The case of a doctor who says he was driven out of New Brunswick by racism and bullying on social media indicates a need for further regulation in an increasingly digital age, according to an expert in law and technology.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola said he was forced to leave his community of Campbellton, NB, due to the community avoidance he faced after being falsely accused of causing a COVID-19 outbreak in May 2020 . He now lives in Quebec.

Last week, he filed a lawsuit against the province of New Brunswick and the RCMP, alleging they teamed up to investigate and blame him for the outbreak.

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But in an unexpected move, the lawsuit also cited Facebook as a defendant, claiming that the social media giant – recently renamed “Meta” – was responsible for the rapid spread of misinformation about his case and allowed that hateful remarks flourish over him.

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“I think this is a very interesting lawsuit and I think it raises a lot of the issues we see when it comes to addressing online damages,” said Suzie Dunn, an assistant professor of law and technology. the Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Ngola, who is from the Congo, said he was harassed on Facebook after New Brunswick Prime Minister Blaine Higgs told a news conference that an “irresponsible” medical profession was blamed for the outbreak, which infected 40 people and killed two.

Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola says he was expelled from his former community of Campbellton, LW, by the racist abuse he faced after being falsely accused of distributing COVID-19.

Global News

While Higgs did not mention Ngola’s name, the lawsuit said he was already identified on social media when Higgs made those remarks, so it was easy for the public to connect the dots.

The lawsuit alleges the doctor was insulted, persecuted and harassed by death threats and racist insults. According to the claim, he received lynch threats, was called a refugee and told to return to Africa.

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“Facebook has the abuse of dr. “Ngola is exacerbated by its unwillingness to adequately monitor, stop, remove, malicious and misleading content from the platform, in direct violation of its community standards,” the statement said.

Ngola’s legal team seeks three percent of Facebook’s net global profits “as penalties are required to attract the attention of the social media industry.” During the July-September period in 2021, the company’s revenue grew by 35 percent to $ 29.01 billion.

Profit from hatred

While this is the first lawsuit of its kind in Canada that Dunn is aware of, people who are harassed over Facebook are nothing new.

She pointed to the case of Gretchen Roedde, a doctor in northern Ontario who plans to close her practice because of the cyberbullying she faced after she was falsely accused by a local councilor of taking care of unvaccinated patients refused.

“This is not the first time this has happened, where misinformation about COVID – about which people feel very sensitive – has led to someone being expelled from the city,” Dunn said.

“Especially doctors at the moment, who are so overworked, who are facing incredible pressure… and then you have the community you are in that comes after you about something that is untrue. I can see how it would be incredibly unbearable. ”

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Suzie Dunn is an Assistant Professor of Law and Technology at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Submitted by Suzie Dunn

Dunn noted that – as revealed during the Facebook congressional hearings in October 2021 – there is profit to be made in allowing hateful content online, as profit is linked to engagement.

And what tends to attract engagement is “not neutral content, it’s extreme content,” Dunn said – whether it’s a controversial post that inspires controversy in the comments section, or extremely positive content such as an engagement or pregnancy announcement.

In Ngola’s case, where so many people in the small community were interested in discussing the matter, it would probably also turn up some online involvement – with many of them becoming narcissistic.

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“You know these companies are benefiting in some ways from some of the negative connections that are taking place on Facebook and Twitter and various companies,” she said.

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“And so you start to see this question: at what point is content on Facebook or other social media going to cross the line from something that should not be Facebook’s responsibility to manage, to the fact that they are actually an agent of harm?”

Dunn does not believe Facebook should be held responsible for “every nasty or nasty remark” made on its platform, but she said when those comments turn into hate campaigns, “at some point I think social media companies are a have a degree of responsibility to act well and recognize their role in creating healthy dialogue on the internet. ”

Examples of some of the racist remarks made about Ngola on Facebook.

Facebook / Posted by Joel Etienne

There is also not much oversight in the online world. Canada has not yet enacted substantial legislation to curb powerful technology giants – although the federal government did propose a new Digital Safety Commission in July 2021, shortly before a federal election was called.

In Nova Scotia there is an Intimate Images and Cyber ​​Protection Act, which is the first of its kind in Canada. So far, it has been used to curb harassment of individuals, rather than to hold accountable the companies that allow the cyberbullying to happen.

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“When you think about the ways our laws are put together, it’s often like an individual for an individual,” Dunn said.

“When it comes to online harassment or cyberbullying outside the criminal context, there are not many options for people.”

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Dunn said while any kind of regulation or laws surrounding social media should be weighed against freedom of expression, more oversight is needed.

“People realize that social media companies have an incredible amount of power, and that not even regulating what is prohibited on their own content moderation policies causes real, serious social damage that needs to be addressed,” she said.

“It’s clear that these big social media companies have not taken full responsibility for themselves and are not involved in adequate content moderation, and so at some point if they are not going to do it themselves, we need government regulations to address some of these. to moderate more harmful behaviors. ”

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Facebook / Meta declined to comment on the matter when Global News reached out last week. “We can not comment on pending litigation,” a spokesman said in an email.

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Dunn said she will see how the Ngola lawsuit plays out and whether it will have an impact on future regulation for major social media companies.

“It will be interesting to see. I think people are making innovative arguments, ”she said, although she added that people in other jurisdictions had tried to sue the social media giant in the past without much luck.

“But I do think at some point someone is going to make a creative enough argument and a convincing enough argument that social media companies will be responsible for wrongdoing.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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