Myanmar / Groups accuse Zuckerberg, Facebook of helping spread violent hate speech

By: Tom O'Connell - Posted on: April 6, 2018 | Current Affairs

Myanmar human rights groups join UN condemnation of the social media giant’s alleged role in the spread of misinformation, fear and calls for violence

Founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg is expected to testify at congressional hearings next week over Facebook’s facilitation of the spreading of targeted political propaganda Photo: Alberto Estevez / EPA-EFE

Human rights groups in Myanmar have joined the UN in condemning Facebook’s role in disseminating divisive and violent rhetoric between ethnic and religious populations in the troubled country.

In an open letter to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, organisations such as Equality Myanmar warned, “The risk of Facebook content sparking open violence is arguably nowhere higher right now than in Myanmar.”

In March, UN human rights investigators concluded that Facebook played a role in the spread of hate speech during the mass anti-Rohingya violence last year. Satellite images showed that hundreds of Rohingya villages had been razed, while corroborated interviews determined that 6,700 civilian Rohingya Muslims had been killed.

The letter writers stressed that the hate rhetoric on the social media platform was a culprit behind much of the violence in 2017. One post making the rounds urged people to take up arms against a planned jihad by the ‘kalar’, a derogatory term used by ultranationalists against Muslim minorities:

“Be warned and stay alert every time you go and eat. The [k]alar are planning to launch a Jihad on Monday 11 Sept. Warn your friends. The order to get ready with guns has already been issued in the army. Please forward this message…”

The fearmongering could be seen on both sides:

“Dear Islam brother, be warned and stay alert every time you go and eat. On 11 Sept in Yangon, MaBaTha [Patriotic Association of Myanmar] and extremist nationalists will collaborate and they will launch an anti-kalar movement. Please forward this message…”

The authors of the open letter wrote that they had contacted Facebook over the potential dangers posed by the violent messaging, but were initially ignored. The website finally listened and took steps to correct the situation, but the experience illustrated flaws that need to be fixed.

“From where we stand,” they wrote, “this case exemplifies the very opposite of effective moderation: it reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency.”

This comes at a bad time for the embattled Zuckerberg, who is expected to testify at congressional hearings next week in the US over Facebook’s facilitation of the spreading of targeted political propaganda that may have affected the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The site has also lost around $100 billion in market value as public outrage grew over its alleged election interference, violations of privacy and pushing of fake news.

Zuckerberg told Vox that he is committed to fixing problems on his site, and sticking to its mission of connecting the world. But it could take a while.

“I think we will dig through this hole, but it will take a few years,” Zuckerberg said. “I wish I could solve all these issues in three months or six months, but I just think the reality is that solving some of these questions is just going to take a longer period of time.”

Related reading: