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Facebook Mistakes Investigative Reporter For Child Pornographer


Facebook uses computers to spot pornography and wipe it away in milliseconds. Software is quicker than human beings and cheaper, but mistakes can still happen. That's exactly what happened recently when Facebook mistook a reporter for a child pornographer and expelled her. NPR's Aarti Shahani reports. And a warning - the story does include a description of disturbing images.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: On June 17, 2016, it was Friday afternoon, investigative reporter Sandra Nyaira recalls. She received three photographs, very explicit pictures of two young girls.

SANDRA NYAIRA: Yeah, horrible, horrible pictures.

SHAHANI: The girls look maybe 7 years old. They're on a bed being sexually abused by a man.

NYAIRA: So when I received the pictures, I was pained. I actually cried because I, you know, I looked them and I was like, who does this? Obviously these kids were being abused by someone who was very, very close to them.

SHAHANI: According to news sources in Zimbabwe, the country where this is happening, the man takes his phone to a repair shop and a clerk sees the photos in the photo gallery. Now if it were you, you might go to the police. But in Zimbabwe, Nyaira says, people don't trust the police to do their jobs. That's how she winds up with the photos. She's an award-winning reporter, and she wanted to get justice done. Nyaira reaches out to a woman in Parliament, a feminist who demands an investigation and who goes on Facebook to talk about the case. In less than 24 hours, they've launched a national discussion.

NYAIRA: So many women in Zimbabwe - women activists and ordinary women - started following the debate and speaking with her, responding to her debate on Facebook.

SHAHANI: People reach out to Nyaira to ask how they can help. A fellow journalist says he can tap his sources, get officials he knows involved in the search. So Nyaira decides to share the photos with him on Messenger, Facebook's private chat tool. That was a big mistake. Almost instantly, Facebook computers deactivate her. She realizes, oh, no, they think I'm distributing child pornography. She feels mortified.

NYAIRA: Why did you do that? You know, you start blaming yourself, but for not doing anything wrong really, but for trying to help.

SHAHANI: Nyaira needs Facebook for her job. It's how she communicates with sources and promotes her stories. She tells herself it'll be OK. I'll contact the company and explain, but she realizes she can't reach a person at Facebook. There is no hotline to call, so she fills out a form on the website which asks her to scan and upload a copy of her passport. She does that, still gets a generic rejection. Nyaira is now more worried.

NYAIRA: OK. I have sent Facebook my passport information, so what are they going to do with it? Are they going to go to the police without even talking to me about why they have blocked my account?

SHAHANI: She fears she could be arrested. In desperation, she turns to one of the most powerful institutions she knows - Harvard University. She used to be a fellow there at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, even sat at a luncheon with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg there. Nicco Mele directs the center.

NICCO MELE: So I reached out to a friend at Facebook and said, hey, is there anything you can do to help us? I can vouch for Sandra. She is the real deal. She wasn't doing anything untoward or anything bad.

SHAHANI: Mele assumes the matter will get resolved quickly, but that doesn't happen. He reaches out to a second friend at Facebook thinking, come on, this is silly. And then...

MELE: And then nothing happened.

SHAHANI: Hi, I'm Aarti Shahani with NPR, and I'm here to interview David Marcus.

A few weeks after learning of Nyaira's case, I happened to be at Facebook headquarters to interview the head of the Messenger app about a totally different topic, and at the end I brought her up.

There's a Messenger user I know. Her name is...

And without batting an eyelash, the head of Messenger, David Marcus, said he'd look into it.

DAVID MARCUS: Of course. And generally those are cases that are really easy to resolve because we have a really good team that looks into these cases and resolve them generally pretty quickly. So I'm shocked that in this specific case, it wasn't done, but of course I'd be more than happy to help solve that.

SHAHANI: Facebook is now in the process of contacting Nyaira directly about her account. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, a man was arrested as the alleged pedophile. As the country talked about it on Facebook, Sandra Nyaira, whose work helped lead to his capture, could not join in.

Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

MARTIN: In the course of her reporting, Aarti started a page on Facebook for people to share concerns about the platform. It's called TellZuck. That's facebook.com/tellzuck. We'll link to it at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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