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UN Says Facebook Is Complicit In The Spread Of Anti-Muslim Hate In Myanmar

Published: March 17, 2018
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Source: Tech Dirt

The UN has decided it's possibly Facebook's fault things are going so badly in Myanmar. Muslims have been fleeing the country in droves thanks to Myanmar security forces engaging in widespread acts of violence (including rape) against them, urged on by hardline nationalist monks.

For all intents and purposes, Facebook is Myanmar's internet. Loosening of restrictions on social media access has resulted in a large portion of the population getting all their news (along with all the hate speech the UN is complaining about) via the social media giant. The UN is looking into genocide accusations but has decided to speak up against Facebook first.

Marzuki Darusman, chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, told reporters that social media had played a “determining role” in Myanmar.

“It has … substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict, if you will, within the public. Hate speech is certainly of course a part of that. As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook, and Facebook is social media,” he said.

The UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee said Facebook was a huge part of public, civil and private life, and the government used it to disseminate information to the public.

When there's only one main pipeline of info, everything flows through it, whether it's the official government narrative or government-supported hate speech targeting Myanmar Muslims. The UN feels Facebook has contributed to the violence by not doing enough to remove hate speech.

If these are the UN's conclusions, it's severely late to the party. Last fall, The Daily Beast reported Facebook was instrumental in removing reports of anti-Muslim violence the Myanmar government didn't approve of.

Rohingya activists—in Burma and in Western countries—tell The Daily Beast that Facebook has been removing their posts documenting the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people in Burma (also known as Myanmar). They said their accounts are frequently suspended or taken down.

The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority group in Burma. They face extraordinary persecution and violence from the Burmese military; military personnel torch villages, murder refugees, and force hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Facebook promised to do better after being confronted with this evidence. But it offered no good reason why activists' posts detailing government atrocities were frequently removed and the accounts posting them locked or suspended. The company did not specifically say whether or not it was responding to government requests for content removal, but its transparency report shows almost no activity related to Myanmar's government. If this was solely the result of horrendous judgment calls by Facebook moderators, the end result of its moderation efforts has been the loss of human lives.

Even as Muslims are being silenced, the Myanmar government has used Facebook to push its own narrative to a largely captive audience. Shuna Mia, a Rohingya man who spoke to reporters about government-backed rape and murder was found floating headless in a nearby river the following day. According to this Guardian report, the Myanmar government immediately began rewriting history using Facebook as its soapbox.

The day after Shuna was found dead, someone representing the state counsellor of Myanmar (Aung San Suu Kyi’s official title) posted a photo of a headless body on the office’s Facebook page, stamped with the words “Truth teller BEHEADED”. The post claimed Shuna had told the media that security forces had not committed rape or arson, and suggested he was killed by “Muslim insurgents” in retaliation. That directly contradicted local reports, activists and Shuna’s family, who believe he was abducted and beheaded by security forces for speaking to journalists.

This was just part of the government’s efforts to discredit Rohingya people. On the same day, the same Facebook account posted photos of Rohingya women who said they had been raped by security forces. The label “FAKE RAPE” dismissed the countless reports of sexual violence.

Facebook has always had issues with moderation. Its policies may seem internally consistent, but the way they play out in the messiness of everyday life leaves a lot to be desired. The content it removed may have somehow violated policies or local laws, but posts are apparently viewed in vacuum, removed from political and social context. This isn't necessarily an oversight by Facebook. It's merely reflective of the reality the company deals with: more than a billion users scattered across the globe, operating under a patchwork of speech laws that cannot be applied across all posts from all people.

But the end result of this impossible task is Facebook's inadvertent participation in the spread of anti-Muslim hate that is linked to suspected ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, the UN's public criticism of Facebook isn't going to help. If Facebook sees more regulation or international pressure headed its way, it's likely to double-down on moderation, resulting in even more suppression of anti-government sentiment. It will get worse for Myanmar Muslims, thanks to Facebook's inadvertent stranglehold on news distribution.

This isn't to say no one should be speaking up about Facebook's contribution to an international problem. It's just that they shouldn't expect things to get better just because they're loudly complaining about it. The problem is the Myanmar government and that's where the UN should focus its efforts. Facebook's contribution is a symptom of the underlying problem, not a root cause.

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