against our rules”, but declined to comment on Yazidis specifically.
‘DAVID AND GOLIATH’
Social media companies have come under fire repeatedly in recent years over their content moderation policies, with activists accusing them of overly restricting speech on some topics while being too lax on others.
Last year, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar sued Meta for $150 billion over allegations it did not take action against hate speech that contributed to violence targeting the community.
In 2021, internal Facebook documents made public by whistleblower Frances Haugen showed the company was aware of some of these gaps – including in the Arabic language.
One of the documents, dating from 2020 and seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said the platform was “incorrectly enforcing CT (counter-terrorism) content in Arabic 77% of the time”.
It said “a lot of violating ads are found around misogyny” and that the company had “close to no reviewers” who spoke the Arabic dialect native to Iraq.
Some of the abducted Yazidi women and girls managed to escape. Others, like Hassoo’s niece, were brought home by their families after they paid the women’s captors. Hundreds more remain missing.
“This is literally a case of David and Goliath,” said Catherine van Kampen, a securities fraud lawyer who volunteered with Dutch Yazidi advocacy organisation “NL Helpt Yezidis” to put together the report over four years.
She said officials in the United States – where many of the accused social media firms are based – and the Netherlands, which was part of the U.S.-led coalition against IS, had already received copies of the report.
“If an investigation does lead to a criminal process and an indictment, so be it. If it leads to civil litigation, so be it. We want the truth to come out,” said van Kampen.
U.S.-based websites are protected from most lawsuits if their users post illegal material under Section 230 of the U.S. 1996 Communications Decency Act, but later legislation means that would not cover trafficking, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think-tank.
The report said that meant U.S. authorities could investigate and potentially prosecute companies, citing as an example a 2021 ruling in Texas against Facebook.
The potential of a reckoning with social media companies would be transformative for a community that feels forgotten by the world, said Murad Ismael, co-founder of Yazidi advocacy organisation Yazda.
UNITAD – the U.N. team investigating IS crimes – has been gathering evidence and training judges in Iraq but has yet to make a charge.
“It’s driving me crazy,” Ismael said. “I’ve seen Yazidi children sold on these platforms with my own eyes. Someone has to do something.”
Hassoo said he hoped action by foreign governments would force social media firms to acknowledge their shortcomings and eventually compensate victims.
He said he had drawn inspiration from a 2019 decision by Dutch national rail company NS to pay compensation to survivors and families of Holocaust victims who were transported via Dutch rail to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
One Yazidi woman, whose sister is still missing, said she had got involved in the Big Tech campaign because she wanted justice and answers – not money.
“I used to look through the Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups every day to find a picture of her,” the woman, who asked not to be named, said from her new home in the Netherlands.
“The hardest thing was seeing posts of the Yazidi girls online. IS was buying and selling them like they were packs of cigarettes,” she said.