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Burma: Facebook blamed for its role in the Rohingya genocide

As early as March 2018, the UN underscored the "decisive role" played by the social network in spreading false information and hate speech in Burma

It took Facebook a year to take concrete measures to rein in the appalling online hate machine that contributed to the systematic of massacre of Rohingyas initiated by Myanmar’s armed forces on 25 August 2017.

Picture : Ye Aung Thu / AFP - Daniel Bastard / RSF

Welcoming Facebook’s announcement that it has finally closed the accounts of senior military officers in Myanmar who had been blamed for the ethnic cleansing of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the social networking giant to act transparently in future.

It took Facebook a year to take concrete measures to rein in the appalling online hate machine that contributed to the systematic of massacre of Rohingyas initiated by Myanmar’s armed forces on 25 August 2017.

The social networking platform has finally said it is closing 20 Myanmar-based Facebook accounts, including the account of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the armed forces commander-in-chief. It made the announcement four days ago, the same day that the UN accused him and five other officers of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

After a 15-fold increase in the number of users in the space of three years, Facebook had 30 million users in Myanmar in 2017 and had become the main source of news for the country’s population.

Senior military officers used it to circulate their propaganda, while Buddhist fundamentalists used it to circulate their lies and calls for the extermination of “Muslim dogs”, “Bengali maggots” and “kalars” (“ကုလား”, a slang word in Burmese) – terms used to refer to Rohingyas living in northern Rakhine state until they were driven out by massacres committed by both soldiers and civilians.

Such grossly pejorative terms, which clearly violated Facebook’s “community standards,” were used on a massive scale and at least 700,000 Rohingyas had to flee the bloodshed that resulted from the hate speech and incitements to violence.

Lack of transparency

Widely accused of negligence, the tech giant recently hired the San Francisco-based firm Business for Social Responsibility to carry out an audit of its practices. Facebook told RSF it wanted a “human rights impact assessment in Myanmar” and expected the results “this fall.”

“We welcome Facebook’s willingness to examine its own role in exacerbating the hatred that led to these genocidal events, but the results of this audit, and its methodology, must be made public in their entirety as soon as they are known,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“For months and even years, civil society representatives in Myanmar and abroad had been criticizing Facebook for its part in disseminating unverified reports that helped trigger ethnic violence, but its responses were never satisfactory and, until now, everything was done in an utterly opaque manner. It is high time for Facebook to demonstrate responsibility and transparency.”

Facebook “turned into a beast”

In March of this year, the UN accused Facebook of playing a “determining role” in the spread of false information and hate speech in Myanmar. Facebook “turned into a beast,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar.

In April, a coalition of six Myanmar NGOs wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg condemning his social networking platform’s culpable negligence in Myanmar, the flimsiness of its hate message detection system, the lack of any response mechanism and the complete absence of transparency. In his reply, Zuckerberg said he was taking steps to address the problem and had “increased the number of people across the company on Myanmar-related issues.”

But a Reuters story a few days ago showed that nothing has really changed and that unverified reports and posts inciting racial hatred are still circulating on Facebook in Myanmar. The situation is such that, on 29 August, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, said Facebook should not wait until there was another

“full-blown crisis” and “should be thinking proactively about what steps they will take.”

Main source of news

Although Facebook has become the main source of news in Myanmar, the accuracy and nature of the content posted on its platform are clearly not verified in the same way as the news stories produced by traditional journalists, whose work is heavily restricted in Myanmar.

Journalists who try to cover fundamentalist Buddhist groups are subjected to prosecutions and online harassment. The victims have included Swe Win, the editor of the Myanmar Now news website, who was prosecuted for writing about the hate speech used by Ashin Wirathu, the monk described as “The Face of Buddhist Terror” in a Time Magazine cover story in 2013.

Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, two Reuters reporters who defied a de facto military ban by investigating a massacre carried by soldiers, have meanwhile spent the past nine months in prison and are facing the possibility of 14-year jail terms under Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. A verdict is expected in their trial on 3 September.

Myanmar is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

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