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

from the sort-of-right,-but-approaching-the-problem-the-wrong-way dept

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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Comments on “UN Says Facebook Is Complicit In The Spread Of Anti-Muslim Hate In Myanmar”

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Anonymous Coward says:

(un)civil war

If there were ever a case to be made for censorship, civil war fueled by a never-ending cycle of revenge murders would be high on the list. When reporting on atrocities is virtually guaranteed to beget revenge mob attacks, then maybe the best solution is complete silence — free speech be damned.

As ethnic conflict often tends to be a very deep and complicated issue, Tim ‘s assessment that this is all about “anti-Muslim hate” may be a highly biased view that barely scratches the surface of a lengthy conflict in which, not surprisingly, the minority population eventually finds itself on the losing end of the fight.

It’s unfortunate that Facebook finds itself in a situation where no good solution exists, only a choice of bad ones.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: (un)civil war

Tim ‘s assessment that this is all about "anti-Muslim hate" may be a highly biased view that barely scratches the surface of a lengthy conflict

The Myanmar Military ran a pretty oppressive regime for many years – I remember that the Buddhist monks were famous for setting fire to themselves in protest.

It seems strange – and not entirely believable – that these same monks should be urging the same military on to violence.

I don’t recall any Buddhist texts that urge the faithful to make war on the unbelievers.

I can only conclude that the Buddhists believe that they actually have more to fear from their Muslim minority (although they were close to being a majority in the province where they live) than they ever did from the government.

Maybe this video from 2012 contains some clues:


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: (un)civil war

“I can only conclude that the Buddhists believe that they actually have more to fear from their Muslim minority than they ever did from the government.”

There are many possibilities. A shaky government can easily consolidate its power by creating an enemy, such as by demonizing an external or internal “threat” to society, as well as by fanning the flames of existing ethnic or religious animosities in order to “divide and rule.” (Trump’s demonization of illegal aliens as a major campaign issue comes to mind, especially for someone who made billions in industries [construction, hotels, golf courses] that have traditionally been among the biggest employers of illegal aliens)

Anyway, in many if not most of these “religious” conflicts, it’s actually a case of extremists who use religion as a shield while in pursuit of primarily nationalistic goals. Maverick religious clerics often rise to central positions in a conflict through the use of polemicism. The fact that Buddhism is not an inherently militant religion makes little difference, because like any religion or philosophy, it will be twisted to fit the agenda of the firebrand leader who wraps himself in it.

Anonymous Hero says:

There's no such thing as being too cynical.

From Facebook’s perspective, their decision to censor reports of anti-Muslim violence makes sense. It’s very difficult to make advertising revenue when your target market is being ethnically cleansed. It’s much easier to make advertising revenue when your target market is doing the ethnic cleansing.

ItIsFaceBooksProblem says:

Facebook's contribution is a symptom of the underlying problem

What, so we should ignore a symptom?

Chew gum and walk at the same time…

Hit Facebook in the face, regulate, legislate, block, ban, fine them into oblivion until they can handle the work load on the scale THEY THEMSELVES pushed for.

This IS about Facebook.

Not letting them off the hook for a thing!

If they can’t handle the volume, then implement hundreds of alternatives including hiring millions of content reviewers or removing the companies presence in countries or regions where they knowingly can’t handle the content moderation.

This IS on Facebook to fix the problem! They just put profit and ‘ideal’ of a technology solution ahead of real world solutions.

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Facebook's contribution is a symptom of the underlying problem

2 realities in 1 country..
Truth and fiction..
1 telling FB NOT to post anything from the other side THAt could show what is happening, THEN posting Their OWN atrocities..

External POST, to the outside world..ALL OF IT..
COULD STOP editing everything, and tell the gov. to Cut them off, and watch the countries Citizens go NUTS..
COULD Cut and Run..and just SHUT DOWN, and ask Other news sites to Jump out with them..Take all the Net companies WITH them..

NEWS is cheap and simple..
OPINION is everywhere..and isnt correct most of the time.
PEOPLE are news..and make the best reporters..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Facebook's contribution is a symptom of the underlying problem

Hit Facebook in the face, regulate, legislate, block, ban, fine them into oblivion until they can handle the work load on the scale THEY THEMSELVES pushed for.

It is not possible to handle posts on the scale of Facebook by manual means, because the intended scale of Facebook, Twitter et. al. is the whole of humanity, and to scale back to a workload they can handle is to be selective about who can post, and that applies to any site in the social media space, unless you know how to afford to employ about 10% of humanity as moderators, and endure that you get the ten percent who will make similar moderation decision to what you would.

Anonymous Coward says:

My main concern is with the fact that Facebook is basically the whole Internet, or perceived to be the whole Internet, in countries such as Myanmar. There are other instances where people only use Facebook but don’t think that Facebook is the Internet.


That in itself is a problem, and one that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later as more and more people outside of heavily industrialized nations start getting access to the Internet. Facebook’s Free Basics/Internet.org power grab attempts should not be forgotten or ignored, either.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m not convinced it’s Facebook’s problem to begin with. This is without a doubt a social problem with Myanmar and it’s largely their restrictive policies that block dissenting viewpoints from the government’s propaganda that’s caused the mess in Myanmar. People are simply parroting the party line without even a modicum of skepticism, and this happens not just in Myanmar, but everywhere else in the world, as well. People don’t want to be challenged to think for themselves nor to hear opposing points of view regardless if it’s in Myanmar, Iran, the UK, or the US.

Until that changes, no amount of censoring Facebook content is going to work.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe the U.N. could focus on things like poverty, famine sectarian violence and gangrapes in Muslim countries rather than Facebook shitposting.

I’m honestly not even sure what the hell the U.N. does anymore besides wagging their fingers at people and eating caviar. Why do nations still spend untold amounts of money on this do-nothing organization? That money could be helping people.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Maybe the U.N. could focus on things like ...

… which it already does. But it has no enforcement authority to compel offending governments to come clean, only to publicize abuses in reports which are usually dismissed as “politically motivated” or some such excuse.

Enforcement power lies with the Security Council. Where crucial allies of most of the world’s human-rights abusers have veto power.

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