Facebook South Africa meets with LGBTQ community

Facebook’s Johannesburg offices

Issues of online safety were at the centre of a unique discussion between Facebook and the LGBTQ community in Johannesburg.

On Thursday, activists and other members of the community were invited to attend a roundtable discussion at the social media giant’s offices in Bryanston.

Organised together with The Other Foundation, the event’s theme was “Empowering the LGBTIQ community (Online Safety for the LGBTIQ community)”.

It was a rare opportunity for LGBTQ people to engage with the company about issues affecting sexual and gender minorities in South Africa and the continent.

Facebook was acknowledged for its role in giving members of the LGBTQ community a voice and the ability to interact and express themselves.

The platform has allowed activists and community groups to create online presences and communicate with their members in often oppressive real-world environments.

The company was, however, also challenged in a number of areas. Issues that came to the fore included ensuring that LGBTQ people’s identity is protected by Facebook, especially in African countries where they are at risk.

Activists recounted instances where group pages were suspended by the company for having “offensive” content. In one case, a private group’s members were outed when an administrator accidentally changed its status from ‘private’ to ‘public’.

The boundaries between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ are increasingly blurred

Mambaonline’s own page was for over a year not allowed to ‘boost’ its article posts because Facebook had categorised the news platform as a “dating site”, despite repeated appeals against this classification.

The importance of protecting LGBTQ youth from online bullying, and facilitating their ability to report abuse was also highlighted. Some participants expressed frustration at how difficult it has been to engage with the elusive company and its staff. (It was noted, for example, that the company’s offices are not even listed in the office park where it is located.)

Facebook was urged to interact more directly with the LGBTQ community in Africa to understand the continent’s contexts and challenges, especially in light of the fact, as one activist said, “that the online world is affecting the offline world”.

Another participant spoke about being subjected to hate speech and queried how the company balances freedom of speech with deciding to block hateful content and ‘fake news’.

Representatives of the company were receptive to the feedback and said they were open to more. “We don’t always get it right, but that’s why we are here, to listen and to learn,” Akua Gyekye, Facebook’s Public Policy Manager for Africa, told the participants.

She pledged to ensure that the event was not a once-off “but an ongoing conversation” with the community.

As of June 2017, Facebook had over 2.01 billion monthly active users. Five new profiles are created every second.

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