Asia Pacific

Myanmar civil groups blast Facebook over hate speech


Myanmar civil society groups have hit back at Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter accusing Facebook of failing to curb hate speech that has raised religious tension in the restive country.

Facebook has been on the defensive against allegations its platform has helped fuel communal bloodshed in Myanmar, a mainly Buddhist country accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims.

The joint letter was a response to comments Zuckerberg made in an interview with news site Vox published this week, in which he cited examples of both Myanmar Buddhists and Muslims spreading “sensational” messages on Facebook Messenger that warned of imminent violence from the other community.

“That’s the kind of thing where I think it is clear that people were trying to use our tools in order to incite real harm,” Zuckerberg was quoted as saying.

“Now, in that case, our systems detect that that’s going on. We stop those messages from going through,” he said.

In their letter, the six local tech and human rights organizations said they were “surprised” to hear Zuckerberg “praise the effectiveness” of Facebook’s systems in Myanmar.

The social media giant’s response to hate speech and rumors in Myanmar has been “inadequate” for years, said the groups, which have been trying to flag dangerous content to Facebook.

“It took over four days from when the messages started circulating for the escalation to reach you,” the letter said.

“Far from being stopped, they spread in an unprecedented way, reaching country-wide and causing widespread fear and at least three violent incidents in the process.”

They called on the company to improve its tools to flag up incendiary posts, increase transparency, boost engagement with local stakeholders and draw on data and engineering teams to identify repeat offenders.

They said offers to help craft broader solutions have gone unanswered.

Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment but has previously touted efforts to bolster its Myanmar operations by adding staff, improving “language capabilities” and encouraging local groups to report dangerous content.

In late January Facebook removed the page of popular anti-Rohingya monk Wirathu. Last year it regulated the use of the word “kalar,” which is considered derogatory against Muslims.

The site dwarfs all other social media platforms in Myanmar, where it has become the chief channel for communication among both the public and government ministries.

But it has come under fire for allegedly helping broadcast ethnic hatred in a fledgling democracy still emerging from decades of repressive junta rule.

Scrutiny has intensified in the wake of a bloody military campaign against the Rohingya that erupted last August, expelling some 700,000 of the minority to Bangladesh.

In March the U.N.’s special rapporteur to Myanmar Yanghee Lee said Facebook had morphed into a “beast” and had incited “a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities.”