21 Dec 2018

Samoan village chiefs fight Facebook abuse with fines

11:13 am on 21 December 2018

A village in Samoa, angered by Facebook abuse against one of its chiefs, has come up with its own solution to the global problem: fine the perpetrators.

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Photo: AFP

The penalties, around $US2,000 each for the five families who were found to be responsible for the abuse, illustrate the growing frustration in Samoa and society across the Pacific, where Facebook content is becoming a constant flashpoint between traditional leaders and their critics.

Chiefs in Lauli'i village, to the East of Samoa's capital Apia, initially mulled fines of nearly $US4,000, as well as the banishment of the families from the village, the Samoa Observer reported on Tuesday. But after debate, the village council decided on the reduced fines.

"This is embarrassing for the village to be the subject to these types of incidents," said Lauli'i's Paramount Chief, Fuamatu Samoa Oloaga Asuelu.

It's unclear how the payments, which are due by January 14, will be enforced, given that four of the five families live overseas. But Fuamatu Samoa said his village would take action against anyone abusing social media.

"These are issues those people overseas need to consider before they go on social media and disrespect the elders of the village," he told the Samoa Observer.

"This village will not allow that to continue."

Fesola'i Aleni Sofara, a law lecturer at the National University of Samoa told RNZ Pacific that other villages in Samoa had taken similar action against people for abuse on Facebook in recent weeks, as the platform is increasingly used to launch attacks on others in the country.

Disputes in Samoa are often resolved within the village, rather than involving formal court processes.

"Doing a lawsuit in a civil claim costs money, and is time-consuming," said Fesola'i. And he said it was often easier for village councils to make judgements.

Facebook under fire

Facebook, which has come under fire in the around the world for widespread privacy violations and for being used to incite violence, has emerged relatively unscathed from its operations in Samoa.

There, the government and citizens alike blame its users, rather than the company itself.

"It's just the way people use it, it's all for a good cause," said Fesola'i, in reference to the platform.

In August, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said he had initiated an extradition request for the Australian-based blogger Malele Paulo, also known as King Faipopo, who frequently uses Facebook to broadcast scathing criticisms of Tuilaepa and his administration.

Tuilaepa has also publicly condemned the blog "OLE Palema", which operates a Facebook page, for similar attacks on himself and his family.

Earlier this month, Samoa's internet regulator, Lefaoali'i Unutoa Auelua-Fonoti, said governments in the Pacific should pressure Facebook to crack down on fake news.

But in an interview with RNZ Pacific, Lefaoali'i was reluctant to take a stronger stance, saying she had met with Facebook officials in recent weeks and was hopeful they could work together to find a solution.

Glenn Finau, a PhD scholar at the University of New South Wales who specialises in cybercrime regulation, said fines by village councils would not solve the problem of abuse on Facebook.

"It's not going to be a very feasible solution in the long run to curb what these people are actually trying to stop, which is criticism."

With the exception of the recent village justice, Facebook has been a platform where, unlike traditional Samoan society, Samoans could hurl viscous abuse at their leaders with few repercussions.

"Previously, traditionally, it was like, you couldn't question the chief, but now because people what people are seeing is happening overseas, they're like, well yeah we can question the chief," said Mr Finau.

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