In addition to collecting general identification data, Facebook has long been accused of prying into the content shared by users on its platform, something which has now been confirmed by CEO Mark Zuckerberg as well as a company spokesperson.
As mentioned in our coverage of the recent interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Zuckerberg mentioned that Facebook’s systems can detect hateful messages shared on Messenger, which can be used to solve crises or stop spread of rumours. The content is supposedly analyzed and evaluated by moderators only to check if it violates the fair usage policies, especially in situations where the platform can be exploited to spread hateful, offensive or malicious content.
Zuckerberg’s acceptance came in response to a question about Facebook’s role in the Myanmar violence, during which hateful messages were spread on Facebook’s platform to catalyze the ethnic genocide of Rohingya Muslims in the country. Fielding the question, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook was aware of Messenger being exploited to ‘spread sensational messages’, which were promptly detected and blocked from being propagated.
“So that’s the kind of thing where I think it is clear that people were trying to use our tools in order to incite real harm. Now, in that case, our systems detect that that’s going on. We stop those messages from going through”, he said.
A company spokesperson has now confirmed to Bloomberg that Facebook scans conversations on Messenger to detect objectionable content, and prevent its proliferation if they violate the community standards by using tools that ‘are very similar to those that other internet companies use today’. Once Facebook detects such content, its community operations team reviews it, and if necessary, takes it down.
For example, on Messenger, when you send a photo, our automated systems scan it using photo matching technology to detect known child exploitation imagery or when you send a link, we scan it for malware or viruses. Facebook designed these automated tools so we can rapidly stop abusive behavior on our platform.
Zuckerberg’s admission and the spokesperson’s statement, despite sounding benevolent, surely raise alarms about the concept of privacy on its platform, be it the standalone Facebook app/website and Messenger app, or other properties like WhatsApp and Instagram, as there is no guarantee that general scrutiny of user content is not practised by Facebook. It would be safe to assume that your Messenger chats are being read by the company, so we would be careful about sharing sensitive information using the app.