A video link posted on Facebook in June showed a man cooking human body parts in a pot over a wood fire.
In Cameroon, the footage went viral. Some Facebook users said the man was a cannibal and the video was shot in the country’s English-speaking west, where separatist insurgents are fighting for a breakaway state.
Local websites quickly debunked this. The man in the video was not a separatist fighter or cannibal and the body parts were not real. The clip was taken on a Nigerian film set and uploaded to Instagram by make-up artist Hakeem Onilogbo, who uses the platform to showcase his work.
The video’s rapid spread raises questions about Facebook’s ability to police millions of posts each day and crack down on hate speech in a country where internet use is rising, social media used for political ends and the company has no permanent physical presence.
The day the link was posted on Facebook, a member of government brought the video to the attention of international diplomats in Yaounde, via the WhatsApp messaging service, according to messages seen by Reuters.
Five days later, Cameroon’s minister for territorial administration cited it as justification for an army clampdown against secessionists already under way in Anglophone regions.
The minister, Paul Atanga Nji, compared the rebellion — over decades of perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking majority — to an Islamist insurgency waged by Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram which has killed 30,000 people.
“Boko Haram committed atrocities, but they did not cut up humans and cook them in pots,” the minister said in comments broadcast on state television and widely reported in Cameroon.
Nji did not respond to requests for comment. Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said in future government would work to verify information before commenting.
Facebook said the video was not reported by users and it could not comment further on the clip. It was no longer available on the site by late October.
A senior Facebook official said tackling misinformation in Cameroon was a priority for the company, which acknowledges more needs to be done.
“We’re prioritising countries where we’ve already seen how quickly online rumours can fuel violence, such as Myanmar and Cameroon,” said Ebele Okobi, Director of Africa Public Policy at Facebook.
Facebook is under fire for carrying misleading information, including in the United States and Britain and over posts against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar which have had deadly consequences.
Sri Lankan authorities briefly banned Facebook because government said it was fuelling violence between Buddhists and Muslims. In India, messages on Facebook-owned WhatsApp have been linked to attacks on religious minorities.
In Cameroon, Facebook has been used to incite violence and send threatening posts.
Simon Munzu, a former United Nations representative, said he was the target of death threats on Facebook after it was announced in July he would help organise negotiations in the separatist conflict. Afraid, Munzu went to friends.
Facebook removed the posts in October, after it was made aware of them by Reuters, saying they violated company standards.
Esther Omam, who runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Reach Out, hid at a church and then fled to the Francophone region after receiving death threats from separatists following a peace march which she led, she told Reuters.
“The crisis destroyed my life and family,” she said. “I cannot work anymore. My family is divided. My husband is elsewhere, my children are elsewhere.”
Facebook has no staff operating permanently in Cameroon and monitors the country from Britain and the United States. It has an Africa-focused team that frequently visits the region and partnered with NGOs and civil society in Cameroon in recent months to combat hate speech.
This included paying several thousand dollars to civil society to help organise training sessions for journalists to spot falsehoods online, representatives from two groups involved told Reuters. Some groups flag offensive posts to Facebook.
Facebook removed pages and accounts related to the separatist conflict and is working to slow the spread of kidnapping videos, the company said.
It declined to say how many people were helping it in Cameroon, how much money it had so far invested or how many posts it had taken down.
Reuters found dozens of pages posted in recent months showing graphic images in Cameroon, some of which were months old.
One Facebook user on July 18 posted a picture of the decapitated body of a Cameroonian policeman lying in a gutter and said the image gave him joy.
The same day, separatist spokesman Ivo Tapang applauded the killing of two Cameroonian soldiers and linked to a website raising funds for guns, ammunition and grenade launchers. Tapang did not respond to requests for comment.
A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was unaware of the posts until Reuters pointed them out. They were both removed after review. It is against Facebook rules to celebrate suffering or crowdfund for arms, she said.
Facebook has artificial intelligence it uses globally to detect problematic posts. In Cameroon, it does not have a consortium of fact-checking companies to monitor posts — as it does in the United States.
Leading civil society figures in Cameroon say Facebook needs more resources and faces an increasingly difficult task as internet use grows.
“It is not possible to stop misinformation on Facebook,” said Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, executive director of REDHAC, a civil society group organising training sessions and which flags indecent posts to Facebook.
NO EASY FIX
The number of people with internet access in Cameroon rose from 0.86 million in 2010 to 5.9 million in 2016, about a quarter of the population, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency.
Government shut down the internet in English-speaking regions for three months last year because of unrest.
After service resumed in April 2017, Facebook was the main outlet for speaking out against the army crackdown, in which soldiers razed villages and shot dead unarmed civilians.
Misleading and hateful posts persist, groups that monitor posts say, echoing issues Facebook sees worldwide.
Facebook is not the only service facing a battle to tackle misinformation and hate speech. Offensive videos and images are posted on Twitter or transmitted by WhatsApp.
WhatsApp cannot view private, encrypted conversations, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said, so detecting hate speech is harder. A Twitter spokeswoman said it prohibits the promotion of violence and encourages users to flag those posts.