This is how Facebook helps compromising legit protests and political opposition
Mark’s company will grab EUR 10m from Romania in 2017, doesn’t care about political interference. A story about technology gone wrong.
In the past year, Romania has seen some huge protests. Just as people used to organize on Twitter, a few years back, to protest in the Arab Spring, Romanians use Facebook to criticize, share articles, express opionion and create events in order to protest against the government.
The protests are legit, all things considered. The current government is trying to weaken the anti-corruption laws. The recent modifications are extremely absurd. In order to save a few politicians, they got to the point where it’s illegal to use camera footage to indiscriminately identify criminals and the police and the prosecutors will be required to tell the criminal when and where they intend to catch him in the act.
Trolls and reports
The government party however has its own tools against people. To be more specific, on the Russian model, they have their own guys browsing Facebook, trolls that up until a couple of months ago, only used to argue protesters in the network, spam people with convenient articles and act as propaganda machines.
In the last month however, they found a new way of fighting people by reporting them to Facebook. In what seems to me a lot of work, they dug deep on Facebook influencers’ profiles to find words that come against the network standards and massively report them.
A lot of people got themselves blocked because the algorithm doesn’t understand the context in Romanian. As good as they might be in English, no internet company has researched, nor developed algorithms that understand other languages than English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese.
The other problem is that even when you try to fight back and try to challenge the decision, some employee at Facebook would use Google Translate to understand what you said and if you actually used the faulty words. Which leads us to the next issue, one that involves Google.
Messing with Google Translate in order to block influencers on Facebook
Before explaining how the government’s trolls work, I’ll add some context. At the end of November, there was a large protest in Bucharest. One of the “solutions” that was chosen by the “antiprotesters” to block people was to report as spam as many shares of the Facebook event as they could.
Consider the fact that as many as 30,000 people were on the streets of Bucharest and another 20,000 in the rest of the country. My friend here explains (link in Romanian) how he was blocked for spam less than ten minutes after sharing the event on his feed.
But they went on to manipulate Facebook’s algorithm by messing with Google Translate. And that’s because Facebook doesn’t have on its “check complaints” payroll any employees that speak native Romanian. Oh, and they don’t care. So here’s the latest example:
“We deleted something you posted” says the title of this modal. “It looks like an element of something you posted doesn’t fit into our Community Standards guidelines” would be a rough translation of the message. Now, let me translate to you what the person who was blocked actually posted:
“I think they got a little scared”
The keyword here is “oleacă”, a word used in some regions of the country for “slightly” or “little”. The whole sentence was written as a funny remark in a colloquial Romanian, so the algorithms probably didn’t have the ability to translate it literally. The grammarly correct version should have been “Eu cred că s-au speriat oleacă”. “Io” is how people say “Eu” (which means I, me) in some regions, but widely used in the country, literally a fonetic transcription, and “s-or” is another regional use of “s-au” (which translates to “they have”).
What the hell does the word “slightly” has to do with being blocked?
Well, let’s just say that trolls massively reported a comment, the algorithm took the bait, and the guy in charge to answer the user’s challenge used Google Translate. And here’s how Google translates it:
Now, there’s no way in hell — or in Romania — that the word “oleacă” was ever used to mean “bitch” instead of “little”. But wait, there’s more:
If you put in Google Translate the “grammarly correct” sentence, you get what you see above. It’s a roughly better translation, though not entirely correct. But let’s remove some of the words:
So, I deleted “eu cred că” (“I think that”) and Google gave me what you see above. I have no idea where the algorithm got “oil” (maybe some correlation with other Romance language, dunno), but it’s also faulty. Let’s remove more.
Well, that’s more like it, though this isn’t entirely correct either. In English, “scared little” is more like “the scaring attempt left them impassible”, while in Romanian, it’s more like “they got a little scared”. Bit of a difference, right? Now, of course, Google doesn’t now how to interpret contexts. “Oleacă” might mean “just a little” or “a lot” depending on the discussion, the tone of voice and what not. However, you can see that “oleacă” has nothing to do with “bitch”. Well, let’s just translate “oleacă”:
Well, there you go.
My friend Cetin (link in Romanian) was also blocked for some misinterpretation of a comment. Here we go:
The literal translation is “the pigeons are just as pestilent as crows, they just look better”. The keyword here is “ciori”/”crows”, a word sometimes used in slang to define gipsies. It is, indeed, an insulting word, but yet again, it is insulting when used in a specific context. And the context above is literally about birds.
How they do it
The fact is, Google Translate is an open system. You can add tons of changes in order to improve the service, but just like Wikipedia, you can manipulate it to show convenient results. Just as you can edit Hillary Clinton’s Wiki page to show people that she’s a “crooked bitch” or whatever, in the same way you can edit Google Translate. The main difference is that Wikipedia has editors that would see any modification as soon as it’s made and remove the offensive words, while Google Translate hasn’t any.
So, imagine that a few trolls report your comments on Facebook, you challenge the decision and a human support person uses Google Translate to check if you were offensive. Meanwhile, Bing Translate — the default translator used by Facebook — doesn’t have this issue:
Facebook doesn’t actually give a shit
Facebook counts about 8 million users in Romania. According to Innitiative Media’s Media Fact Book for 2017 (link in Romanian), Facebook is going to top EUR 10 mil. this year, money spent for ads in Romania. However, the only presence Facebook has in the country are its partners, a couple of digital agencies.
A bit of context regarding the paragraph about people being blocked for spam after sharing an event: the CEO of one of those agencies addressed this issue to Facebook and they replied it was… “a bug”. The fact is, Facebook will grab EUR 10 mil. this year from Romania, but they still don’t care about their users.
Once in a while, they add a blue badge to some people (like Ciprian Ciucu, an oppostion politician in the capiutal city’s counsel) who constantly criticized the government party, only after they were being constantly reported to Facebook without a good reason. He got it because, after tons of attacks with no basis, some human at Facebook decided he wastes way too much time fighting fake reports. But this happens rarely.
Hotnews.ro, a large news website in Romania and one of the few that constantly criticize the government party, still hasn’t received a blue badge. And that’s pretty much because Facebook has no team dedicated to this part of Europe.
The common sense option would be for Facebook to work with their local partners and agree to a list of publications, journalists and influencers that would more easily be verified, hence it would be harder to block them with digital guerrilla strategies used by the government party’s trolls.
But that will not happen. Not unless this kind of stories get widely shared and read, up to the point they get international media exposure.
Until then, Facebook is complicit to ruining democracies everywhere. And that’s because these kind of Russian inspired strategies will be copied and largely used on a global scale.