Shortly before Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg appeared before Congress to talk about privacy concerns and data sharing, he sat down with Vox’s Ezra Klein. Among topics they discussed was the role Facebook played in fueling and inciting anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment in Myanmar.
“The Myanmar issues have, I think, gotten a lot of focus inside the company,” Zuckerberg said. “And they’re real issues and we take this really seriously.” Those “issues” of course are the ethnic cleansing/genocide of the Rohingya.
Zuckerberg also noted that hate speech is “a real issue, and we want to make sure that all of the tools that we’re bringing to bear on eliminating hate speech, inciting violence, and basically protecting the integrity of civil discussions that we’re doing in places like Myanmar, as well as places like the U.S. that do get a disproportionate amount of the attention.”
However, that brought a swift response from activist groups in Myanmar, who said that not only did Facebook not eliminate hate speech, their non-response to repeated requests fanned the flames of genocide beginning last August and September. Those groups sent an open letter to Zuckerberg detailing the many times they had reported hate speech and incendiary calls to attack the Rohingya Muslims, only to have little to no response.
Raymond Serrato, a data analyst, looked at posts from Myanmar over 2017 and saw a massive spike in hate-filled, incendiary posts the latter half of August. In a CNN article, Serrato said he was surprised at the speed with which anti-Rohingya voices weaponized social media. Surely “weaponizing” the social media platform he helped create was never on Zuckerberg’s radar.
In March, Facebook was accused by the UN of “substantively” contributing to the “level of acrimony” against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Marzuki Darusman, the chair of a United Nations probe into human rights in Myanmar, said what activist groups had been saying for months: “Hate speech and incitement to violence on social media is rampant, particularly on Facebook” and largely “goes unchecked.” His colleague, Yanghee Lee added ”I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended” to be.
Zarni, a human rights activist in Myanmar said the platform itself is neutral, but that “the beasts” are using Facebook.
Zuckerberg responded with a personal letter of apology and a commitment to do more. In his email, he noted that Facebook was hiring “dozens” of content reviews and had increased the “number of people across the company on Myanmar-related issues.
Jes Peterson, CEO of Phandeeyar, a tech company that has worked with Facebook to produce Myanmar community standards in Burmese, said to adequately monitor Facebook activity, 800 moderators would need to be hired — not just “dozens.” He and five other signatories responded to Zuckerberg’s apology with another letter of their own, stating in part, “This doesn’t change our core belief that your proposed improvements are nowhere near enough to ensure that Myanmar users are provided with the same standards of care as users in the U.S. or Europe. When things go wrong in Myanmar, the consequences can be really serious — potentially disastrous.”
I’ve seen those disastrous consequences with my own eyes: 700,000 refugees crossing from Myanmar to Bangladesh, machete wounds, bullet wounds, haunted eyes and children’s drawings of dead people and blood running in rivers. I can’t imagine how Zuckerberg must feel, knowing that his “friends and family” platform was used to incite the ugliest of violence.
I am glad he and his team are responding and will not be allowing genocidal speech to occur — if they can find it in time. It begs the question, though, “What about free speech?” As Americans, we should know that there are already restrictions on speech. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example. You also cannot incite a fight (or presumably a genocide), or threaten violence to a specific person.
I’m a big believer in the First Amendment and extending its protections world-wide (an impossible dream, I know). I also believe in preventing genocide, and I’ll share that message everywhere I can. Including on Facebook.
Holly Richardson is a Salt Lake Tribune columnist who has traveled to Bangladesh twice this year and has seen first-hand the terror that can be inflicted by unrestrained violence.