Facebook Attempts to Silence Black Whistleblower

lawyer representing Facebook’s parent company Meta called on a judge to “crack the whip” against a Black South African whistleblower on Monday, requesting a gagging order to prevent him from speaking to the media.

Daniel Motaung was paid $2.20 an hour as a Facebook content moderator for Kenya. He was fired by Facebook’s outsourcing partner, Sama, in 2019 after he led more than 100 of his colleagues in a unionization effort for better pay and working conditions. Because of his work, he now suffers post-traumatic stress disorder. Sama, his outsourcing partner, fired him in 2019. Sama is now suing Meta.

Motaung’s experiences at Sama were first reported by TIME in February 2022. Since then, he has spoken out publicly about the ordeal, even at a London panel discussion with Frances Haugen, another whistleblower on Facebook. At a hearing in a Kenyan labor court on June 27, Sama’s lawyer Terry Mwango said that Motaung speaking to the media and in public about his experiences risked prejudicing court proceedings. Mwango asked for a court order to stop Motaung’s and his lawyers speaking publicly about the case.

Continue reading: Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop

Meta’s lawyer, Fred Ojiambo, seconded Mwango’s request. “Unless the petitioner and particularly his advocates are injuncted by this court from continuing to deal with this matter in this way, there will be complete and total contempt, not only of the proceedings, but of the court and the judicial officer dealing with it,” Ojiambo said.

Addressing the judge, he added: “It’s my honorable submission, lord, that your lordship crack the whip, this time around.”

In court Motaung’s lawyer Mercy Mutemi rejected the allegations that her client had breached Kenya’s sub judice rules, saying he and his representatives had refrained from discussing specifics of the case in public to comply with Kenyan law. She stated that Meta and Sama did not present any evidence to support a gagging or restraining order.

However, the judge did not immediately issue a gagging or a warrant for Sama and Meta to present contempt proceedings to show that they had evidence.

Facebook was condemned for trying to silence Motaung by advocates of racial justice. “In a court of law, Facebook has confirmed in the most explicit way imaginable that they think Black people are property to be controlled rather than people to be respected,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the U.S.-based civil rights group Color of Change, in a statement to TIME. “Treating Black people as second-class digital citizens and high-exploitation employees is a pattern for Facebook, and their selective silencing of a Black whistleblower proves that only regulation will bring them in line with 21st century labor standards.”

Color of Change claims it’s asking Meta to drop its demands for Motaung’s gagging orders.

“We need to make sure that Black employees suffering under Facebook’s ‘sweatshop’ labor conditions are free to blow the whistle without Facebook ‘whipping’ them into silence.” Robinson said. “We have fought too long to be silenced by any whip that Facebook selectively enforces against Black people, whether users on its platform, users of its ad services or employees of its subcontractors. We need regulation now.”

Facebook has a policy of requiring employees to sign confidentiality agreements. However, the company rarely attempts to silence whistleblowers that have made their story public. Haugen (the whistleblower at Facebook who leaked thousands upon pages of documents internal to the company last year) has stated that she has never been subjected to similar efforts. “After I came out, I got the benefit of the race and gender issues,” she said during the panel discussion with Motaung last month. “I think it would have been very difficult for Facebook to come after me at this point because it would be a huge PR liability for them. In our society, there are norms to prevent, such as, women picking on each other. So I want to completely acknowledge my privilege.”

Continue reading: Inside Frances Haugen’s Decision to Take on Facebook

Meta didn’t respond to multiple requests. Ojiambo has not responded to any request for comment. Motaung did not respond to a request for comment by Motaung through his attorneys. Mutemi did not respond to the request.

In an email, Sama’s chief marketing officer Suzin Wold said: “The judge in this case cautioned all the parties against commenting on the court case in any forum. Respect [the] judge’s orders and that cases should be addressed by the court are important principles of Kenyan law that we intend to respect. Given that, we are unable to comment any further.”

In 2020, in the wake of widespread racial justice protests in the U.S., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook that he believed that “Black lives matter.” He added: “I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms.”

Facebook and Sama did not respond to questions about whether or not they intended to pursue formal legal demands for a Motaung gagging order.

In June, Sama’s CEO Wendy Gonzalez appeared at a conference in Toronto where she was asked on stage about Motaung’s allegations. “We are supportive of feedback loops including everything from whistleblower [sic] in anonymous digital media all the way to physical media,” she said. “So ultimately at the end of the day, all concerns should be raised and they should be addressed very seriously.”

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