Global rights groups want Meta to stop gagging South African whistleblower

The letter accuses Meta of gagging a South African whistleblower
The letter accuses Meta of gagging a South African whistleblower
Photo: Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)
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Over 80 labor organizations from across the world want Meta to cease attempts to silence South African whistleblower Daniel Motaung, who was fired for leading unionization efforts seeking better pay and mental health support for workers.

In an open letter seen by Quartz, which includes Meta’s high profile whistleblower Frances Haugen among the signatories, they demand that Meta and Facebook content moderation outsourcing company Sama stop manipulating Motaung’s quest for justice. Some of Motaung’s revelations include that his team was forced to view hours of horrific content, including beheadings and child sexual exploitation, and were paid less than $2.20 an hour.

A source of shame for Meta

Motaung, who has been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, sued Meta in Kenya, asking for compensation for himself and former colleagues whom, he says, are victims of forced labor, human trafficking, and union-busting.

In response, Meta said Kenyan courts lack the jurisdiction to determine cases against them—lead counsel Fred Ojiambo argued that Meta is neither resident, domiciled nor trading in Kenya. Meta has been fighting to get the case dropped, noting that moderators had signed a non-disclosure agreement, barring them from discussing evidence against the company.

But the letter, directly addressed to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Wendy Gonzalez, CEO of Facebook subcontractor Sama and dated July 20, accuses the two companies of trying to crush Motaung’s efforts to improve labor conditions for Facebook content moderators in Kenya and around the world.

In a statement to Quartz, a Meta spokesperson said: “We have not issued contempt of court proceedings against Daniel Motaung, nor have we requested that any gag order be applied to him.”

Meta is attracting negative press for the Motaung case

The letter’s signatories say attempts to gag Motaung are “a source of intense shame for Meta” and that “Facebook’s treatment of a low-paid, Black whistleblower is all the more shocking when compared to its response to other whistleblowers with more privilege and profile.”

“The double standard applied to Daniel for following his conscience the same way I did is unjust,” said Haugen, who blew the whistle on Facebook’s business practices in 2021. “His persecution must stop.”

Former South African MP Phumzile van Damme said such a legal threat is “a cynical attempt to bury the story of labor rights abuses in Facebook’s global content moderation workforce.”

Van Damme added that Meta knows it would never get away with undermining freedom of expression on its home turf and it “cannot be allowed to get away with it in Kenya.”

Tech non-profit Meedan told Quartz that companies are not taking proactive action to prevent moderators from experiencing trauma and the situation gets worse when moderators are treated as second class citizens.

“Social media companies and their vendors have to be more transparent about the conditions and measures taken for the well-being of moderators,” said Meedan’s content moderation special projects lead Kat Lo.

Meta’s subsequent attempts to impose a gagging order on Motaung and Foxglove, a UK-based legal NGO that is supporting him, has provoked a storm of protest and strengthened criticism of the company’s treatment of content moderation workers in Africa.

Signatories to the letter include The All Africa Students Union, comprising all national student unions across the 54 African countries, the Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya, and Uni Global Union, alongside organisations such as Global Witness and SumofUs.

This story was updated with a comment from Meta received after publication.