Facebook admits Myanmar ‘failures’

Facebook has admitted that it failed to prevent its website from being used to incite violence and racism towards the Rohingya community in western Myanmar.

The tech giant “can and should do more” to protect human rights and ensure it is not used to deepen divisions and spread violence, blogged Alex Warofka, a Facebook policy manager.

The social-media site rapidly hooked a large section of Burmese society after it arrived in the previously isolated country.

By mid-2018 Facebook said it had around 20 million users in Myanmar from a population of around 55 million, generating substantially more engagement compared to competing social-media platforms.

Facebook asked the Business for Social Responsibility NGO to study the tech giant’s role in Facebook-obsessed Myanmar. Its 62-page report was heavily critical of the site for permitting itself to be used to inflame ethnic and religious conflict, particularly against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. It warned of “massive chaos and manipulation” facing Facebook ahead of the 2020 general election.

“Facebook has become a means for those seeking to spread hate and cause harm, and posts have been linked to offline violence,” argued the nonprofit’s report. “A minority of users is seeking to use Facebook as a platform to undermine democracy and incite offline violence, including serious crimes under international law.”

Facebook and smartphones entered Myanmar rapidly, leading to a “steep learning curve for users, policymakers and civil society”, the report said.

It is often said that “Facebook is the internet” in the war-torn, semi-democratic country.

New mobile phone users often buy their devices with Facebook already installed and accounts set up by shop owners without knowledge of their usernames and passwords.

The release of the report coincided with the US midterm elections, prompting critics to question its timing when the news agenda is so crowded. Facebook said the report was primarily for “Myanmar stakeholders” for whom the US elections were not a distraction.

Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have moved to regulate social-media activity, mainly to stop the spread of “fake news”. Singapore has also said it would probably adopt laws empowering the authorities to disrupt the spread of “misinformation”.

Facebook in August blocked the accounts of Myanmar’s military chief and 19 other individuals and organisations to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation, forcing Burmese generals to set up pages with the Russian Facebook copy, VK.

These accounts were also suspended in September amid “human rights” concerns.

Myanmar’s young population enjoy their smartphones. Picture credit: Asean Economist