Yazidis want Big Tech held to account over ISIS atrocities

Social media giants did not act robustly enough to stop ISIS using their platforms to trade women and girls, activists say

Women mourn by a grave during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of ISIS. AFP
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Yazidi activists are demanding social media companies are held accountable for their alleged role in the genocide of the mid-2010s.

ISIS, as it was sweeping through Iraq and Syria, persecuted the Yazidi population and trafficked its women and girls as part of a campaign against the religious group.

WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were all used to help sell girls and women into slavery and death, the Yazidi campaigners say.

A 120-page document seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation alleges the tech giants did not act robustly enough to stop ISIS members using their platforms to trade women and girls kidnapped when it controlled the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar, Iraq, eight years ago.

“This will bring justice for Yazidi victims,” Wahhab Hassoo, 26, a student who resettled in the Netherlands in 2012, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He says his family paid $80,000 for the release of his niece from ISIS after she was abducted in 2014 and offered her “for sale” in a WhatsApp group.

“We are asking governments to do an investigation because we believe these platforms have contributed to the genocide,” Mr Hassoo told Reuters.

The report, produced with the help of lawyers in the US, accuses social media companies of failing to stamp out hate speech against the Yazidis on their platforms, pointing to weaknesses in content moderation and demanding tougher government regulations.

In a campaign of violence that a UN investigation team said constituted genocide, ISIS fighters killed Yazidi men, enlisted boys as child soldiers and bought and sold women and girls as sex slaves.

ISIS was buying and selling them like they were packs of cigarettes

The report, which details about a dozen examples of online trafficking, includes screenshots of Facebook users haggling over the price of a young Yazidi woman and YouTube videos discussing what characteristics would merit a higher price.

One Yazidi woman, whose sister is still missing, said she became involved in the campaign because she wanted justice and answers, not money.

“I used to look through the Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups every day to find a picture of her,” the woman, who asked not to be named, said from her new home in the Netherlands.

“The hardest thing was seeing posts of the Yazidi girls online. ISIS was buying and selling them like they were packs of cigarettes,” she said.

YouTube declined to comment on the report's accusations, but a representative told Reuters the site had removed “250,000 videos alone for violating our violent extremism policies from July to September 2021".

Meta, formerly Facebook, which also owns the WhatsApp messaging platform, declined to comment after seeing a copy of the report.

A Twitter representative told Reuters “threatening or promoting terrorism is against our rules”, but declined to comment on Yazidis specifically.

We want the truth to come out
Catherine van Kampen

Catherine van Kampen, a securities fraud lawyer, volunteered with Dutch Yazidi advocacy organisation NL Helpt Yezidis to help compile the report over four years.

“This is literally a case of David and Goliath,” she told Reuters.

She said officials in the US — where many of the accused social media firms are based — and the Netherlands, which was part of the US-led coalition against ISIS, had already received copies of the report.

“If an investigation does lead to a criminal process and an indictment, so be it. If it leads to civil litigation, so be it. We want the truth to come out,” said Ms van Kampen.

US-based websites are protected from most lawsuits if their users post illegal material by the 1996 Communications Decency Act, but later legislation means that would not cover trafficking, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation think tank.

Updated: February 18, 2022, 11:59 AM